Pointillism

Pointillism

Pointillism

Printed.
July 4 1998 3:30 AM

Pointillism

A Talmudic exegesis of the "Talking Points."

Independent Counsel Kenneth Starr's obstruction of justice case against President Clinton is likely to turn on his identification of the author of the so-called "Talking Points." Like Shakespeare's works and the Bible, the TP, a three-page document, has inspired numerous schools of thought that disagree on the meaning of seemingly banal phrases and discern the handiwork of different authors. As a service to scholars in the burgeoning field of TP Studies--as well as to the general public--here is a Talmudic exegesis, a Reader's Guide to the TP.

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Background: Only one person claims to have firsthand knowledge of the TP's origins: Linda Tripp. Tripp told Newsweek reporter Michael Isikoff that Monica Lewinsky had given her the TP on Jan. 14, 1998, while driving Tripp home from work. That night, Tripp handed the document over to Starr's office. The following day, wearing an FBI-supplied wire, she met Lewinsky at the Pentagon City, Va., Ritz-Carlton. FBI agents interrupted their conversation and took Lewinsky to a room in the hotel for questioning.

The TP advises Tripp on crafting an affidavit that would recant statements she had made to Newsweek's Isikoff. Tripp told Isikoff last summer that she had bumped into Kathleen Willey after she left the Oval Office Nov. 29, 1993, and that Willey had looked flushed, lipstickless, and happy. Three days before Tripp received the TP, Willey gave sworn testimony in the Paula Jones case that the president had fondled her breasts and placed her hand on his crotch. Tripp had been scheduled to be deposed in the Jones case in December, but the deposition was postponed.

Whodunit? There are seven theories about the authorship of the TP. The leading suspects: Lewinsky, Tripp, her ex-lawyer Kirby Behre, Clinton, Bruce Lindsey (the president's closest aide), the Right-Wing Conspiracy, and a collaboration among several of the above. Click here for a summary of the major theories.

The TP appears to have been composed in three parts, each in a different voice. The first section, in which Tripp receives legal-sounding advice, is smoothly and efficiently written. The document then shifts from the substance of the affidavit to the strategy behind it, with special reference to Tripp's relationship with the president's lawyer Robert Bennett. The final portion recasts the original section in the first person. It also includes a chatty paragraph discrediting allegations about Lewinsky's alleged affair with Clinton.

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Exegesis: This is the widely circulated version of the TP. For annotations, click on the hot-linked phrases.

Points to Make in an Affidavit

Your first few paragraphs should be about yourself--what you do now, what you did at the White House, and for how many years you were there as a career person and as a political appointee.

You and Kathleen were friends. At around the time of her husband's death (The President has claimed it was after her husband died. Do you really want to contradict him?), she came to you after she allegedly came out of the oval and looked (however she looked), you don't recall her exact words, but she claimed at the time (whatever she claimed) and was very happy.

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You did not see her go in or see her come out.

Talk about when you became out of touch with her and maybe why.

The next you heard of her was when a Newsweek reporter (I wouldn't name him specifically) showed up in your office saying she was naming you as someone who would corroborate that she was sexually harassed. You spoke with her that evening, etc., and she relayed to you a sequence of events that was very dissimilar from what you remembered happening. As a result of your conversation with her and subsequent reports that showed that she had tried to enlist the help of someone else in her lie that the President sexually harassed her, you now do not believe that what she claimed happened really happened. You now find it completely plausible that she herself smeared her lipstick, untucked her blouse, etc.

You never saw her go into the oval office, or come out of the oval office.

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You are not sure you've been clear about whose side you're on. (Kirby has been saying you should look neutral; better for credibility but you aren't neutral. Neutral makes you look like you're on the other team since you are a political appointee)

It's important to you that they think you're a team player, after all, you are a political appointee. You believe that they think you're on the other side because you wouldn't meet with them.

You want to meet with Bennett. You are upset about the comment he made, but you'll take the high road and do what's in your best interest.

December 18th, you were in a better position to attend an all day or half-day deposition, but now you are into JCOC mode. Your livelihood is dependent on the success of this program. Therefore, you want to provide an affidavit laying out all of the facts in lieu of a deposition.

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You want Bennett's people to see your affidavit before it's signed.

Your deposition should include enough information to satisfy their questioning.

By the way, remember how I said there was someone else that I knew about. Well, she turned out to be a huge liar. I found out she left the WH because she was stalking the P or something like that. Well, at least that gets me out of another scandal I know about.

The first few paragraphs should be about me--what I do now, what I did at the White House and for how many years I was there as a career person and as a political appointee.

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Kathleen and I were friends. At around the time of her husband's death, she came to me after she allegedly came out of the oval office and looked _____, I don't recall her exact words, but she claimed at the time ______ and was very happy.

I did not see her go in or see her come out.

Talk about when I became out of touch with her and maybe why.

The next time I heard of her was when a Newsweek reporter showed up in my office saying she was naming me as a someone who would corroborate that she was sexually harassed by the President. I spoke with her that evening, etc., and she relayed to me a sequence of events that was very dissimilar from what I remembered happening. As a result of my conversation with her and subsequent reports that showed she had tried to enlist the help of someone else in her lie that the President sexually harassed her, I now do not believe that what she claimed happened really happened. I now find it completely plausible that she herself smeared her lipstick, untucked her blouse, etc.

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I never saw her go into the oval office, or come out of the oval office.

I have never observed the President behave inappropriately with anybody.

Here are seven good guesses about the authorship of the TP:

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1) Lewinsky, the Lone Gunman. Panic-stricken by Tripp's threat that she would expose Lewinsky's affair with Clinton if asked about it in a deposition, Lewinsky mustered all her intellectual resources to cobble together the TP. Lewinsky's former lawyer, William Ginsburg, never denied his client's involvement in the document's preparation. Strikes against this theory: a) Lewinsky doesn't have enough knowledge of the law. b) Apparently, she is not the sharpest tool in the shed. Tripp has said she immediately suspected the TP was too deftly crafted to have originated with Lewinsky. c) Lewinsky was too panic-stricken to have acted this rationally. Before Christmas, for example, the tapes record her suggesting that Tripp have a "foot accident" and be hospitalized during the time her deposition was scheduled to take place.

2) Tripp, the Manipulative Bitch. Gunning to bring down the president after Bennett denounced her, Tripp entrapped Lewinsky. One scenario has her prodding the gullible young woman to write the TP so she, Tripp, could get physical evidence of obstruction of justice. Another has her drafting a chunk of the TP--or even the entire thing--herself. A senior White House official has even suggested a draft of the TP lives on the hard drive of Tripp's computer. The theory's defects: a) Why would Tripp risk getting caught fabricating evidence when she has mountains of damning tapes and e-mail? b) While the tapes expose Tripp as a horrible friend and a vicious schemer, we have no evidence that she is capable of conceiving of such a complicated machination.

3) The Right-Wing Conspiracy. An elaboration of the Tripp theory. Without any specific evidence, proponents of this theory posit that Tripp drafted the TP with the assistance of lawyers involved in the Jones case or otherwise committed to conservative causes.

4) Behre, the White House Mole. When Tripp testified before Congress about Travelgate and Foster's death, the White House helped her retain Behre. She fired him three days before the TP surfaced, when he asked her to hand the tapes over to Bennett. Behre has the knowledge and the motive (he's loyal to the White House) to write the TP. (Some implicate Behre's replacement, James Moody. It seems unlikely, however, that Moody, a conservative stalwart, would have helped Tripp prepare talking points apparently so favorable to the president.) And while the document presents legal-sounding advice, it's too rambling, repetitive, and error-ridden to have been written out by a lawyer worth his salt (though it might be notes based on a lawyer's advice). In addition, lawyers know better than to give a witness written instructions about the preparation of false testimony. Note, however, that, as one observer argues, if the TP is entirely true (Willey did muss her own clothes, etc.), assisting in its preparation would not be unethical or tantamount to subornation of perjury--though it would then be most unlikely that the TP was prepared by Moody or a right-wing cabal.

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5) Clinton, the Dictator. A lawyer by training, Clinton spent much time on the phone with Lewinsky. He could have dictated points during his calls, and he has a clear interest in changing Tripp's testimony. But in crises such as this one, Clinton has historically turned to proxies for his dirty work. Moreover the TP is wrong about what Clinton said in his Jones deposition about when his meeting with Willey took place.

6) Lindsey, the Fixer. Immediately following the TP's release, reporters fingered the president's confidant as a suspect. He was the administration's point man on the Jones case and has been known to wipe up after Clinton's bimbo eruptions. And he had reason to believe he could change or blunt the impact of Tripp's testimony. In August, Tripp told Newsweek she doubted Clinton's advances to Willey constituted sexual harassment, as Willey--despite her later protestations--had not seemed upset at the time. Tripp also contacted Lindsey last summer to discuss the Willey affair. Tripp and Lindsey spoke on at least two more occasions, according to the New York Times. However, there is no evidence that Lewinsky and Lindsey knew each other or ever communicated.

7) A Combo of the Above. While there is no credible scenario in which the people mentioned above could have concocted the TP on their own, several of the suspects could have worked in concert. For instance, it is plausible Tripp and Lewinsky collaborated on the TP with insight from a trained lawyer (Clinton, Lindsey, Behre). As our annotation of the text shows, the TP appears to be the handiwork of multiple authors.

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One scenario has the president dictating points over the phone to Lewinsky, with whom he spent much time talking. A lawyer by training, Clinton has a clear interest in changing Tripp's testimony. But the author of the TP seems unfamiliar with Clinton's actual testimony in the Paula Jones case, in which he said Willey's visit occurred before her husband's suicide. This contradiction might exculpate Clinton.

But it does not necessarily clear aide Lindsey or others close to the president. After all, the president's sealed, private testimony contradicts his lawyer Bennett's public pronouncements that the encounter with Willey took place after her husband's suicide.

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According to Howard Kurtz's book Spin Cycle, this characterization of the Oval Office is common only among White House staffers.

And it seems possible that a White House staffer wrote a chunk of the TP. Immediately following the TP's release, reporters fingered Lindsey as the leading suspect. Many speculate that he wipes up after the president's bimbo eruptions; he was also the administration's point man on the Jones case. Lindsey also had reason to believe he could change Tripp's testimony. Last summer, Tripp contacted Lindsey to discuss the Willey affair (she told Newsweek that because Willey didn't seem upset at the time, she didn't think Willey had been sexually harassed). Tripp and Lindsey spoke at least two more times, according to the New York Times. However, there is no evidence that Lewinsky and Lindsey knew each other or ever communicated.

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The parenthetical phrasing is emblematic of the tight construction of the first half of the TP. Some theorists have pointed to it as evidence that a lawyer drafted--or at least advised on the drafting of--the document. Fabricating evidence would, of course, be a highly unethical activity for a lawyer, but if, as some administration advocates maintain, the TP is all true, assistance in its drafting would not be unethical. However, as noted later, the TP makes legal errors, and the smooth phrasing could as easily be that of a PR person, journalist, or nonpracticing lawyer. Nonetheless, it casts doubt on the theory that Lewinsky was the lone author. Tripp told Newsweek she suspected immediately that the TP was too deftly crafted to have originated with Lewinsky. Lewinsky's former lawyer Ginsburg never denied his client's involvement in the document's preparation (his theory is that it was a collaborative effort).

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Why doesn't the author want to mention Isikoff, the reporter in question? Only Tripp had a clear interest in not seeming unduly familiar with him. For months, she had been meeting clandestinely with Isikoff, discussing her conversations with Lewinsky. Tripp had hoped to remain anonymous in Isikoff's story. There's no good reason why Lindsey should have inserted this detail.

Aside from this sentence, there is no specific hint that Tripp penned the TP to entrap Lewinsky. However, Tripp had a motive: She wanted to take down the president after Bennett, his lawyer, denounced her. One scenario has Tripp--with the assistance of lawyers involved in the Jones case or otherwise committed to conservative causes--prodding the gullible Lewinsky to write the TP so she, Tripp, would have clear evidence of attempted obstruction of justice. Another has Tripp drafting a chunk of the TP--or even the whole thing--herself. A senior administration official has suggested that a draft of the TP lives on Tripp's hard drive. The defect with these theories: Why would Tripp risk getting caught fabricating evidence when she has mountains of damning tapes and e-mail?

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"Someone else" apparently refers to Julie Steele, a friend of Willey's. Steele initially told Newsweek that Willey had confided the details of the incident with Clinton to her shortly after it happened. Later, Steele changed her story, saying Willey had told her that the president had "made a pass" at her only weeks after the alleged incident and that she had lied at Willey's behest.

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On its face, the suggestion seems highly unlikely: that Willey, who had gone in seeking a job from the president, would leave the Oval Office and stop to muss herself, hoping to run into someone who could later confirm a false allegation of sexual advances by Clinton. However, by this time, Steele had changed her story, saying Willey had asked her to lie about exactly when Willey had confided in her and also about the details of the alleged sexual encounter. The suggestion in the TP would be consistent with the amended Steele statements. The TP also says Willey's blouse was untucked--a point that has been cited as evidence Willey was lying, since an untucked blouse would probably have been noticed by the other people waiting in the reception area outside the Oval Office. However, Tripp is quoted in Newsweek as observing only that Willey was "disheveled. Her face was red and her lipstick was off." So the added detail in the TP may have been intended to further discredit Willey.

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At this juncture, it seems another author takes over. Note the "the oval" is now referred to as the "oval office." Also, this sentence essentially repeats the advice already given: "You did not see her go in or see her come out." The TP's tenor and tone shift from legalistic to colloquial.

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The author is obviously on the side he or she thinks Tripp would do well to be on. As subsequent sentences make clear, that side is the administration's--as distinct from Jones'.

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When Tripp testified before Congress about Travelgate and Vince Foster's death, the White House helped her retain lawyer Kirby Behre. She fired Behre three days before she gave the TP to Starr, when, she says, Behre asked her to hand the tapes over to Bennett. Behre has the knowledge and the motive (he's loyal to the White House) to have written the TP.

The writer is familiar with what Behre has been telling Tripp and calls him by his first name, which might suggest Tripp (or perhaps Lewinsky, who has been discussing Tripp's legal strategy with her) is the author. However, New York Observer columnist Philip Weiss says presidential adviser and troubleshooter Lindsey also commonly refers to everyone but the president by a first name. However, Behre denies having talked with Lindsey.

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This is clumsily phrased: The identity of the "other side" is ambiguous. It sounds more like loose drafting by a PR person than it does the work of a practicing lawyer.

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The New York Times and others, quoting "lawyers connected to the case," report Lindsey had earlier advised Tripp to seek Bennett's help, advice Tripp eschewed.

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Bennett was quoted as saying that "Linda Tripp is not to be believed" in the Willey controversy.

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The date when Tripp was originally scheduled to be deposed by Jones' lawyers.

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This is the acronym for the Joint Civilian Orientation Course, a program Tripp ran at the Pentagon. Lewinsky, as well as Tripp, would be familiar with the acronym, as would people in the White House who knew where Tripp had been placed following her transfer.

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Presumably, only someone with legal training--though not necessarily a practicing lawyer--would know that an affidavit could substitute for a deposition. However, this is not good lawyerly advice. It is unlikely that Jones' lawyers would have accepted an affidavit in lieu of a deposition from someone who had changed her story.

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The writer means "affidavit," since the stated point of this exercise is to enable Tripp to avoid being deposed in person. This is not a mistake that a practicing lawyer would make, though it could be a mistake made in dictation.

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The remainder of the document is cast in the first rather than the second person. And, in this paragraph--though not in the following ones--the tone becomes more chatty. This might suggest that Tripp herself is writing the TP in her own words. However, if Tripp were creating a bogus document for purposes of entrapment, it would not seem in her interest to recast second-person paragraphs from earlier in the document in such a way that they are potentially confusing.

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This apparent reference to Lewinsky is the only substantive addition to the second part of the document. It seems unlikely that Lewinsky would refer to herself as a "big liar" who was "stalking" the president. However, Lewinsky had recently given sworn testimony in the Jones case that flatly contradicted her lengthy taped conversations with Tripp, in which she had talked about her affair with Clinton. So it is possible that she decided it was better to label herself a liar in this context than to face perjury charges. The word "huge," which appears here, is used by Tripp three times in the transcript of her taped conversations with Lewinsky reported in Newsweek. This point is made by Skip Fox and Jack Gillis, two academics at the University of Southwestern Louisiana whose analysis of the TP may be found here.

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Narcissistic phrasing that allegedly sounds very much like Lewinsky.

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No effort is made to fill in the blanks. This suggests Tripp is not attempting to construct a first draft in her own words following the earlier instructions.

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In the Washington Post version of the TP--given here--a second-person version of this sentence does not appear in the first section of the document. In ABC's version of the document, it appears in both places. Both the Post and ABC claim to have copies of the original TP. In itself, the discrepancy has no apparent significance, although it has been pointed to by theorists who contend that the TP was leaked through more than one source.

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