Linda Tripp: Victimized or Vicious?

Linda Tripp: Victimized or Vicious?

E-mail debates of newsworthy topics.
July 15 1998 3:30 AM

Linda Tripp: Victimized or Vicious?

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Dear Jonah,

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       Maybe John Goodman's impersonation of Linda Tripp on Saturday Night Live is too much. I take that back. But Tripp still looks like trouble to me, the kind of person to whom one gives a wide berth. By the way, you mustn't misunderstand my definition: Mother Teresa WAS beautiful. To paraphrase Orwell, by a certain age we have grown into the face we deserve.
       Orwell gets us back to Big Brother, or Big Sister in this case. Before I go to your points, let me try to explain once again that Tripp did not act like anyone we admire in life. She set out to write a book, destroy the president, get back at Bob Bennett--one or all three--and in the process she savaged a person whose confidences she taped. She didn't tape her once or wait until the tapes might be needed to prove something. She (and perhaps your mother) helped to get Monica Lewinsky in play, escalating the story until Starr and Jones' lawyers came together, and just in time to ensnare the president. It is one of the great and continuing acts of betrayal. Several months ago in a New Yorker interview, your mother said Linda felt like a mother toward Monica. Who? Medea.
       On to your other points:
       Journalists taping? I don't, but I write as fast as I can. And unless specific arrangements are made, no one thinks what they say to a journalist is not being recorded in some fashion. We live in a town where everyone knows that anything they say to a journalist can and will be used against (rarely, for) them. We quote from these conversations, for goodness' sake.
       You go further with this point and say that if Tripp were a journalist she would be a hero. Are you saying that if a friend calls me and talks about her personal life, which turns out to involve an affair with a public figure, I can start taping our conversations and then turn over the tapes or write an exposé to show that the public figure lied about his private life? For that, I would be a hero? No, I would be ashamed, and I would be a sorry excuse for a human being.
       Let's go further and say that someone who starts out as a source becomes more than that over time. Then the rules of friendship kick in. Even the heartless people who don't know the difference between sources and friends should know that anyone who starts confiding intimate information is under the impression that the relationship has deepened. Getting to know someone, becoming friends, can be stop and go, murky, complicated. But a decent journalist would stop the source from talking and clarify things.
       Which gets us to your point about gaining someone's trust being the pillar of journalism. We call that Mutual Assured Seduction. You mention Joe McGinnis, who convinced the Green Beret murderer that he thought him innocent. Despite those circumstances, McGinnis was roundly taken to task for going too far. As for 60 Minutes, the worst phone call on earth is "This is Mike Wallace, and I would like to talk to you." Wallace is seductive, but only a source deluding themselves would confide something in him. Yet Wallace has never betrayed a friend's confidences, as far as you or I know.
       As for Woodward and Bernstein, they got information from many sources, one of whom was Deep Throat. In a quaint practice that has all but disappeared in the Lewinsky case, they had to then go to the person incriminated for a comment and/or get two other sources. Then, as journalists often do, they wrote a book. I don't know what this has to do with Tripp. Monica wasn't dealing with a journalist. She took no precautions. She thought she was confiding in a friend. Tripp as journalist also fails because she only had one source. She didn't provide evidence, as you contend. She provided hearsay. She didn't check with the other party.
       As for your other what ifs: What if Clinton were a secret racist, you ask, a spy? What if he were an anti-Semite, pulled wings off flies, didn't put down the toilet seat? What ifs get you nowhere. Let's save a few trees.
       But let me post a few what ifs: What would you think if Linda Tripp, secretary, said she handled press for Bernie Nussbaum [former White House counsel]? What if she charged--by name--that another White House secretary had a severe drinking problem but was kept on because she knew White House secrets? What if she accused Vince Foster of not tending to his official duties? Tripp volunteered all this--and more--in her deposition taken during Sen. Al D'Amato's Whitewater hearings a year ago. This is why I recommend the wide berth.
       Last week, the second-best newsmagazine had a story about Tripp. In it, they quote a letter Tripp wrote to Newsweek after their first story on Kathleen Willey last August. Tripp writes, "Whatever happened that day in the Oval Office, if anything, is known to only two people. "
       If Willey wasn't a slam dunk, Tripp would have to out Monica as well. The tapes started rolling. Getting Monica public was another matter. Tripp hoped that Newsweek would do it for her and she could be more passive. But those pesky reporters kept wanting more information before they would run a story. She finally took matters in her own hands by insinuating herself into Starr's investigation and briefing Jones' lawyers so they could get the deposition questions just right. As for Monica in all this: Well, she thought she was a friend, but she was only a source.
       As for your comment that I have a reputation as a nice person: I don't take faint praise as damning. I thank you for it. I hope we meet again.

Jonah Goldberg is a writer and TV producer living in Washington, D.C. Margaret Carlson is a columnist for Time magazine.