Beating wiretapping charge is hollow victory for Tripp

May 28, 2000|By Michael Olesker

I HOPE LINDA Tripp isn't doing any celebratory cartwheels over this. She beat a 50-to-1 sure-thing guilty verdict on a loophole, which is always a plus but is not to be confused with exoneration. When she looks in the mirror every morning, she will still see the face of the most vilified woman in America.

She retired that trophy for violating not Maryland's wiretap law, but the laws of decency between human beings. When Howard County Circuit Judge Diane Leasure effectively killed the state prosecutor's case against Tripp last week by narrowing the evidence she would allow in open court, Leasure was looking at the technicalities of law books.

But during the last two years -- of scandal and impeachment and national recovery -- nobody has needed a law degree to understand that Tripp's actions were revolting. And whatever else a Howard County jury might have told us this summer had the case gone to trial, it could not have confirmed or denied a single important element of this sordid story that we do not already know.

Linda Tripp did a terrible thing. She won the confidence of a foolish young woman, Monica Lewinsky, and then drew out Lewinsky's most intimate sexual secrets and revealed them to the entire planet.

And then she did another terrible thing. While the country went through an impeachment trial over Bill Clinton's libido, and found itself exposed to the pornographic leerings of Kenneth Starr, and wondered if the White House would topple over private indiscretions that were no one's busi- ness, Tripp wrapped herself in the flag instead of admitting the truth: She did it for the money.

The Maryland law is clear: No one is allowed to tape a telephone conversation without both parties agreeing to it. Did Tripp tape the conversations? Yes, by her own admission. Did Lewinsky know she was being taped? No, by her admission and by Tripp's. Did Tripp know she was breaking the law? Yes. She was told the law when she bought her recording device at Radio Shack at the Mall in Columbia -- it's company policy -- and the law was written clearly on the box, and several weeks after this, her attorney, Kirby D. Behre, reiterated this to Tripp.

It's against the law, and it's also not nice, but she kept on taping anyway.

Last week, when State Prosecutor Stephen Montanarelli said he would drop the case in inevitable reaction to Judge Leasure's rulings, we had Tripp's lead defense attorney, Joseph Murtha, say: "Thankfully, despite the Goliath-like efforts of the state, one of the most notorious and shameful political prosecutions of this century did not succeed."

Oh, please.

Nobody put Linda Tripp into this dreadful mess but the eager and vindictive Linda Tripp.

There is only one issue raised by her defenders with any resonance. They are a small crowd, the unpaid Tripp backers, and many of them defend her actions simply because they would embrace anyone who makes Bill Clinton squirm, no matter the action and no matter the consequences to the country. He is a flawed and manipulative man, and he gave his enemies a sword -- but they went after him here on matters that should have been beneath everyone's dignity.

In their one reasonable issue, the Tripp defenders ask: Why should she be the only character in this story who might have to go to prison?

Good question. How about sending the special prosecutor, Starr, to prison for taking tapes from Tripp that he knew had been made by breaking the law? Now there's an action worth talking about.

But prison was never the point in trying to take Tripp to trial. Nobody -- not Montanarelli, not Murtha, not Leasure, and probably not even Tripp -- ever imagined she'd do time.

Only Tripp's book agent, Lucianne Goldberg, ever seriously raised the jail issue. Don't worry about it, Goldberg advised Tripp. She'd only have to stay for a short time, she could order out for pizza instead of eating that crummy prison grub, and when she came out, she'd have an even juicier book to sell.

But cooler heads have always understood: Even if they threw the book at Tripp, it would probably only mean probation and a fine.

The intention wasn't prison. It was a public airing of Tripp's slimy behavior, an attempt to finally make the nature of her actions officially repugnant, so that Tripp could not continue this preposterous story that she acted out of some sort of twisted patriotic motivation.

Nobody anticipated prison. What we hoped for was a simple apology, a statement of contrition, an admission from Linda Tripp that if some creep ever did to her own daughter what Tripp did to Monica Lewinsky, she would want that person punished.

As would any parent.

Has that never occurred to Tripp? She is a 50-year-old woman twice the age of the vacuous Lewinsky, who saw her not only as a friend but a mother confessor. Tripp took advantage of her vulnerability, naivete and trust.

These are matters that the courts of law generally do not touch. In this case, they might have -- but for Judge Leasure's ruling last week. But Linda Tripp should do no celebrating. She still has to look at herself in the mirror, and the face looking back is shrouded in dishonor.

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