As Linda Tripp knows, you can't be too careful

January 27, 1998|By MICHAEL OLESKER

On the morning that Linda Tripp kissed off her anonymous little life and became a household name, particularly in the Clinton household, she gazed out of her living room window in Columbia and saw before her the first signs of a government coming undone.

There were reporters waiting in her front yard, and television cameras and microphones. Tripp did not move. She had a little handwritten sign on her front door: Do Not Disturb. No matter that she was profoundly disturbing the nation with her accusations about Bill Clinton, and her secret taping of Monica Lewinsky, Tripp had now decided she wished to be alone and discreet.

So she stayed in her house. An ABC producer stood in her front yard and barked into a cell phone, "My money is, she escaped out the back door." CNN sent a crew around back to make sure this couldn't happen. Everybody else waited and waited.

Tripp finally emerged in midafternoon. She had her hair done up and a briefcase in her hand, as though going someplace important. A jumble of voices asked her about Clinton and Lewinsky, but not yet about Lucianne Goldberg, who merely engineered this whole mess. Tripp looked pretty annoyed. There were microphones thrust in her face and photographers running alongside her, but Tripp looked at the ground and walked straight across the street to a neighbor's house, where she stayed for about 45 minutes.

"I can't talk to you," she said when she emerged from the neighbor's and went right back to her own house, disappearing once again.

"Then why did she come out here at all?" reporters were asking each other. "She couldn't have telephoned her neighbor?"

And then everybody began answering their own questions. Just as we define a sadist as one who is kind to masochists, so we are now a nation of voyeurs being kind to exhibitionists. Linda Tripp tape-records a young woman's account of her sex life with the president and wants us to believe she's exhibiting some grand morality. In fact, she unwittingly exhibits her own frustrated little life, as well as the petty and pitiful nature of public discourse in America, in which the last wall between news and gossip has been torn down as surely as the Berlin Wall.

This isn't a denial that Clinton might have had sex with young Monica. If he did, then shame on him. But it's his business and Hillary's, and not the nation's, which elected him already knowing the untidiness of his life.

So we now have Linda Tripp wishing to expose some of this untidiness, though nobody needed to hear it - except special prosecutor Kenneth Starr, who operates with all the class of a vice squad cop looking for a little action before snapping the cuffs on some pathetic hooker.

And Tripp and her friend Lucianne Goldberg wish to be seen as national heroes for this, instead of merely Peeping Toms. Goldberg is a New York literary agent and sometime author whose previous best-known work was a novel about some prostitutes, called "Madame Cleo's Girls," and whose previous political connections involved getting herself aboard George McGovern's campaign plane as a spy for Richard Nixon.

In an interview in this week's New Yorker, Goldberg describes how she got her friend Tripp to secretly tape-record Monica Lewinsky and thus imperil the Clinton presidency.

"I did it because it's [expletive] fascinating," Goldberg says. "I love dish! I live for dish!"

She and Tripp also have acknowledged their desire to bring down Clinton, whom they find offensive. Many of us do, but we wouldn't set up a young girl to reveal her sex life to the whole country to validate it. Goldberg says she urged Tripp to tape Lewinsky so she'd be believed. But maybe there's more to it than that.

Goldberg tells the New Yorker that Tripp wanted to write a book. Tripp was one of the last to see Vince Foster before his suicide. Nobody was interested in such a book. So they tried another idea, which they were shopping around when Monica Lewinsky's talk got a little too loose.

The idea was a book called "Behind Closed Doors: What I Saw Inside the Clinton White House." Among the proposed chapter headings: "The President's Women."

And into this idea walks the president's alleged lover. Tape her, says Goldberg to Tripp. Take the tapes to Starr, says Goldberg to Tripp. Think of the advance money, imagines the book agent Goldberg, hoping we'll imagine this as an act of patriotism.

All of which gets us back to Linda Tripp's front lawn last week, when the story was first breaking. If she didn't want to talk, why did Tripp leave her house just to walk across the street to a neighbor?

Some thought she was looking for a little publicity on the evening news.

Here's another thought: Maybe she went across the street looking for a telephone that wasn't likely to be wiretapped. You can't trust anybody these days, as Linda Tripp has now taught the whole country.

Pub Date: 1/27/98

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