Linda Tripp: ‘It’s a Day Late, and It’s a Dollar Short’
Monica Lewinsky’s confidante has a lot to say to the women who have finally acknowledged that Bill Clinton is a sexual predator.
As the reckoning over sexual abuse finally reaches Bill Clinton, with handwringing by some of his former defenders in the press and in politics, one Clinton White House veteran is following developments with particular interest—and a large measure of skepticism.
“It’s a day late, and it’s a dollar short,” says Linda Tripp, who, 20 years ago, was thrust into the center of the sex scandal that led to Clinton’s impeachment. It was Tripp who revealed the president’s sexual relationship with a 21-year-old White House intern and, for her troubles, was painted as the villain of the sordid episode.
Tripp has a quiet life in Northern Virginia horse country, avoiding the public attention that was so unwelcome in the late 1990s. But the unending flow of headlines about the bad behavior of powerful men, she says, “is forcing me to relive a lot of it.” She’s unconvinced by recent calls in the press for Clinton’s deeds to be reconsidered in a more critical light. “They have nothing to lose, and this is now permissible,” she says. “The fact that the Clintons are dead in the water gives [the media] tacit approval to act like human beings. . . . It’s disingenuous.”
She finds it particularly galling to hear former Clinton defenders attributing their latter-day awakening to evolving social mores. In a November 16 interview with the New York Times, New York senator Kirsten Gillibrand said that she now believes that Bill Clinton should have resigned because of his relationship with Monica Lewinsky. “Things have changed,” she said.
“What information do they have at their fingertips today that they didn’t have 20 years ago?” Tripp asks. “What information has changed?”
There were people back then—Linda Tripp, for instance—who reflexively knew that when a president of the United States repeatedly summons a star-struck young White House intern to sexually service him, it is more than a private romantic dalliance. “I’m so weary of hearing that society’s mores have changed,” she says, “when I knew that this was an abuse of, essentially, a kid.”
When the Clintons moved into the White House in 1993, Tripp was already there, a career civil servant. A divorced mother of two teenagers, Tripp was known for strait-laced efficiency and a person with no discernible politics but who openly admired the old-school patriotism she had seen as a secretary in the George H.W. Bush White House. This made her an imperfect fit with the freewheeling Clintons, although she was, as executive assistant to Clinton’s chief counsel, located near the very seat of power (her workspace was, for a time, adjacent to Hillary’s, and she brought deputy counsel Vince Foster what turned out to be his last meal on the day he committed suicide).
The more Tripp saw of the Clinton administration, the more uncomfortable she became. She thought that the personnel in the White House travel and correspondence offices were shabbily treated, and what she saw and heard about the president’s libidinous impulses appalled her. “The housekeeping staff was afraid to bend over in his presence,” she says. Tripp’s discomfort must have been obvious, as in August 1994 she was transferred to the public affairs office of the Pentagon.
Twenty months later, in April 1996, another White House staffer whose presence had become problematic was transferred to the Pentagon: Monica Lewinsky joined Tripp in the basement offices of the public affairs staff. The two women, though separated in age by 24 years, became close. Lewinsky had man troubles, and Tripp, whose own children were not much younger than Lewinsky, has a den-mother’s nature. “It was construed as a friendship between two girls, which it never was,” Tripp says now. “I always felt like the mother.”
By summer, Lewinsky was confiding to Tripp about her relationship with Clinton, in jarring detail. The stories only confirmed the impression Tripp had formed of the president. While still working at the White House, she had once seen a woman, Kathleen Willey, leaving the Oval Office flustered and slightly disheveled—Willey later told Tripp that Clinton had groped her. “He is a predator, by pattern,” Tripp says today. She began to construct a record of Lewinsky’s story, secretly recording hours of their telephone conversations. Believing that Clinton needed to be held accountable, she sought the counsel of Tony Snow, a friend from Bush White House days, who urged her to write a book and put her in touch with the conservative literary agent Lucianne Goldberg. But Tripp decided against writing a tell-all, opting instead for what she considered the honorable option—becoming a whistleblower.
Tripp shared her information with lawyers for Paula Jones, a woman from Clinton’s Arkansas past who was suing him for sexual harassment, and then with the special counsel investigating the Whitewater scandals, Kenneth Starr. She assumed that when the Lewinsky information became public, most people would share her assessment of Clinton’s behavior. It was a reasonable assumption. “If he’s not telling the truth, he’s done,” ABC’s Sam Donaldson said in the early days of the Lewinsky scandal in 1998.
But Donaldson, like Tripp and many others, underestimated the ability of the Clintons and their enablers to seize the narrative and to fashion from damning facts a defense.
The Clinton team’s first strategy was to attack Lewinsky. Sidney Blumenthal, the former journalist and trusted confidant of Hillary Clinton, arranged a lunch with his friend the writer Christopher Hitchens in the hope of convincing him that Lewinsky was an unstable stalker. Appalled by the effort by the president and his team of smear artists, Hitchens filed an affidavit testifying to Blumenthal’s effort. But the whispering campaign was hardly subtle. It was widely enough known that Maureen Dowd wrote a New York Times column headlined “Liberties: The Slander Strategy.”
“Inside the White House, the debate goes on about the best way to destroy That Woman, as the President called Monica Lewinsky,” Dowd wrote. “Should they paint her as a friendly fantasist or a malicious stalker?” There were limits for even the most ardent Clinton supporters, though, Dowd noted: “At least some of the veteran Clinton shooters feel a little nauseated this time around, after smearing so many women who were probably telling the truth as trashy bimbos.”
The strategy changed. The Lewinsky relationship was next a consensual affair between adults and a matter properly resolved within the privacy of the Clinton marriage.
“It was neither of those things,” Tripp says. “It was not consensual, and it was not an affair. It was a servicing agreement on his part. She was a kid. She may have been 22 and had a voluptuous body and was misguided in her choices, but emotionally, she was 15—a groupie. It reminded me of myself with the Beatles and the Dave Clark Five in the early ’60s. That same obsession. To say that Monica Lewinsky was a woman at that point in her life was a stretch beyond comprehension.”
The record would seem to support Tripp’s assessment of the relationship. Lewinsky’s grand jury appearance revealed that between November 1995 and March 1997, she met the president furtively in a hallway, a bathroom, and, once, while he talked on the phone with a member of Congress. They had six sexual encounters before they shared any meaningful conversation. “I asked him why he doesn’t ask me any questions about myself,” she said, “and . . . is this just about sex . . . or do you have some interest in trying to get to know me as a person?”
Hillary Clinton next shifted the narrative with a memorable appearance on NBC’s Today show in January 1998, where she blamed the president’s troubles on a “vast right-wing conspiracy.” The Lewinsky matter thus became a partisan political attack, with the real wrongdoing perpetrated by Republicans. When that narrative took hold, Tripp lost purchase on any claim as a straitlaced whistleblower. She became the prying, traitorous villain of a sordid story, an assessment neatly summed by Lewinsky herself at the conclusion of her grand jury testimony, when she said, “I hate Linda Tripp.”
Tripp says she has not spoken to Lewinsky in all these years but understands why she felt as she did. “Monica absolutely had to be seen, not just to others, but also to herself, as a bona fide girlfriend,” Tripp says. “She could not be seen as an orifice or a party to a situation where you call in someone for servicing and send them on their merry way.”
Still, Tripp remembers being stunned by the vilification directed at herself. She received death threats at the height of the scandal, prompting a move to a safe house. Her character was assassinated over and over, as was her appearance. Saturday Night Live had a running sketch in which John Goodman played her as a fat, prying busybody who casually betrays a friendship while gorging on junk food.
Tripp was fired from her Pentagon job on the last day of the Clinton administration. She sued the government, won a settlement, and then set out to start a new life.
She wanted, literally, to become a different Linda Tripp. She had two plastic surgeries and lost the weight she’d gained by stress eating during the scandal. She married a friend from childhood, the architect Dieter Rausch, and they took up the country life in Loudoun County, Virginia. They opened a specialty shop in Middleburg, a high-end holiday store called the Christmas Sleigh. She has avoided the press for most of the last 20 years, though the calls keep coming—“at least once a week.” The telephone at her store goes straight to voicemail, and her staff screens her emails, discarding most.
She decided to speak publicly about the renewed interest in Clinton’s sex scandals, and her role in one of them, because of something that happened during a recent visit to her son’s family. The subject of Lewinsky came up, and her daughter-in-law urged her to resist talking publicly about the Clintons. “She said—and this was very, very painful to hear—that she didn’t want her own children to be defined by their last name.”
Tripp says she doesn’t expect that the current rush to reconsider Clinton’s behavior will extend to her and her motives. “I’ll still be the evil witch,” she says. “You know, you can’t unring that bell.”
But she says that she is wholly comfortable with the role she played in the Lewinsky matter. And she repeated what she told her daughter-in-law: “I said I did the right thing. I may have done the right thing the wrong way, but I did the right thing. And I would do it again.”
Peter J. Boyer