Willey suffers from outing Tripp goes out on the town

March 19, 1998|By MICHAEL OLESKER

Linda Tripp has moved out of her Columbia home and on to the pages of the nation's great publications, looking all dolled up. Thus, for the moment, she's doing lots better than the latest woman she turned in, Kathleen Willey, who is being undressed in front of an entire nation of voyeurs.

When last seen, Tripp, our National Yenta, was stepping from her home with reporters pursuing her. As she ran to a friend's house across the street, she looked like a playground teen-ager stalked by classmates angry that she's snitched to the teacher about two kids she caught necking in the hallway.

By then, Tripp had nailed Monica Lewinsky and was about to give us Kathleen Willey, both of whom had stories about Bill Clinton that Tripp thought she should share with the immediate world.

She has since discovered, not everyone in the world shares her opinion. She moved after a flood of hate mail and death threats. Sometimes she's slept at her mother's house in New Jersey, sometimes with friends, sometimes at a hotel room provided by the FBI.

If this sounds rough - and it does - we also learn she's stepping out a bit. She offered to pose for a New York Times photographer - if the newspaper would pay for her hairdresser and makeup artist. The Times ungallantly refused, but now Tripp shows up in Newsweek, dining at Washington's Prime Rib, "her hair styled by a Georgetown salon, in a long, white fur coat and laced-up black boots with spike heels. ... She ordered a Bloody Mary and the lump crab meat. She seemed happy to be out on the town, a little disappointed that nobody appeared to have recognized her."

Among those on the run, Salman Rushdie never had it this good.

On the other hand, Kathleen Willey has seen better times. Though allegedly groped by the president, Willey chose to keep such business private until Tripp outed her. The incident has now become a centerpiece of investigations by special prosecutor Kenneth Starr, by lawyers for Paula Corbin Jones and by television's "60 Minutes."

Thus, the national undressing of Kathleen Willey. In the television interview, Willey is asked about the specifics of the chief executive's groping. She's asked about his state of arousal. In the aftermath, the White House releases private letters, quite friendly, signed "your number one fan," which Willey sent to Clinton post-grope. The obvious question: Are these the words of a woman who's been victimized?

Leave aside, for the moment, the reaction of feminists who say the response was reasonable enough, that Willey didn't want to alienate a man who still might help her. There are many more questions, specifically related to the choreography of White House responses.

They've known for months that Willey's story was about to surface. Why did they wait until after the "60 Minutes" broadcast to release the letters? Why didn't they give them to reporter Ed Bradley before the interview, so he could question her about them in front of the country? Were they afraid she could reasonably explain them as the work of a desperate woman? Willey has been silent since their release.

Asked on the phone yesterday about the timing of the letters' release, a White House press officer said, "Mike McCurry addressed that at the press conference yesterday." In fact, a reading of McCurry's news conference remarks shows clearly that he did not - though several questions were asked about it.

Then there's another question: How did it happen that the White House held onto Willey's letters? Do they keep all mail? Which mail? Willey's notes weren't exactly matters of high international intrigue - at least, not when she sent them.

Yesterday, the White House press officer said they receive "probably 10,000 letters a week, although it's higher at certain times." Ten thousand letters a week is about half a million letters a year. It's handled by the White House correspondence office, whose "wonderful volunteer workers" decide what to do with the letters. Obviously, the White House can't hold onto a half-million pieces of mail.

"Every letter is handled appropriately," said the press officer.

Why was it deemed "appropriate" to hold onto Kathleen Willey's rather benign letters - because somebody, perhaps the president, presciently decided they might come in handy at some later date?

It's the kind of question that makes us feel scuzzy. We've heard too much, yet find ourselves asking more questions. Is the president a sexual predator? Perhaps, though it may be instructive that neither Monica Lewinsky nor Kathleen Willey complained until outed by Linda Tripp.

Tripp decided it served America's interest to reveal Bill Clinton's sexual habits, real or exaggerated. It had nothing to do with that book deal she wanted to land (just as Willey's story has nothing to do with her bid for a book deal).

It was just Tripp declaring her grand sense of morality. When last seen, she had posted a sign on the door of her Columbia home: Do Not Disturb. For the country, it's too late for such sentiments now.

Pub Date: 3/19/98

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