Kindred Spirits' Pentagon Bond
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, January 22, 1998; Page A01
They were both exiles from the White House, aides who had worked in the shadow of senior officials, and once their paths crossed in new jobs at the Pentagon, they became fast friends. Linda R. Tripp and Monica Lewinsky seemed an unlikely pair a middle-aged suburban mom and a young college graduate. But they liked to talk and had plenty to say.
Their conversations are now at the heart of the most serious allegations of misconduct ever to beset Bill Clinton's presidency.
And what began as a casual, friendly relationship changed significantly in recent months. According to sources, Tripp, 48, secretly started taping Lewinsky, 24, as she recounted tales of a lengthy sexual relationship she claims to have had with Clinton a liaison he adamantly denied yesterday and his alleged effort to have her lie about it.
Neither woman is talking now. Besieged by reporters outside her home yesterday in Columbia, Md., Tripp, who began working in the White House for President George Bush but stayed on after Clinton arrived, would only say, "I'm a witness in a federal investigation." Lewinsky has denied in an affidavit taken for Paula Jones's sexual harassment case against Clinton that she had a sexual relationship with Clinton.
But the portrait emerging of their close ties to each other and to the Clinton administration is an unusual tale from Washington's anonymous army a story of obscure aides who fax and file at the foot of powerful officials, and suddenly become pivotal figures in an investigation that is seizing the nation's attention.
Shortly after graduating from college in Oregon in 1995, Lewinsky headed east to serve for a few months as an unpaid, 21-year-old intern at the White House. She rose fast, working first for then-Chief of Staff Leon E. Panetta, then getting hired in the administration's legislative affairs office. But several White House officials said that then-deputy chief of staff Evelyn Lieberman, among others, expressed concern that Lewinsky had developed an apparent crush on Clinton and was overly eager to spend time in his presence. In the spring of 1996, White House officials called the Pentagon looking for a job for Lewinsky, saying that they wanted her out.
She soon landed a $32,700 job as the confidential assistant, with top-secret clearance, to the Pentagon's top spokesman.
By the time Lewinsky arrived at the Pentagon, Tripp had been there for nearly two years. Working in a basement office, she planned military fly-overs for special events and excursions on military bases for influential business and community leaders.
Tripp, too, was a refugee from the Clinton White House, where she had been an administrative aide in the counsel's office. She had worked just outside the late Vincent W. Foster Jr.'s office even brought him lunch on the day he committed suicide. She did not leave her job happily. By her own account, in a deposition to Whitewater investigators, she recalled weeks passing when she had "nothing to do but prepare my resume."
At the Pentagon, even though Lewinsky and Tripp worked on separate floors and had different chores, they worked in the same department, and co-workers said yesterday that despite their different backgrounds, they often seemed to be kindred spirits two effusive women in a sea of drab uniforms and stoic military demeanors.
Some colleagues said that Lewinsky had a habit of mulling about her personal life aloud, not only to Tripp but to others. One co-worker recalled an incident in a Pentagon hallway in which Lewinsky stopped her and confided that on an overseas trip she had had a liaison with a high-ranking Pentagon official, whom she named, and then asked for advice because she liked him but he had stopped calling her.
That official, contacted at home yesterday by The Washington Post, said that "under the circumstances" he could not discuss the matter.
Although Pentagon officials said yesterday that Lewinsky was well-liked and often worked quite hard one arduous task she had was transcribing remarks Defense Secretary William S. Cohen made on overseas trips they acknowledged that at times she was admonished for spending too much time on personal calls.
Some of her colleagues also said she occasionally sent sexually explicit jokes around the office through electronic mail, a gesture that offended some of them. One co-worker of Lewinsky's also recalled how she had proudly flaunted a photograph of her and Clinton that had been taken at a White House Christmas party.
But others at the Pentagon said Lewinsky's conduct often just seemed youthful and hardly cause for alarm. "I was astounded by the news," said one high-ranking military official. "She's a hard-working kid. We kind of took a big brother approach."
Lewinsky comes from a successful, affluent family. Her mother is an author, and her father is a doctor. Her parents are divorced, but the family has an apartment in the Watergate. Calls there were not answered yesterday. In 1996, Lewinsky and her mother gave $1,250 to the Democratic National Committee.
Lewinsky's last day of work at the Pentagon was the day after Christmas.
Kenneth Bacon, her former boss at the Pentagon, who is traveling with Cohen in Seoul, South Korea, told reporters yesterday that she left because "she wanted to move to New York, and that she decided that she felt in the long run she would be more comfortable in corporate public relations."
Lewinsky had started this year anticipating getting a job at a New York public relations firm, Burson-Marsteller. Three sources at the firm said that she interviewed there in late December. Two sources there said that Vernon E. Jordan Jr., a close Clinton friend, helped arrange the interview for her. She will not be offered a job.
Tripp, meanwhile, is a veteran civil servant. As the former wife of a military colonel they divorced in 1992 she had traveled extensively and was a popular aide in the Bush White House, which she joined in 1990.
Two executive assistants to former White House chief of staff Samuel K. Skinner, for whom Tripp once worked, remembered her yesterday as a "secretarial floater" assigned to handle phones and administrative tasks in various offices when extra help was needed.
"She was bright and fun and had good common sense," said Susan Slye, who was an executive assistant to Skinner. Slye called Tripp "a good empathetic listener I am not at all surprised that people would confide in her."
Maralyn Marseller, another Skinner aide, called Tripp "somebody we trusted a lot . . . but nobody would want to mess with her. She would stand up for herself."
A source who spoke with Tripp during the time that she allegedly taped conversations with Lewinsky said that she began doing that secretly "because she was very scared of losing her civil service job." The source said that Tripp's motivation was personal, and not rooted in a partisan hatred of Clinton. In Howard County, Tripp is registered as a political independent. The source said that when Clinton attorney Robert S. Bennett "started moving to discredit her, she decided she better cover herself."
Last summer, after Tripp spoke to Newsweek in an article about an alleged sexual encounter between Clinton and another former White House employee, Kathleen Willey, Bennett publicly questioned Tripp's credibility.
Tripp has been questioned by the independent counsel and Senate investigators about Foster's suicide and the Whitewater affair. In those proceedings, it was revealed that she had exchanged e-mail messages with an aide to Foster, Deborah Gorham, that criticized how Nussbaum had handled documents from Foster's office after his suicide.
But a congressional official familiar with accounts that Tripp has given for the Whitewater investigation said yesterday that at times, she frustrated Republican lawmakers because she did not deliver more politically explosive material.
"She did not come across as someone who was a Clinton basher," the official said. "She would always low-ball everything she was asked about, not exaggerate it. My impression is that she was reluctant even to be in the situation."
Still, at the Pentagon, several colleagues recalled that when Tripp arrived there she boasted that she had been transferred from the White House because "she knew too much about Whitewater."
In a deposition that she gave two years ago, Tripp spoke with some surprise about even joining the Clinton White House. She said that an aide to Bush had recommended her to Clinton's transition team. For several months after Clinton's inauguration, she worked alongside a team of aides supervised by Bruce Lindsey, one of the president's closest advisers. Once the transition was mostly complete, Tripp moved to the White House counsel's office, where she worked directly for Bernard Nussbaum, and at times for his deputy, Vincent Foster. But after Foster's suicide and Nussbaum's departure, Lloyd N. Cutler took the job and brought his own aides along, leaving Tripp with little to do.
She described that time in an account to Whitewater investigators in the Senate: "But I was roleless [sic] in my opinion. There was an empty desk . . . where I sat and basically did nothing but prepare my resume for quite some time, for weeks. . . ."
While Tripp was leaving the White House, Lewinsky was still in college. She graduated in the spring of 1995 from Lewis and Clark College, a small liberal arts institution in Portland, Ore., with a degree in psychology and headed straight for a new life in Washington.
Staff writers Ceci Connolly, Judith Havemann, Susan Glasser and David Segal contributed to this report.
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