Soft questions leave Tripp little chance to stumble

July 02, 1998|By MICHAEL OLESKER

WASHINGTON -- Inside the E. Barrett Prettyman U.S. Courthouse, at the end of a long day's journey into the presidential libido, came Linda R. Tripp, defender of all things righteous and puritanical, defender of abstinence for married people in oval offices, trailed by the flower of American journalism.

"Linda," one reporter shouted. Tripp did not turn her head. "Linda," came another cry. Her pace quickened down the courthouse corridor until she became the leader of a modified stampede: Tripp and her spokesman, her two college-age kids, about 15 uniformed officers who were called out in the wake of threats against Tripp, and about a dozen scuffling reporters who'd spotted her emerging from a grand jury at the end of maybe six hours of unburdening herself of the great alleged secrets of Monica Lewinsky and Bill Clinton.

"Linda," came another reporter's cry. Tripp turned her head slightly but kept moving toward a waiting limousine. "Linda, what's it like to have your kids here?" Excuse me? "It's great," said Tripp, smiling demurely. Wonderful, and wonderful. A government teeters, and the Great Teeterer is asked about her kids.

"Was it easy telling the truth?" another reporter cried. "Yes," Tripp answered. Marvelous. It shouldn't be easy? Here is a prosecutor, Kenneth Starr, who's spent 40 million American dollars in an investigation that now comes down to Clinton's sex life, real or imagined; a prosecutor who's paraded more than 50 ** witnesses before this grand jury since January, when Tripp gave Starr more than 20 hours of tapes she'd secretly recorded of her former friend Lewinsky's accounts of White House sex. And he's suddenly going to give his key snitch a tough time?

It was easy in there, said Tripp. She looked relieved, looked like somebody taking bows after opening night at the theater and now awaits the plaudits of a grateful public. But where is that public?

Outside the courthouse, a handful of tourists stood along a sidewalk perhaps 50 yards from Tripp's limousine. Tripp glanced their way. Now her kids, Allison and Ryan, having been formally introduced to television cameras half an hour earlier (See? Linda's not just an informer, she's a mom) ducked into a limo at a courthouse side door. Tripp got in behind them, and in a moment she was gone.

She's scheduled to return today, where a dual mission continues: not only to convince this grand jury that Lewinsky and Clinton had a sexual relationship and then tried to hide it when Starr made inquiries on behalf of an American public allegedly hungry to know such things; but that she, Tripp, acts with motives purely patriotic and not initiated by the prospect of profit.

At the moment, that doesn't look easy. Tripp's become a grand target of ridicule. On NBC's "Saturday Night," she's portrayed in a skit -- by the actor John Goodman. She's ridiculed in nightly TV monologues. And the latest news magazines add to her troubles.

In U.S. News and World Report comes an account based on listening to actual tapes of Tripp and Lewinsky. So much of the reporting about this investigation comes out of second-hand information, but the magazine's reporter, Elise Ackerman, was allowed to listen to two hours of taped conversation.

Did Lewinsky ask Clinton to get her a job? Yes -- two months before she was subpoenaed in the Paula Jones case. What's more, the tapes show Tripp herself repeatedly encouraging Lewinsky to ask the president for help. Did Lewinsky send a lurid audio cassette to Clinton? In the tapes reviewed by U.S. News, Lewinsky did send him a cassette -- but it contains no direct sexual references, only a "modest proposal" that they meet some time.

What's more, the magazine says, Tripp "seems to be egging Lewinsky on to produce graphic recollections. But Lewinsky seems oblivious." Lewinsky seems to have romance in her mind, and Tripp appears to encourage Lewinsky's obsession." Tripp's secretly thinking book contract. She was already talking to Lucianne Goldberg, the New York literary agent, about a book on White House sex. It was Goldberg who told Tripp to tape-record all talks with Lewinsky. On the tapes, Tripp "strongly supports the idea that Lewinsky should send tapes and letters to Clinton and advises her to do so via Speed Service Couriers" -- which happens to be owned by Lucianne Goldberg's family.

The thought of Bill Clinton having a relationship with a young, impressionable woman is upsetting. But so is the thought of that same young woman being set up by a friend -- whatever that friend's motives, patriotism or profit.

There's a new poll that says few Americans view Linda Tripp favorably. The grand jury listening to Tripp is composed of Americans. Surely, they're not oblivious to the same misgivings felt by much of the country. Will they have their own sharp questions for Tripp today? Or is everything reduced to the shallow: "Linda, what's it like to have your kids here?" Not: "Linda, how does it feel to sell out a friend?" Not: "Linda, is it worth pulling down a government for a book deal about sex?"

Pub Date: 7/02/98

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