Goldberg is basking in the drama of it all Book agent advised Tripp to make tapes

January 30, 1998|By Ellen Gamerman | Ellen Gamerman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- Lucianne Goldberg knew she had a story, a big one, and as usual, the irrepressible literary agent had trouble, well, repressing it.

So before the rest of the nation learned about an alleged affair between President Clinton and former White House intern Monica Lewinsky, Goldberg was regaling her New York literary circle with the tale.

Goldberg -- who urged Lewinsky's former co-worker, Linda R. Tripp, to secretly tape-record their anguished conversations -- was bubbling over with this real-life potboiler.

"I knew what was going on, courtesy of Lucianne," says longtime friend Thomas Lipscomb, former publisher of the New York Times' book division, adding that Goldberg didn't tell him the names of the women until the story broke.

"I knew there was a young lady in the White House who was 'giving her all' for the president."

True or not, it's stories like the alleged Clinton liaisons -- the stuff of steamy romance and political intrigue -- that get Goldberg out of bed in the morning.

She lives for gossip, detests political correctness and adores catching the powerful in unguarded moments.

An aging bombshell with frosted blonde hair and a husky two-pack-a-day voice, Goldberg, 62, is best known as a literary agent and writer.

But she is also a dabbler in political dramas. She posed as a journalist, spying on George McGovern's 1972 presidential campaign in the service of rival Richard M. Nixon.

She ghosted Maureen Dean's "Washington Wives," a tale of politics and scandal in the voice of one of Watergate's most famous spouses.

She explored three deals for scathing books attacking Clinton. And she instigated the taping that now threatens his presidency.

Some of her critics call Goldberg politically motivated, out to get a president whom she says morally offends her.

To these foes, she has charged to the front of the "vast right-wing conspiracy" that Hillary Rodham Clinton says is behind the current scandal.

But to her friends, Goldberg is an equal opportunity blabber who simply cannot resist a great story.

This is a woman who, in a novel she wrote, kills off a character by smashing her with a bust of Kim Basinger. She understands: Outrageous scenes make for great stories.

"She loves life's drama," says conservative columnist Tony Snow, a friend of Goldberg's.

"She told me every good story has four elements: Love, sex, money and death."

It was Snow who introduced Goldberg to Tripp in 1993, when Goldberg was seeking information for a book on the suicide of former White House deputy counsel Vincent W. Foster Jr. Tripp, one of the last to see Foster alive, seemed a likely prospect.

That project fell through, but Goldberg and Tripp kept in touch.

When Tripp told Goldberg about her heart-to-hearts with an emotional Lewinsky, Goldberg advised that she buy a tape recorder from Radio Shack.

There was talk of a book deal. Besides, Tripp said she wanted to protect her own credibility.

Quest for a good tale

Now, Goldberg is hinting that she may write her own tell-all account. Her defenders say she didn't get to the center of this melodrama out of a desire to topple Clinton, but rather a quest to tell a good tale. Maybe even a best seller.

"She got into this by trying to help someone she considered a friend and at one time a possible client," says her son, Jonah, 28, who is handling interviews for his mother.

"Everybody who thinks she is the spider queen of a right-wing cabal, they're living in a fantasy world."

Still, Goldberg has made no secret of her disgust with Clinton, saying she believes this sort of controversy was a long time coming.

In this week's New Yorker, she sneers: "Bill Clinton was just like the boys that used to drive down King Street in pink convertibles, catcalling about our breasts."

As for Goldberg, she doesn't seem to mind such scandals -- friends describe her as one part bar wench, one part priss. She objects to what she sees as Clinton's unbridled libido, yet she has written her own ribald novels.

One of them, "Madame Cleo's Girls," tells the story of call girls at a professional prostitutes convention and in other less-than-dainty milieus.

Her other novel, "People Will Talk," features a brash scandal-hunting reporter with a knack for undoing zippers with her feet.

Even so, Goldberg's upbringing had elements of primness.

She grew up in Alexandria, Va., went to a fancy private school and in the 1970s founded the Pussycat League -- an organization designed to mock feminists.

She is kittenish when it comes to her own love life -- she airily dismisses reputed affairs with the rich and famous.

As for her politics, not everyone believes Goldberg is out to get Democrats, despite her distaste for Clinton. In fact, she wrote speeches for John F. Kennedy and campaigned for Lyndon B. Johnson.

"She swings for all fences," says Lipscomb. "She could tell unbelievably ghastly stories about a Democrat one night, a Republican the next."

Goldberg's client list is hardly Clinton-friendly.

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