Maybe county should erect Linda Tripp statue


August 23, 1998|By Harold Jackson

THE WOMAN who brought the nation to Howard County may become only a footnote in history. But Linda Tripp should receive some mention.

When network news camera crews staked out her home in Columbia months ago, it was still difficult to predict the result of her accusations of presidential promiscuity. The ultimate outcome is yet to be determined. But in many ways, her deed has already changed the nation forever.

The public disclosure by Ms. Tripp of secretly taped conversations with a "friend" who claimed to have had sexual liaisons with President Clinton led to the completion of a process that began, oh, about 35 years ago.

The tardy but subsequent admission by President Clinton that he was dishonest about his relationship with former White House intern Monica Lewinsky removed the aura that managed to cling to the office of President of the United States despite Kennedy's mob ties, Johnson's ugly war, Nixon's burglary and Reagan's Contras.

Cherry trees, 'Honest Abe'

Of all the TV news interviews seeking reaction to Mr. Clinton's grand jury testimony and apology, I was struck most by the words of a child who said the president's dilemma had convinced him to always tell the truth. "See how much trouble he's in," the little boy said.

That lesson used to come from the opposite direction. Years ago, children were taught to emulate young George Washington, who admitted chopping down a cherry tree, and Honest Abe Lincoln, who never told a lie.

Even when we found out these stories were fables, it did not shake our respect in the office.

Through two world wars, a Cold War, Vietnam and other conflicts, we came to understand that people lied for the president. It was a natural assumption that the president probably lied, too.

We didn't even think about the lying that much before Watergate. People still don't mind a lie if they're told it's in the interest of national security. Or, as in Mr. Clinton's case, they really don't see how the lie harms them.

Twice voters elected Mr. Clinton president despite evidence that he believes the truth is negotiable. Polls show people don't care about that so long as they have jobs and can pay their bills.

But try as they might to ignore whether their president was having extramarital affairs, they weren't allowed. They were told they could not disregard dishonesty under oath about his trysts.

Presidents may lie, but they can't get caught telling the lie to a grand jury. Linda Tripp made sure that Bill Clinton did.

There is an effort to punish Ms. Tripp for her deed. A Howard County grand jury heard testimony earlier this month that she violated Maryland law by taping conversations with Ms. Lewinsky without her "friend's" knowledge.

It will be hard to convict Ms. Tripp because the wiretap law allows an ignorance defense: You have to know about the law to violate it. Even if no indictment is returned, though, repercussions may be felt in the county.

Howard County State's Attorney Marna McLendon didn't pursue the wiretap case, leading to accusations that she succumbed to pressure from fellow Republicans. It will be an issue in her bid for re-election this fall.

However, now that Mr. Clinton has admitted that he committed more than lust in his heart, maybe whatever Ms. Tripp did to record Monica's version of the truth should be forgiven. Instead of sending her to jail for five years, maybe Howard County should erect a statue of her as the woman who made America come to its senses.

European puzzlement

We always knew Bill Clinton was no saint. We knew that no president is infallible, that they are just as likely as the next person to have vices. It's for the best that Americans accept their presidents as mere mortals. Europeans have never understood why a nation conceived in the notion that no human is divine has expected its presidents to be better than the rest of us.

Now, by the grace of Ms. Tripp and Special Prosecutor Kenneth Starr, we know better. We can stop telling children fairy tales about honest presidents. Maybe we can get some former presidents to do television commercials using pro basketball player Charles Barkley's famous line, "I am not a role model."

Mr. Clinton should thank Ms. Tripp for removing a heavy burden from his shoulders. So should the nation. We can finally admit that our presidents are human. They make mistakes and lie to cover them up. How many pundits castigating Mr. Clinton have done the same thing?

Moral leader?

Yes, but he is the president, they stammer -- the moral leader of the nation. Which only means it's time to retire that title.

Anyone who hasn't discovered by now that the White House is not a fount of moral leadership is really in need of prayer.

Linda Tripp's tapes are screaming at us to stop the pretense. Elect a president who can keep us out of war and recession.

Leave moral guidance to the leaders of our faiths.

Harold Jackson writes editorials about Howard County for The Sun.

Pub Date: 8/23/98

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