The Clinton Sex Scandal

The Clinton Sex Scandal

Notes from different corners of the world.
Jan. 27 1998 3:30 AM

The Clinton Sex Scandal

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       From a moral perspective, none of the players in Clinterngate looks very savory at the moment. Clinton, Lewinsky, Jordan, Starr, Bennett, Jones, Lucianne Goldberg--all present profiles of weakness, stupidity, ruthlessness, and venality in various degrees and combinations. They have a lot to answer for--as I expect they all will one day, probably in ghostwritten books of the kind that flooded the market after Watergate. But there is one character in the drama who strikes me as a villain of potentially Shakespearean proportions. That character is Linda Tripp.
       I hope I'm not prejudiced by her appearance, though that is possible. In the most widely circulated pictures from her congressional testimony in the Vince Foster matter, Tripp resembles a Wagnerian Brunhilde, her sharpened cones of bleached hair thrusting upward like the horns of a viking's helmet. She also bears a passing resemblance to Dilbert's balding boss. Her head weighed down with a vast bulk of gold jewelry, she scowls the scowl of a woman with a bitter soul and a guilty conscience.
       If she has a conscience, that is. What we know about Linda Tripp is not only that she betrayed her young friend Monica Lewinsky but that she betrayed her gratuitously, viciously and, I strongly suspect, pleasurably. She did this first by secretly and illegally taping a distraught and confused young person, who looked to her for support and guidance. She did it again, in even more insidious Stalinist fashion, by turning Lewinsky over to the authorities when she was under no legal or ethical obligation to do so. These deeds are unforgivable, whether Lewinsky turns out to be telling the truth or not.
       Tripp's excuse, as reported everywhere, is that she was afraid for her job. She had been transferred from the White House Council's office to the Pentagon after Vince Foster's suicide, and was supposedly worried that she might lose that position. Self-protection hardly gives you a right to destroy the life of someone else. But even on its own terms, this excuse is nonsense. Tripp had civil-service protection, which means that it would be close to impossible for Clinton loyalists to fire her. To attempt to do so as reprisal for her testimony against Clinton in the Paula Jones suit would be foolhardy in the extreme. Threatening or punishing Tripp for speaking out could itself constitute witness tampering or obstruction of justice. Realistically, she had one of the safest jobs in the government.
       What appears far more likely is that Tripp was out to make trouble--and money. She is described by Michael Isikoff of Newsweek, the only reporter who has dealt with her extensively, as having "a love of office intrigue, sometimes playing off different office mates against each other and delighting in water-cooler gossip." A few years ago, she made a connection with Lucianne Goldberg, a right-wing literary agent, to whom she proposed publishing a revelatory book about the White House. This attempt at betrayal Gary Aldrich-style failed. Tripp was ready to sell out but no one was buying. Now with Lewinsky's gossip in hand, she called Goldberg again.
       Goldberg says she encouraged Tripp to make tapes of Lewinsky beginning in October, because no one would believe her otherwise. This may not be the way it happened. One published version has Tripp presenting the tapes to Goldberg. But even if Goldberg's version is accurate, it hardly shifts the blame. It was Tripp in any case who bought the recorder, attached it to her telephone, and turned it on. Secretly taping someone is not illegal everywhere, but it is wrong everywhere. To invade anyone's privacy in this way is appalling. To secretly bug a friend is among the worst personal betrayals I can imagine--much worse, in moral if not in legal terms, than anything Clinton is accused of doing. Tripp captured 20 hours of her friend's personal pain on tape, which raises, among other issues, the question of whether she was acting as a friend at all--or merely as a spy. She then played those recordings to her book agent and offered to play them to a reporter, Isikoff, whose own compunctions kept him from listening to them.
       What is so odious about what Tripp did is that she wasn't even facing a difficult moral choice. When she began recording the conversations, she had no reason to think that Paula Jones' lawyers knew about Lewinsky, or that they would find out--unless, of course, she is the one who tipped them off. On the tapes, Tripp takes the position that while she won't lie for Monica, she will do what she can to avoid being put in a position where she will have to tell what she knows. "I will do everything I can not to be in that position," she says on the tapes, according to the transcript in Newsweek this week. Even this, she says, means being a "shitty friend."
       Had Tripp not been taping at the time, this would have been a reasonable position. But that is not what she did. Instead, she dropped a dime on Lewinsky, phoning the independent prosecutor's office to say that her bosom friend lied in her deposition to Paula Jones' lawyers, and offering up her tapes. She was under no legal obligation to do this. Failing to turn Lewinsky in would not have made her an accessory to perjury or a co-conspirator. Tripp did her legal duty, and then some, by encouraging Lewinsky to tell the truth. It initially appeared that Tripp might have been "flipped" by Starr's office because she had unwittingly committed a crime by taping Lewinsky in Maryland, where it is illegal. But Starr cannot offer her immunity for that violation. He had nothing to hold over her head and nothing to offer. Linda Tripp, to her eternal shame, was a volunteer.

Jacob Weisberg is Slate's chief political correspondent.