Lewinsky voice finally brought to life on tapes 22 hours of dialogue reveal overwrought twentysomething

November 18, 1998|By Ellen Gamerman | Ellen Gamerman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- Emerging from a kind of silent soap opera, the urgent voice of Monica Lewinsky finally came to life yesterday, loud and clear, as Linda R. Tripp's secret recordings of their just-released phone conversations buzzed over television, radio and the Internet.

Sounding savvier than her public image might have suggested, Lewinsky spends hours analyzing the consequences of her predicament in hurried and anxious tones.

The Beverly Hills native comes off not so much as a lovesick teeny-bopper as a spurned young woman in emotional turmoil -- not quite a valley girl but maybe a valley girl's older sister.

And on the other end of the line are the many voices of Tripp, the Howard County woman with the ever-present tape recorder. Sassy Linda. Bawdy Linda. Know-it-all Linda. Worried Linda. Prodding Linda. Indignant Linda. Scary Linda.

It's girl talk with fangs. Tripp's insistence that "maybe you have to have this experience so that you can learn nothing that comes after this can be worse" takes on eerie irony when listeners realize that the conversation is being taped for posterity. And Lewinsky's sotto voce plea that "I just wish this would all go away" seems as sad as it does improbable.

The 37 tapes released by the House Judiciary Committee constitute about 22 hours of Tripp-Lewinsky confidences recorded last year, unbeknown to Lewinsky, on Tripp's telephone.

Their release comes as independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr is to testify tomorrow before the committee about his investigation into President Clinton's relationship with Lewinsky.

Since the story broke in January, everything but the voice of the 25-year-old star of the national melodrama had become a fixture in popular culture.

Except for a few times when TV cameras crowded around her, and Lewinsky made hushed comments such as, "I feel like a freak show," she has kept quiet in public.

Yesterday, her voice was the first order of fascination. Over the many hours of tapes, her voice careens from that of a plaintive girl seeking approval to a child hoarse and bleary with crying. Hardly the "Marilyn Monroe vixen" Tripp once called her, Lewinsky instead sounds like an overwrought and impatient twentysomething.

Along with Lewinsky, Tripp, who is nearly twice her age, often adopts the vocal tics of a young girl, offering comments like, "Oh, no way," as a knowing sorority sister might. Indeed, so much of the conversations sounds so girlish, listeners almost expect someone's dad to pick up and remind them it's time for bed.

But this is no innocent pajama party. Indeed, at times the "ick" factor runs pretty high. Tripp chortles with gusto as Lewinsky lists the men she has slept with. The older woman notes that Lewinsky's father "probably has a perverse pride" in suspecting his daughter's presidential liaison.

The talks drone on. Tripp can be heard chewing snacks, and Lewinsky yawns as the conversations continue into the night. The chatter is often interrupted only when one or the other takes a deep cleansing breath at a tense moment.

The tapes make clear how intensely Lewinsky relied on Tripp's advice, and how aggressively Tripp seemingly orchestrated her friend's actions. Tripp insists on making sure that high-ranking Clinton associates help the former intern find a new job -- a point that would be key in an obstruction-of-justice case against Clinton.

Tripp's preoccupation is made plain by the exasperation in Lewinsky's voice after Tripp again pushes her to demand a big job. Lewinsky: "Please, Linda, don't start with me."

Tripp responds in the October 1997 conversation: "I think they'd do that in a heartbeat. Remember, favors like this are done every day."

That night, Lewinsky decides to write Clinton, urging him to help her line up a potentially lucrative job in New York. "Will you help me?" she asks Tripp. The two later go over the note line by line, mulling the nuance of every word.

At this late date, the tapes are unlikely to change public opinion about any character in the drama. But to many listeners, the tapes flesh out the images of Tripp as a crafty manipulator and Lewinsky as her victim.

"Monica comes off pathetic and Linda Tripp just looks like an evil, demented mind," said Nina Black, a personal trainer who listened to the tapes on TV at a Georgetown gym yesterday. "Monica has that little baby voice -- 'I love you; I need you; I'm fat.' It's just so pathetic. Obviously, Monica wants people to like her, and Linda Tripp played on that."

Deborah Tannen, the Georgetown University linguist who specializes in the differences between the way men and women communicate, said: "I think people's revulsion is going to focus on the betrayal of a friend by a friend. Commentators were saying they don't understand why there isn't more outrage against the president's alleged behavior. There is outrage. It's directed at the investigation. The release of these tapes will have the same effect."

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