Some years ago, Linda Tripp's son Ryan teased the daughter of a neighbor. That evening, the neighbor called Tripp to enlist her help in easing tensions between the children. "If my children do anything wrong, let me know," said the neighbor.
"I'm not a tattletale," Tripp retorted.
The portrait of Linda Rose Tripp is still a work in progress, but one thing is clear. The woman whose secret tapes now threaten to bring down a president no longer can make that claim.
As a small-time White House staff member, Tripp displayed a knack for being in the right place to witness big-time news. She has left a trail of deeply mixed impressions on those who know her.
A military wife divorced by her husband in 1992 after 21 years of marriage, Tripp, 48, is described by some government colleagues as smart, efficient and hard-working. They believe she is motivated in the current scandal by honesty and self-preservation.
But they say she experienced a growing disillusionment with the Clinton White House, especially after witnessing the aftermath of Vincent W. Foster Jr.'s suicide in 1994. She considered sharing her secrets in a book and spent nighttime hours on the phone, gossiping with friends about her brushes with Washington's powerful.
Closer to her home in suburban Columbia, some neighbors and acquaintances have found her oddly unfriendly, like the neighbor with the tattletale story, who asked not to be named. Others describe her as quick to argue. Some say she can be intimidating and manipulative. They express little surprise at her offering White House intern Monica Lewinsky a sympathetic ear -- and switching on a tape recorder.
"I just got nervous talking to her because she was so demanding," said Elizabeth Blakey, an insurance adjuster who dealt with Tripp on three claims she filed over the last four years. "I was really scared to mess up with her. This woman is tough. If I was President Clinton, I'd be afraid. She's going to make Paula Jones look like a marshmallow."
A longtime family friend who cut her ties to Tripp after the two quarreled more than two years ago says she found in the woman two distinct personalities.
"There are two sides to Linda Tripp," said the former friend, who spoke on condition of anonymity. "She can be the most charming, endearing person in the world. She's a perfectionist. She has a high energy level, she's a detail-oriented woman who does a lot. And then there's the vindictive [side]. Nobody in the Clinton administration knew they were playing with fire when they got involved with Linda Tripp."
Tripp's admiring friends and former colleagues say that is not fair, that she should not be pilloried for holding herself and others to high standards.
Ellen Strichartz, a longtime friend who helped Tripp land her job at the White House, calls her a loving mother and friend as well as a "crackerjack secretary" who worked long hours. She defends Tripp's secret tape-recording as a reasonable reaction to being asked to participate in a cover-up.
Tony Snow, who was her boss in the Bush White House, where he worked as a speech writer, said Tripp's philosophy was: "You play by the rules, you do the right thing."
"Linda's a career type," said Snow, now a syndicated columnist and host of "Fox News Sunday." "She basically worked all the time and then went home to her kids."
One official in the Bush administration who served briefly in the Clinton White House, however, remembered Tripp as a "gossip, a very strong-willed woman" who wanted to be in the limelight and traveled from office to office spreading stories.
"She seemed to be very interested in being considered a part of what was going on," said Richard Ben-Veniste, a former Democratic counsel for the Whitewater investigation who sat in on her depositions.
If acquaintances have conflicting views of Tripp and her motives in the sex scandal, Tripp herself appears to have experienced mixed feelings. In transcripts published by Newsweek of her conversations with Lewinsky, she sounds alternately thrilled and horrified.
"This is so amazingly huge to me," Tripp told Lewinsky at one point.
But later she declared, perhaps with the spinning tape in mind, "I can't be involved in this. I can't be party to all this ugliness that will do nothing except destroy people."
Extra in the limelight
For an extra on the Washington stage, Tripp has turned up in the limelight on a striking number of occasions.
She testified in 1993 about the controversy surrounding the White House travel office. In 1994, she was one of the last people to see deputy White House counsel Foster before his suicide. She witnessed the chaotic aftermath, testifying about that, too.
Last summer, she told Newsweek about seeing White House social office aide Kathleen E. Willey emerging from the Oval Office flustered and with clothes askew after allegedly being kissed and fondled by President Clinton.