WORLD

Humanizing Linda

The stakes rise for Starr as a key witness testifies

ANDREW PHILLIPS July 13 1998
WORLD

Humanizing Linda

The stakes rise for Starr as a key witness testifies

ANDREW PHILLIPS July 13 1998

Humanizing Linda

WORLD

UNITED STATES

The stakes rise for Starr as a key witness testifies

ANDREW PHILLIPS

If ever there was someone who needed a dose of that quintessential Washington phenomenon, spin, it was Linda Tripp. For months, she had been lampooned as the villain of the sex-and-lies scandal swirling around U.S. President Bill Clinton. She was the woman who betrayed her erstwhile friend, Monica Lewinsky, by secretly taping their conversations, and the person who allegedly plotted to bring down a president for the sake of a book deal. Worse, she seemed to be someone for whom every day was a bad hair day. No wonder that one of her lawyers acknowledged that their first task last week, as Tripp began her testimony before the grand jury investigating the scandal, was simply to “make her human.”

And so the campaign began. On her newly constructed Web site (www.lindatripp.com), she bemoaned “the organized effort to discredit me as a witness” and invited supporters to write in for an “I believe Linda Tripp” bumper sticker—“while supplies last.” Designated “friends” took to the political talk-show circuit to

defend Tripp as a woman forced to tape Lewinsky to protect her own credibility. Others leaked information suggesting that far from pursuing Lewinsky, Tripp tried to break off their friendship after the younger woman bombarded her with visits and phone calls about her purported affair with Clinton. “Please give me a break,” Tripp told Lewinsky in an e-mail last October. “I can’t take this.” And in her first interview since the scandal became public in January, Tripp told The Washington Post that while they both worked at low-level jobs in the Pentagon, “I did not cultivate Monica—she cultivated me.” Lewinsky, she added, “is a very worldly person. She educated me.”

All that might be just another round of he said/she said in a scandal that threatens to disappear in the maze of its own intricate complications. But Tripp, who testified for

two full days last week, was the most important witness to appear so far before the grand jury convened by independent counsel Kenneth Starr, Clinton’s longtime legal tormentor. For five months—ever since the first allegations surfaced that the President

_ had sex in the White House

with onetime intern Lewin-

sky and then asked her to lie about it—a parade of minor characters has trooped through the grand jury room on the third floor of the E. Barrett Prettyman federal courthouse next door to the Canadian Embassy on Washington’s Pennsylvania Avenue. Most were able to provide only incidental details about the alleged Clinton-Lewinsky liaison. Tripp, however, taped some 20 hours of phone conversations with Lewinsky in which, according to excerpts that have been made public, the young woman pours out her heart about an 18-month sexual relationship with the President. Tripp turned the tapes over to Starr’s office on Jan. 12.

Even more important, Tripp is the source of a three-page memo known as the “talking points.” Tripp says Lewinsky gave her the memo on Jan. 14, suggesting ways in which she could alter her story in a court deposi-

tion to make it more favorable to Clinton. The suspicion is that it was not the 24-year-old Lewinsky who drafted the document, but one of the President’s legal advisers. That would involve serious offences such as obstruction of justice and suborning perjury (asking someone to lie in a legal proceeding). If Starr can demonstrate that someone close to Clinton committed those crimes, the scandal could threaten his presidency.

In fact, that appears to be Starr’s only hope of seriously damaging Clinton. He has been investigating the President and his wife, Hillary, for more than four years without (as White House officials constantly point out) finding any evidence of wrongdoing by them. In recent weeks, other aspects of Starr’s investigation, going back to the intricate Whitewater land scandals in Arkansas, have run into dead ends or suffered legal setbacks. A grand jury he had convened in Arkansas disbanded in May without issuing any new charges in connection with Whitewater; a judge released Susan McDougal, an old Clinton ally who had been jailed for refusing to testify against the President; and other judges have ruled against Starr in his efforts to obtain documents or compel testimony from some of Clinton’s aides. Last week, Starr suffered another defeat as a judge in Washington dismissed tax evasion charges against Webster Hubbell, a former Arkansas associate of the Clintons. Starr’s case against Hubbell, the judge ruled, amounted to a “quintessential fishing expedition.”

That leaves sex and lies—the areas in which Tripp and Lewinsky have the most crucial evidence. Starr has turned up some supporting evidence in that area. Before Tripp testified, another woman, Dale Young, told the grand jury that Lewinsky had also confided in her about a relationship with Clinton. Young, a friend of the Lewinsky family, told Newsweek that in 1996 Monica Lewinsky related a story similar to what she later told Tripp—that she was engaged in a sexual relationship with Clinton. According to Young, however, Lewinsky said that Clinton set strict ground rules for their encounters, specifically that “nothing was ever taken to completion.” It was, concluded Young, “basically like foreplay”—allowing the President to deny publicly later that he had had sex, according to his definition, with Lewinsky. On such matters, it would seem, rests the political fate of America’s 41st president. □