• U.S.

Clinton’s Crisis: Hot Off The Wiretap

7 minute read
John Cloud

When Linda Rose Tripp turned 48 last Nov. 24, she could well have reflected on a life that had slowed somewhat. Her children were grown: her son Ryan had turned 22; her daughter Allison would be 19 in April. And her husband Bruce, well, he was gone, moved out several years ago following the divorce. The two-story colonial on Cricket Pass, in a tranquil planned community between Baltimore and Washington, should have started to feel a little quiet. After all, Tripp had traveled the world for years with Bruce, a lieutenant colonel in the Army. Fluent in German, she had arranged visits for Congressmen around Allied headquarters in Europe, and in the late 1980s she held a classified job with the Army’s elite Delta Force. In a man’s world, she had learned to play rough. “A hard lady,” recalls an officer who knew her at Delta Force. “And not much of a lady, either.”

Until the past few months, after she plunged into her role as a White House whistle blower, life wasn’t at the right tempo for Tripp. In the ’90s, she had mostly worked as a secretary and logistics aide, a planner and coordinator for the powerful men in the White House and the Pentagon. She belonged to a class not peculiar to Washington but well represented there–those proximate enough to power to see its realities but not vested with sufficient authority to effect change. It was frustrating. “She wanted to do things her own way,” says a Pentagon official. Others saw her demanding nature as a virtue. “She always wanted things done right,” says a Bush White House operative who knew her well. “She had very good instincts, was quite intelligent.” The official adds, “She was a gifted writer.”

Tripp’s coming of middle age has not been particularly happy, though. “Her life was a struggle,” says the Bush official. “She complained of a long commute, a nomadic existence as an Army wife, an ex-husband who was not a true love. She had a chip on her shoulder.”

Though the day-to-day rhythms of her life were hard and dull, Tripp has discovered in the past few years that in Washington, excitement and fame are traded in a currency more basic than power: knowledge. And Tripp has had a good taste of that, having held secretarial jobs all over the White House, including a stint in one of the most sensitive, secret-rich corners of the West Wing, the counsel’s office. It is Scandal Central, the final stop for all legal matters. A busy place in the Clinton years.

Most career civil servants like Tripp, especially those trusted enough to work in the White House, are ferociously competent and unrelentingly discreet. They often stay for decades, and they keep their mouth shut. Tripp was different. She was seen as a schoolmarm, a bit obsessed with improprieties she saw around her. She once turned in an Army reservist for “petty wrongdoing,” according to the Washington Post, and consequently got the man fired.

It’s a wonder she stayed in the White House so long. Though some Clintonites last week painted her as a Republican eavesdropper, Tripp was in fact nonpartisan, a registered independent. And criticism of her comes from both sides. A former associate White House counsel for Clinton says one of the office’s biggest mistakes was not getting rid of Tripp sooner. “She’s a complete wacko. She was imperial. You couldn’t get any work out of her. She wasn’t collegial,” he says. Many remember her frequent gab-session cigarette breaks. Says a Bush White House official: “[Tripp] always wanted to know where the dirt was, some controversial things. We all put her on the A-void, don’t tell her anything.”

An odd quirk of history vaulted Tripp into the spotlight nonetheless. She was working in the counsel’s office one hot summer day in 1993 when deputy White House counsel Vincent Foster asked her to get lunch. She fetched a burger and some M&M’s from the cafeteria and became the last known person to see him alive. Later that day, he committed suicide.

In 1995, when Congress was examining Foster’s death, she testified that she had grown frustrated after the suicide. She felt she was being pushed out, and in fact she was; she was told to begin looking for another job. She had little to do but polish her resume and send E-mail to the other secretaries. In one embarrassing message that became public, she called the White House lawyers who took days to find Foster’s suicide note “the three stooges.” Tripp got her picture in the New York Times but won the enmity of the Clintonites.

About a year later, former FBI man Gary Aldrich published his incendiary tale of shenanigans inside Clinton’s White House. It was delicious reading for Tripp, who became angry when the White House tried to discredit Aldrich, whom she knew from the Bush years. It gave Tripp the idea for her own kiss-and-tell. Behind Closed Doors, it was to be called, and it was to cause an earthquake. She chose as her literary agent Lucianne Goldberg, known in the ’90s for controversial clients like Mark Fuhrman (of O.J. Simpson fame) and in the ’70s for being a G.O.P. spy in George McGovern’s campaign. Last week Goldberg proudly admitted to being a Clinton hater (see following story).

Already a gossip, Tripp was now doubtless more attuned than ever to tattles she could tell. And she had a juicy one. In 1993 she had bumped into Kathleen Willey just as the Virginia socialite was emerging, rather bedraggled, from the alleged Oval Office grope session. Tripp told that tale to Newsweek last summer (see related story). And of course Tripp made another friend–Monica Lewinsky, who worked in the same Pentagon office. The more Tripp heard during their chats, the more it sounded to her that America had no idea how far Clinton could go, even after the Willey article appeared. But who would believe yet another story of adultery?

Tripp consulted her friend Goldberg. Her advice was blunt: you’ve got to tape your talks with Lewinsky. “I couldn’t do that,” Tripp replied, according to Goldberg. If you don’t, Goldberg said, “the White House will eat you alive.” Tripp began the taping.

When her world exploded last week, Tripp needed more than a friend. She found a willing lawyer in James Moody, a specialist in, of all things, farm regulations. But he is no backwater attorney. In fact, his involvement may signal that Tripp has been building strong ties to the conservative community over the past few months. Moody came highly recommended by George Conway, a conservative lawyer who was instrumental in writing the brief that resulted in the 9-0 Supreme Court decision in favor of Paula Jones. Still, Conway denied last week that he ever met Tripp or Goldberg. He told TIME he heard “through the grapevine” that Tripp needed an attorney and made the recommendation. He wouldn’t say to whom.

Tripp already knew Moody from their Bush days (he involved himself in Vice President Dan Quayle’s deregulation crusade). It was Moody who formally set up Tripp’s initial meeting with Whitewater independent counsel Kenneth Starr’s people on Jan. 12. Just a day later, she had a body recorder strapped to her thigh as she sipped coffee with Lewinsky at the Ritz-Carlton in Pentagon City, Va.

After the story broke last week, Tripp mostly kept hidden from view. She telecommuted to the Pentagon from her home and, her face hidden behind glasses and a mane of frosted bangs, emerged only to say she wouldn’t say more. Those who know her say she is too smart to shoot her mouth off to the press.

In the days ahead, Tripp may ponder her own legal culpability. The New York Times reports that Starr granted her immunity, but some of her recordings–those made in Maryland, which requires both parties to consent to taping–may violate state laws beyond Starr’s purview. Indeed, if she wanted the attention that comes with exposing a politician’s faults, she may have got much more of it than she ever sought.

–With reporting by Michael Duffy, Viveca Novak, Elaine Shannon and Michael Weisskopf/Washington and Edward Barnes/New York

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