Tripp Talks Back to Her Critics
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, July 30, 1998; Page A01
Linda R. Tripp, portrayed for months as a manipulator, unfaithful friend and mystery woman in a scandal reaching into the Oval Office, spoke out for the first time yesterday to depict herself as an "average American" without political motive who has been "vilified for taking the path of truth."
Standing before a bank of microphones and cameras in the late afternoon sun of a muggy summer day, she lashed out at the president's lawyer for calling her a liar. At her Pentagon bosses for releasing personal information about her. At Hollywood entertainers for turning her looks into a staple of late-night television humor.
"I understand there has been a great deal of speculation about just who I am and how I got here," Tripp said outside the federal courthouse after concluding her eighth, and last, day of testimony before a grand jury exploring President Clinton's relationship with Monica S. Lewinsky. "Let me answer you simply -- I'm you. I'm just like you," she said, grasping -- businesslike -- a sheaf of typed remarks in one hand and a gray pen in the other. "I'm an average American who found herself in a situation not of her own making."
Tripp, like Lewinsky, has been a central but furtive figure in the investigation, photographed leaving her house, entering the courthouse. She created her own Web site and defense fund, but until yesterday had never publicly told her story.
Of the more than 50 witnesses who have appeared before the grand jury, Tripp testified the longest and is among the most crucial figures because she is the woman who secretly tape-recorded a series of conversations with her young friend, and then brought the tapes to independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr.
Tripp's motives for doing so have never been clear. Yesterday, she suggested what her allies have said before: that she began taping Lewinsky after President Clinton's lawyer accused her of lying to Newsweek magazine last summer about a presidential encounter with another woman. But Tripp's statement yesterday did not acknowledge she had made the tapes -- nor did it address how she became such close friends with Lewinsky.
Instead, themes were similar to those she struck in a telephone interview with The Washington Post, her only other public statement. In that 20-minute interview, on the eve of her first grand jury appearance June 30, Tripp also described herself as an ordinary woman who found herself caught up in -- and wounded by -- extraordinary events that she did not invite.
"It is difficult to get in and out of the house, difficult to conduct life as a normal citizen and a mom," she said in the earlier interview.
Yesterday, she called herself a "suburban mom who was a military wife for 20 years and a faithful government employee for 18 years.
"I never, ever asked to be placed in this position."
According to sources close to Tripp, she was reluctant to make a public statement and agreed to do so only at the prodding of her lawyers, who advised her that she needed to try to shape her own image if she wanted to return to a normal existence.
Although she portrayed herself as an innocent bystander, Tripp has repeatedly ended up at unusual junctures in a series of problems that have vexed the Clinton White House.
She arrived at the White House during the Bush administration as a secretary and stayed on after Clinton took office.
Tripp has said she was one of the last people who saw deputy White House counsel Vincent W. Foster Jr., before he committed suicide in 1994. She later was questioned by Starr and gave a deposition in a Senate investigation regarding the aftermath of Foster's death.
She also appeared before a Whitewater grand jury investigating the firing of employees in the White House travel office. Later, she circulated a proposal for an "insider" book about the Clinton White House. The book was never written but the New York literary agent she went to about it, Lucianne Goldberg, went on to become a close friend. Last fall, it was Goldberg who suggested Tripp tape her conversations with Lewinsky.
It was at the Pentagon's public affairs office, where Tripp was transferred in the summer of 1994, that Tripp met Lewinsky, who also had been transferred there from the White House. Lewinsky, who had a habit of befriending older women, turned to Tripp as a confidante.
In the telephone conversations that Tripp taped last fall, Lewinsky spoke repeatedly of an alleged relationship with Clinton, often in agonizing terms. In January, Lewinsky also gave Tripp a set of "talking points," a three-page memo in which she suggested that Tripp change her testimony in the now-dismissed Paula Jones sexual harassment case, about her knowledge of another woman Clinton is alleged to have groped near the Oval Office, Kathleen E. Willey.
By the time Tripp appeared outside the courthouse yesterday, she had spent far longer before the grand jury than any other witness. But as she read her 10-minute statement, taking no questions from reporters, she divulged just one aspect of what she had told the jurors. She said she had testified that she "had nothing -- let me repeat nothing -- to do with preparing the so-called talking points." Sources said this week that Lewinsky has agreed to testify that she wrote them herself after talking with attorneys.
In fact, Tripp referred to Lewinsky only once. Calling her by her first name, she said she was "encouraged" that her former friend "has decided to cooperate with the independent counsel. The fact is that, time after time, I urged her to tell the truth right up until the end."
Tripp did not overtly mention the tape-recordings, which remain the subject of an investigation by Maryland State Prosecutor Stephen Montanarelli into whether they were made illegally.
Instead, she dwelled on herself -- her identity, her motives, and the harsh effect the investigation has had on her children, Ryan and Allison, young adults who stood behind her as she spoke. Yet though she has been "maligned" by the president's allies, she said has had "no malice."
"I believe in our country. . . . " she said. "I believe you have the right to tell the truth under oath."
Staff writer Susan Schmidt contributed to this report.
© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company