Tripp indictment serves as reminder that the need for privacy counts, too

August 01, 1999|By Michael Olesker

THE INDICTMENT of Linda Tripp seemed to arrive last week with the faint, fetid aroma of old laundry. Didn't we jam her into some attic trunk last winter with all those other self-righteous creeps who'd turned consensual sex into a constitutional crisis? Hadn't we been through Bosnia since then, and the Kennedy grief, and the terrors at Columbine High and Atlanta? Hadn't we driven a stake through the holier-than-thou hearts of all those who'd dragged us through the loathsome Clinton-Lewinsky-Tripp business?

Well, no, not exactly. And because we hadn't, more power to us.

Maybe the need for simple privacy can count for something in America. Maybe the notion of coaxing a foolish young woman's trust, and then undressing her in front of the whole world, stirs a sense of revulsion in the national psyche.

On Friday, a Howard County grand jury, having listened to a year's worth of evidence from State Prosecutor Stephen Montanarelli, expressed its sentiments, indicting Tripp on two charges of violating Maryland wiretap laws.

"The grand jury action screams out that Ms. Tripp did not accidentally cross over the line but that she eagerly jumped and did so willingly and repeatedly," James Cabezas, chief investigator for the state prosecutor's office, said Friday, moments after the indictments were handed up.

What the grand jury reminds us, in this postscript to the degrading White House sexual scandal, is that Tripp lied in all the scuzziest ways. She lied when she shamelessly called herself Monica Lewinsky's mother confessor, and she lied when she tried to skirt the edges of the law, and she lied again when she tried to declare her back-stabbing-for-profit an act of national patriotism.

Just to refresh everybody's memory, here's one example of the high-minded Tripp patriotism, in October 1997, as she tries to seduce Lewinsky into describing her sexual relationship with the president of the United States. Lewinsky mentions that she's had sex with eight men in her life.

"Well," says Tripp, "I guess you can count the big creep in a sort of half-assed way."

"Not at all," Lewinsky replies. "I never even came close to sleeping with him."

"Why, because you were standing up?"

"We didn't have sex, Linda! Not -- we didn't have sex."

"Well, what do you call it?"

"We fooled around. Having sex is intercourse."

"You mean," Tripp says a moment later, "it's less personal to give a [bleep] job than to have intercourse?"

"No, not necessarily," Lewinsky says. "Sometimes. It depends."

"I guess it depends," says Tripp.

"It really depends," says Lewinsky.

"Yeah," says Tripp. "I'm getting an education late in life."

In the pursuit of patriotism, could the Founding Fathers have put it any more eloquently? It depends. On such subtleties -- the definition of "sex," among them -- the nation went through wrenching months and sometimes lost sight of the piffling, private nature of the charges -- and the contemptible, sanctimonious way we'd managed to learn about them.

The central fact about Tripp and her secret tape-recording of intimate conversations is simple: We have laws against this, and she knew it. We have laws about human decency, which she sloughed off, and we also have a criminal law in Maryland -- which carries up to five years in prison and a $10,000 fine upon conviction -- that says secretly tape-recording a phone conversation is forbidden.

Tripp knew this, and she's admitted that she knew it. That's a crucial point. Last year, she told a federal grand jury that she knowingly violated Maryland's anti-eavesdropping law -- but she made the statement after being granted immunity by independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr.

Starr gave her federal cover. The Howard County indictment says that we value the privacy of individuals a little more in the state of Maryland.

Does any of this excuse the sexual recklessness of President Clinton? Of course not. The Tripp indictment reminds us once more of the president's personal flaws, his lack of respect for his family and for his high office.

Also, though, it reminds us of the excesses of Starr, the prosecutor who tried to turn Clinton's sex life, which was nobody's business but his family's, into a constitutional crisis -- with Tripp's help.

For all his grand moralizing, Starr happily took possession of Tripp's tape-recordings of her conversations with Lewinsky. He knew they'd been done illegally, and Tripp knew they were illegal. In a lot of people's minds, that makes both of them traffickers in illegal goods. Not patriots -- criminals.

So, while Starr skips away, Tripp does not. She'll await a trial date, while her lawyers look for loopholes. And that familiar, fetid aroma lingers with her: the smell of a self-righteous hustler who tries to pass herself off as a patriot.

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