Clinton and the Intern
Issue of February 2, 1998
Over the phone, the two women are talking about sex and its consequences. Night after night, for months on end, they have talked of little else. One of the women, the younger one, sounds like a neurotic, slightly spoiled Valley Girl. The older one, who speaks with a smoker's rasp, is insistent and domineering. On this particular night in December 1997, just before Christmas, both women sound very scared.
They have just been subpoenaed in the case of Jones v. Clinton. The two women know that they may be compelled to testify under oath about the topic that has been, up until now, mere gossip. What was titillating is now deeply threatening. The older woman, Linda Tripp, is urging the younger woman, Monica Lewinsky, to tell all about her relationship with the man they refer to as "the big he" and "the creep." But Lewinsky is resisting, hoping, somewhat plaintively, that she won't get caught. "Nobody saw him give me any of those things and nobody saw anything happen between us," says Lewinsky. "Are you positive that nobody saw you in the study?" asks Tripp. "I'm absolutely positive," says Lewinsky. "How about Betty?" presses Tripp. "Nobody saw him give me that thing," says Lewinsky.
Tripp pushes Lewinsky on another front: "He knows you're going to lie, you've told him, haven't you?"
"No," Lewinsky replies.
Tripp: I thought that night when he called you, you established that much.
Lewinsky: Well, I don't know.
Tripp: Jesus, well, does he think you're going to tell the truth?
Lewinsky: No... Oh, Jesus.
It is clear from this conversation, which was secretly taped by Tripp, that the "big he" is President Clinton ("Betty" is Betty Currie, the president's personal assistant). But what is "that thing" that Clinton supposedly gave Lewinsky? What, if anything, "happened" between Lewinsky and Clinton when they were in "the study" the president's private study off the Oval Office? And most important, did Clinton tell Lewinsky to lie?
Getting the answers to these questions may take months, and the whole truth may never be known. Nonetheless, it is possible to reconstruct the extraordinary events that led to this phone call, a tape of which was listened to by Newsweek reporters and editors. In one sense, the story is about the workings of the modern Washington scandal machine, but the underlying themes, of hubris and betrayal, are timeless. The motivations of the key participants including Newsweek magazine, which played a minor but real role in the unfolding drama merit scrutiny.
On Nov. 6, 1996, Bill Clinton returned in triumph to a roaring rally at the White House. He had just been re-elected president by a wide margin, the first Democrat since Franklin D. Roosevelt to win a second term. He had survived the media, which had dismissed him as irrelevant; the Republican Revolution, which had seized control of Congress in 1994, and his own propensity for scandal and brinkmanship. Or so it seemed. But look closely at those video clips of Clinton working the rope line at the homecoming on that bright autumn day. There is a flirty girl in a beret, gazing a little too adoringly at the president who in turn gives her a hug that is just a bit too familiar. The young woman, we now know, was Monica Lewinsky. She understood the potential for trouble in that picture. A year later, while she and Tripp were discussing evidence that might ruin them, they were still talking about it. "Flipping amazing," says Tripp, on one of the recordings she made that Newsweek listened to.
Amazing, all right. Also amazing: the special prosecutor's tape of Lewinsky saying that the president's friend and informal adviser, Vernon Jordan, suggested that she be quiet about her alleged affair with Clinton. The reports that Lewinsky kept a dress, streaked with semen, as a souvenir of the president. The tape on which Monica says they aren't really having sex because there is "no penetration."
The White House had vertigo last week. Clinton creates profound insecurity in those who serve him. Are there any more old girlfriends/one-night stands/summer interns waiting to make their debuts? No one at the White House was willing to bet that some new shocker would not emerge from Clinton's past, though it would be hard to top the sex-and-betrayal saga set in motion last week.
The plot twists are serpentine. In particular, Linda Tripp is a character for the ages by turns nosy, shrewd, principled, conniving, cynical and moralistic. Why did she tape her young friend's most intimate confessions? To protect herself, she says, but the conspiracy theorists are already looking for more nefarious motives. Tripp had been a bit player in the Vincent Foster suicide investigation; she is certainly ubiquitous in the story that follows. "She's like Forrest Gump," says a former Bush White House aide. "Time and again, she keeps showing up in the middle of these things. It's like, she's everywhere." She was there for Monica Lewinsky, but not in quite the way Lewinsky had hoped.
© Copyright 1998 Newsweek