On the trail of the scandal Tour: Connect the dots from the bookstore to the dress shop to the hair stylist ... to the White House.

September 11, 1998|By Sarah Pekkanen | Sarah Pekkanen,SUN STAFF

It all started so simply. A book of poetry. A dress. A meeting with an old friend for a heart-to-heart.

Who would have thought those ingredients had the potential to bring down the president?

That's what the country is speculating about as it awaits the release of Ken Starr's scathing report: Can Clinton survive?

While everyone else looks forward, we'll take you back. Back to the places that set the whole scandal in motion. The hotel where Monica Lewinsky confided in her heavily wired friend Linda Tripp. The bookstore where Monica bought a gift for her boss. The shop where she selected that blue dress.

You won't find this unofficial scandal tour in any guidebook -- yet. But if you think you're tired of hearing about presidential peccadilloes, consider how much worse it is for the unsuspecting souls whose jobs thrust them smack in the middle of the crisis.

Since it all started to come crashing down here, the first stop on our tour is the lavishly appointed Ritz-Carlton Hotel at Pentagon City. Perhaps Lewinsky sat in this corner by the fireplace, sharing a floral-print love seat with Tripp as FBI agents lurked nearby. Or maybe their tete-a-tete took place at one of the gleaming tables now inhabited by dark-suited businessmen.

Ellen Gale, the hotel's public relations director, won't say. She won't say anything about the sting operation that unfolded here, and she won't let a reporter talk to the hotel's customers. More than 100 news outlets have besieged her for information -- and that was just the first week after the flurry broke. One foreign TV station wanted to stage a re-enactment.

"I really think they thought they could get Linda Tripp and Monica Lewinsky to be here with them," Gale says.

It has added a surreal dimension to Gale's job, especially since the Marv Albert biting incident happened here -- another subject she won't touch. Yet the attention hasn't hurt the Ritz; in fact, "it adds to the mystique of the hotel," Gale says. "This hotel could become like the Watergate."

Lewinsky might never have unloaded her romantic woes to Tripp -- and the whole scandal might have been subverted -- had she only selected a different book at Kramer's Books & Afterwords in Dupont Circle.

She bought Clinton Walt Whitman's "Leaves of Grass," but a few steps away is this book: "The Pleasures and Perils of Girls' and Women's Friendships."

Have sales of the poetry book popped since the scandal broke?

"We're not supposed to talk to [you]," a manager says.

A woman browsing through the children's section looks disgusted when the subject of Lewinsky is broached. "I don't want to talk about it," she says, turning away.

But over by the travel-book section a middle-aged man looks intrigued by a reporter's carefully framed question. He even smiles.

"I don't speak English," he says haltingly.

Finally, a 65-year-old tourist from Oregon emerges from the cafe at the back of the bookstore. "I'm terribly disappointed in Clinton," he says.

At last, someone who isn't sick of discussing the scandal and who isn't even sicker of the media!

His name is Dennis Brown. He's a retired journalism professor.

Monica bought the critical piece of evidence here at The Gap. It's a casual store, with piped-in hip hop music and stacks of cotton sweaters. Many people Monica's age might not be comfortable at the lavish hotel, but here the atmosphere is like a college campus. That is, until you ask one of the smiling young sales people about the blue dress.

On to the next stop.

"I used to like Monica," Bulent Bozdemir says. "I don't like her anymore."

The hairdresser is seated in a swivel chair at the Georgetown salon 3303 Inc. It's the kind of place where the front door is always locked and a receptionist decides whether to buzz you in. It's where Monica used to get coiffed.

"Nobody knows Monica," says the goateed stylist in black jeans. "People used to be sorry for her, but I am never sorry for her. I knew what kind of person she is. I did her hair for three years. She likes this attention. Maybe I should write a book: 'Three Years With Monica.' "

He lost Monica as a client after the scandal broke, and good riddance, he says. He is horrified that she kept the blue dress as evidence. "I have more respect for Linda," he says. (She is a client, too -- probably the reason Monica switched.)

Bozdemir is tired of reporters hounding him, tired of customers asking about her. He flew to California to tape the "Leeza" show two weeks ago, but that's it. Monica "told me really personal stuff," he confides, "but I am glad she didn't [tell me about Clinton] because the FBI came and asked me too many questions."

It's late, and the streets are quiet outside the Gerald R. Ford House Office Building. The curious mob left hours ago, and now one lone sentry guards the front. Inside, an office with locked doors and shaded windows holds 36 boxes of documents that could determine the fate of the president: the Ken Starr report.

Everything today has led us to this gray-tinged structure three blocks away from the U.S. Capitol. But the guard tells us we can travel no farther than the glass doors at the building's entrance. The tour ends here.

Pub Date: 9/11/98

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