New book shows why Tripp deserves nation's contempt

January 18, 2000|By Michael Olesker

NOW COMES Jeffrey Toobin's new book, "A Vast Conspiracy," to tell us what we hadn't fully realized about everybody's favorite little patriot, Linda Tripp, who awaits her date with destiny in a Howard County courtroom.

Nobody walks away with clean hands in this one. Not Bill Clinton, whose sexual recklessness is breathtaking to behold (he's fooling around with Monica Lewinsky and lying to his lawyers about it at the same time Paula Jones' attorneys are taking depositions); Monica Lewinsky (whose sense of empty-headed entitlement is newly infuriating); and the legions of prosecutors, politicians, investigators, lawyers and literary (you should pardon the expression) agents who have self-serving agendas involving book deals and right-wing posturing in which the president's sex life is merely a convenient vehicle.

But it's our Linda (and her friend Lucianne Goldberg) who captures the day -- and not only because she's "just like us," or because she's our national yenta-in-residence, or because she's our neighbor in Columbia awaiting trial for allegedly taping her telephone conversations with the young Lewinsky and exposing her every sexual vulnerability to the whole world.

No, just when you think you might have begun feeling a little sorry for Linda -- who's so loathed that she recently tried to disguise her looks beneath a surgeon's knife -- Toobin shows us precisely why she should still corner the market on contempt.

Toobin, who writes for New Yorker magazine and analyzes legal issues for ABC-TV, put "A Vast Conspiracy" together in solid fashion. He interviewed, he says, more than 200 people. Also, he tapped into thousands of pages of grand jury transcripts and FBI summaries of interviews released by the U.S. House of Representatives after the impeachment proceedings against Clinton.

Perhaps you bought Tripp's line that she taped only to "protect" herself? Toobin, armed with tape transcripts of all kinds (Tripp was taping Lewinsky, and Goldberg was taping Tripp) shows us, even before the arrival of Lewinsky, the hunger for a book deal that consumed Tripp, who had worked at the White House and wanted to write about the sexual hungers she had witnessed or imagined.

In the summer of 1996, well before she knew about Lewinsky, Tripp gains introduction to Goldberg, who, Toobin writes, "had banked a lifetime of obsessions -- about sex, gossip, secret tape-recordings, tell-all books and conservative politics -- as if in preparation for her moment in this case. She acted throughout with a kind of joyous malice. ...She reflected the new face of American politics -- personal, petty and mean."

Goldberg introduces Tripp to Maggie Gallagher, a conservative columnist for the New York Post who could ghost-write the Tripp tell-all. The two spoke "almost every night" while Goldberg was setting up the financial deal with a right-wing publishing house.

Then Tripp pulls out of the deal. It's not ethics. It's fear that the book won't make enough money to cover the possible loss of her $80,000-a-year government job. But then Lewinsky arrives in Tripp's life, full of her longing for Clinton and her late-night tales of woe.

Thus, the book deal is back on. This stuff is too good to pass on. In the summer of 1997, Tripp tells Goldberg, Clinton's "heavy into phone sex."

"Do you think there's a taping system in the Oval Office?" Goldberg asks. "The slurping sounds would be deafening."

Yeah, that's our little patriots.

Later in that same taped conversation, Toobin writes, Goldberg "seems to have had a brief pang of conscience, if only for the benefit of her tape recorder."

Goldberg says, "The publicity might destroy her and you. I mean, I love the idea. I would run with it in a second. But do you want to be the instrument of this kid..."

"Well, let me give you some history," Tripp replies. "She is from Beverly Hills. She, uh, had a very privileged upbringing. She's not naive. I mean, she's definitely sophisticated. Um, she was not a victim. Um, she's had affairs with married men before."

"In other words," Toobin writes, "who cared if Lewinsky was destroyed if it would help Tripp's book project?"

"I'm very interested in this," Goldberg tells Tripp. "My tabloid heart beats loud."

Yeah, a couple of patriots, just looking out for the good of the country.

And then Linda Tripp buys her tape recorder.

"Later," Toobin writes, "when Tripp became a reviled public figure because of her taping of Lewinsky, she justified her behavior by asserting she was just `protecting herself' in the face of Lewinsky's demands that she lie under oath. The tapes of Tripp's conversations with Goldberg demonstrate just how preposterous Tripp's explanation was.

"In the fall of 1997, Tripp had not been subpoenaed for anything, so Lewinsky couldn't have asked her to lie under oath. The Goldberg tapes showed that Tripp taped Lewinsky for simple reasons -- to gather material for a book and to help destroy a president she despised."

Some of this we figured out. In preliminary hearings at the Howard County Courthouse last month, we learned that the same Linda Tripp who claimed merely to be doing her patriotic duty was sharing pieces of the Lewinsky gossip with her card-playing chums, one of whom asked if Tripp knew the taping was against Maryland law.

"Yeah," Tripp allegedly answered, "but they never go after you for it."

We'll see about that. Tripp's trial is scheduled for this summer -- though there is much speculation that a deal might be worked out before then.

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