Tripp's Tapes: Listening in on a Betrayal
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, November 18, 1998; Page A1
Unheard, the tapes were paper evidence and tabloid trash, a prosecutor's bonanza and a voyeuristic plunge into matters of ultimate privacy.
Yesterday, the 22 hours of chatter between Monica Lewinsky and Linda Tripp became both more familiar and more shocking – a sighing, giggling, sobbing soundscape of the American night, and a breathtaking study in betrayal.
The recorded conversations released by the House Judiciary Committee were immediately and endlessly played for a nation that claims to have had enough of these two women. The content of the tapes was anything but new – the transcripts were released more than a month ago. But hearing the voices, hearing Tripp's nasal tones alternately calming and cajoling the higher-pitched Lewinsky, revealed the humanity of two people who had become little more than caricature.
The conversations Tripp secretly taped last fall as she led her erstwhile friend and co-worker through emotional crises over her relationship with President Clinton are steeped in the ambient sounds of suburban life. The TV blares in Tripp's Columbia home, snacks tumble from the fridge, and disjointed conversations flit from the murmurs of soothing friendship to the dark buzz of conspiracy.
"It really feels like the conversation of two longtime women friends, and you have to remind yourself that the stakes are so high," said Kate Wilson, who teaches voice at New York University and coaches actors on Broadway and at Washington's Shakespeare Theater.
After reading the transcripts, Wilson had expected to be able to hear Tripp's guile and Lewinsky's desperation. But when she listened to the tapes, she said, neither was evident. Instead, what the voice coach heard was Tripp's clear dominance over a deeply needy Lewinsky. "Linda always knows when to cut in," Wilson said. "Linda shuts Monica down with all these downward inflections."
Even as she watches baseball, eats a truffle and complains about her cat, Tripp maintains her casual, apparently caring tone whether she's talking about the cost of living in New York or Lewinsky's plan to lie under oath.
Always in control, always the rock to her young friend's emotional quicksand, Tripp sometimes sounds brassy and bold ("I don't cry as easily as you do"), sometimes loving and sympathetic ("I would say to my own daughter . . . ") and sometimes just vulnerable enough to give Lewinsky a boost ("I came home and ate a huge truffle. ... Made myself sick.")
Lewinsky, in contrast, displays a far narrower emotional range, swinging from a shrill, girlish naivete ("My mom doesn't hardly even believe it! I'm so, I am so, like, pulled!") to hyperventilating hysteria, becoming almost incomprehensible as she weeps about her inability to see the man she believes she loves.
Like Harpo Marx, J.D. Salinger and a generation of silent film Lewinsky existed until yesterday as a mute celebrity, an empty vessel into which millions could pour their fantasies and theories. The voice provided a dose of deflating reality.
"A little girl, a teeny-bopper," concluded insurance man Dale Davies as he listened to Lewinsky on TV replays of the tapes at a K Street bar. "I mean, as a professional person, you'd never date somebody who sounds like that. People would look at you funny."
Over at Burger King, lunchtime customers described the Lewinsky they heard for the first time as "a small, anxious voice" and "a dumb girl."
"I always knew she wasn't so smart," said office assistant Tonya Willis. "But you have to hear her to see how dumb she really is."
There were derisive comments about Lewinsky's "Valley Girl" inflection, her sentences that rise like questions, her coos and tee-hees.
But there were also gentler reactions, most of them noting how remarkably young Lewinsky sounded. On TV, pop psychologists deemed her voice "vulnerable" and "sympathetic." And Wilson, the vocal coach, found Lewinsky "honest. When I read the transcripts, I thought no one could say these things. But now you hear, it's not delusional. She believes every word Clinton said to her."
At the White House, where official attention is focused on Thursday's start of the House Judiciary Committee's hearings on impeaching the president, it was considered gauche to tune TVs to the all-Lewinsky channels.
White House spokesman Joe Lockhart dismissed the hubbub, saying, "My guess is that most people around the country won't be paying much attention, but the people who are obsessed with this story, this will just be a day in heaven for them."
Rep. Louise M. Slaughter (D-N.Y.) dismissed the tapes as nothing more than "two ditsy ladies talking about stupid things."
Although that reaction tracked much of the man-on-the-street view, Lewinsky's legions of fans in cyberspace found the 24-year-old's young, often-pained voice both sympathetic and alluring.
"Monica is a very sensitive young girl trapped" in a scandal, said the purveyor of GoMonica.com, one of dozens of Web sites devoted to Lewinsky worship or mockery.
Tripp herself comments at various points on Lewinsky's voice, calling it "cute" and saying it makes her sound like a "little Marilyn Monroe vixen."
Tripp's own voice has been heard in public before, most notably in an emotion-laden vibrato when she emerged from her grand jury testimony to tell the nation that "I am you."
But the tapes reveal a woman who could drop her voice and urge Lewinsky at length and with fervor to save the semen-stained dress that would ultimately be the strongest evidence of her relationship with Clinton. "I'm telling you, I would say it to my own daughter, who would tell me to [expletive] off," Tripp said, her voice both raw with emotion and confident of her position.
As the tapes rolled on Don Imus's nationally syndicated morning talk show, the acerbic announcer interrupted: Tripp "is jerking her chain. It's disgusting, isn't it?"
Tripp's is by far the more nuanced performance. Wilson said the only indication she could hear that Tripp was setting up Lewinsky came in her frequent prefaces to new topics, phrases such as "Okay, about the blue dress. ..."
"Linda's smart enough to use the prefacing to calm Monica down," the voice coach said. "It's what a good actor or lawyer does; she puts forth her thesis first and in a comforting way."
Knowing full well that she was taping every word of their exchanges, Tripp nonetheless repeatedly refers to tapes and even advises Lewinsky, "I'd be careful what I said on the phone."
At another point, Tripp notes that the president "has no clue how . . . lucky he is. I mean, how did he know . . . that you weren't taping his wacko conversation with you at four in the morning?"
Clinton did not know, because he trusted Lewinsky, who trusted Tripp, who hit "record" and chatted through the nights.
© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company