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In Linda Tripp's Career, Clues to Her Motivation

By Rene Sanchez
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, January 25, 1998; A20

She arrived at the Clinton White House as a holdover from President George Bush's staff, a divorced middle-aged mother who needed to keep the paychecks coming, a civil servant who seemed to live by the Washington creed of following orders with strict discretion.

It was the spring of 1993, and Linda Rose Tripp was just another face in the crowd at the White House, dutifully tending to her new administrative tasks. She stirred no controversy. She seemed to lack strong political views. She had few enemies.

In fact, at first glance, there appears to be little in Tripp's obscure career as a government aide that distinctly foreshadows the three extraordinary moves she has made in recent months and days: First, to spend 20 hours secretly taping her distraught young colleague Monica Lewinsky as she detailed an alleged affair with President Clinton. Then to take what she had to Kenneth W. Starr, the independent counsel investigating Clinton. Then to serve as the catalyst in a government sting to gather Lewinsky's allegations, which are now threatening Clinton's presidency more than any previous charge of misconduct.

But a closer examination of Tripp's life, and interviews with dozens of her friends and current and former colleagues, offer revealing clues as to what led this longtime government worker with a secure, well-paying job to take the rare step in Washington of risking all of it in an attempt to expose a president's alleged wrongdoing.

In the judgment of some who know Tripp, it was not a decision that the 48-year-old woman made impulsively, or for any idealistic motive. Rather, they call it the culmination of years of her gradually increasing contempt for Clinton, of her growing ties to conservative activists waging political war against him, and, in the end, her desperation to protect herself from becoming a target of Starr's broad inquiry.

"She was fed up," Lucianne Goldberg, a New York book agent and friend of Tripp's, told reporters yesterday. "And she felt very, very threatened."

Disdain for the New President


Small but revealing signs of Tripp's emerging disdain for Clinton, and for how some of his senior advisers ran the White House, were evident soon after he took office.

As she watched the tumultuous first months of Clinton's term unfold from a front-row seat in the White House counsel's office, where she worked as an aide, Tripp began to complain, quietly. Friends and former colleagues recall her expressing dismay when career civil servants much like her were ousted from the White House travel office and replaced by Clinton political allies from Arkansas. Some say she spoke with irritation about what she described as Clinton's roving eye toward young women on the staff, as well as by the casual attire and carefree spirit of so many of the new paper-pushing troops.

It all seemed a far cry from the more formal, reserved atmosphere that she had grown accustomed to during her two-year stint as an aide in the Bush White House, or during the many years she had spent before that as a globe-trotting aide, with top secret security clearance, for the military.

"The Linda Tripp I knew was old school, someone with old-fashioned values," said Tony Snow, a conservative commentator who worked closely with her when he was a Bush speechwriter and she was an assistant in the White House's media office. On her resume, Tripp boasts that during that time one of her assignments was to ghostwrite opinion pieces supporting the controversial nomination of Clarence Thomas to the Supreme Court.

Even with growing misgivings about Clinton, Tripp kept working and kept quiet. She soon earned a promotion to be an assistant to then-White House Counsel Bernard Nussbaum, and was clearly a trusted figure among the many aides who toil in the inner circle. She was even assigned to photocopy all of the Clintons' tax records.

But after Nussbaum's deputy, Vincent Foster, committed suicide in July of 1993, Tripp's friends say her attitude distinctively soured.

The same woman who had regaled old classmates that year at her 25th high school reunion in Morristown, N.J., with exuberant tales of White House work -- she even promised to give them special tours if they ever came to Washington -- was now telling some friends and colleagues how disturbed she was with the response of top officials there to the death of Foster, a man for whom she occasionally worked and apparently liked.

Long known as someone who tends to speak bluntly, Tripp could not totally conceal her contempt. In e-mail messages she sent at that time to a co-worker, she strongly criticized how documents from his office had been handled in the chaotic aftermath of that tragedy, deriding several White House lawyers as "the three stooges."

Last Months in the White House


But Tripp was hardly regarded as an obvious, rabid Clinton-hater -- she is registered as a political independent in Howard County, Md. Nor is she described as a deeply embittered worker. Some senior White House officials say they hardly even remember her. Others say they viewed her mostly as a chain-smoking government veteran who kept her politics to herself.

Tripp would continue in her White House job for another year, but her last months in the White House were not pleasant.

Her boss, Nussbaum, resigned as counsel and was replaced by Lloyd Cutler, who brought in his own support staff. Tripp has said she was given very little to do. She began to spend most of her time at work merely polishing her resume. During that period, she also agreed to have a fateful meeting, arranged by Snow, with Goldberg, the literary agent in New York who was scouring the capital for sources for a potential book about Foster.

Goldberg is a harsh Clinton critic. In the early 1970s, in an attempt to gather information for political operatives of Richard Nixon, she had posed as a magazine writer on the campaign plane of Democratic presidential candidate George McGovern. Goldberg, who would eventually persuade Tripp to secretly tape Lewinsky's allegations, recalls that Tripp was "bored and angry" with her fading role at the White House.

She had even begun sketching a plan to write her own book about Foster's demise, which she outlined to Goldberg when the two of them first met. But Goldberg said the idea was abandoned because Tripp, still the cautious civil servant, was not prepared to come forth with many sensational allegations.

"It was about life in the general counsel's office. It wasn't about sex," Goldberg said of Tripp's book proposal. "It said, 'I was the last person to see him.' It wasn't even anti-Clinton."

But Tripp's attorney, James Moody, said in an interview yesterday that in a book outline he saw, Tripp expressed interest in writing about reputed liaisons that Clinton had with women.

Since Tripp is secluded inside her Columbia home, refusing all interview requests, her motivation for eventually deciding to take the far more extraordinary step to imperil Clinton than a tell-all book remains a mystery, one that her friends and colleagues are still trying to unravel.

"Linda doesn't seem like the kind of person who would dream this up," said Warren Casey, an attorney in New Jersey who graduated from high school with Tripp and has kept in touch with her over the years. "She seemed quite proud of her White House service. She is not a wallflower, not by any means, but I don't think she's vindictive, either."

Tripp came to the Bush White House in April 1990 with the help of Ellen Strichartz, one of her neighbors and a longtime executive assistant there. It had been a difficult time for Tripp: Her marriage of nearly 20 years was ending, she was raising two teenage children and she was uninspired by her current job as Army stenographer. She began working as a low-level secretary at the White House, floating from one office to the next, but she eventually earned a permanent spot as an administrative aide.

During the Bush years, Tripp also became acquainted with Gary Aldrich, a former FBI agent who worked in the White House at the same time as she did, and who has become a hero to some of Clinton's most fervent critics. In 1996, Aldrich wrote a book, widely discredited, that described Clinton as a womanizer and that also drew a sordid portrait of his White House. Aldrich said in an interview yesterday that he and Tripp often crossed paths in the White House during the Bush and Clinton administrations. Like him, Aldrich said Tripp was "shocked" by the new culture in the White House after Clinton took office, but took great care to conceal her attitude.

"She didn't want to be a troublemaker," Aldrich said. "She was happy that they hadn't fired her after Bush left because she need the money. She had two kids to feed."

At the Pentagon, a New Acquaintance


But by the time she was transferred in August 1994 to the Pentagon, where she still works as an aide in its public affairs department, Tripp had become more vocal. In a deposition she gave to Whitewater investigators, she suggests that she was forced out of the White House. At the Pentagon, several colleagues recall her saying that she had been exiled there because "she knew too much about Whitewater." Some Clinton officials, meanwhile, began to suspect she was a leak -- perhaps even a key source for Aldrich's book. Aldrich denies it.

At the Pentagon, Tripp worked in a cluttered basement office, in a job that friends say she did not want.

It appeared to be a rather mundane life: Tripp commuted to work at the Pentagon from distant Howard County in a tattered Chrysler minivan, and spent her time organizing an annual tour that influential civic leaders made of military bases across the nation. She was far removed from the White House intrigue that some friends say she relished.

Two years after she arrived at the Pentagon, in the fall of 1996, Tripp struck up a casual friendship at the office with a new arrival: Lewinsky, who also had been exiled from the White House to the public affairs department of the Pentagon. Co-workers say the two women soon began trading gossip.

Last fall, Tripp made a remarkable choice for a civil servant who had worked in sensitive government posts since 1972, when she was only four years out of high school, and who was now earning more than $80,000 -- nearly twice what her salary had been at the White House. She spoke publicly to Newsweek about an alleged sexual encounter Clinton had in late 1993 with one of his supporters, a woman named Kathleen Willey.

Newsweek quoted Tripp as saying that Willey emerged from a meeting in Clinton's office "disheveled. Her face was red and her lipstick was off. She was flustered, happy and joyful." After that account was published, Clinton's attorney, Robert Bennett, denounced the report as untrue and said that Tripp "is not to be believed."

Friends say that made Tripp furious. It was the last straw -- and it set into motion the crisis that now has Clinton's presidency under siege.

Staff writers Judith Havemann, Howard Kurtz, Dana Priest, Susan Schmidt, David Streitfeld, Paul Valentine and Scott Wilson contributed to this report.

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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