The scandal unfolded with Linda Tripp's tape recorder, so perhaps it was inevitable that it would end with it as well.
On Dec. 22, 1997, Tripp's RadioShack machine was whirring away in her Columbia home as she prophesied the end of her friendship with Monica Lewinsky. "I feel like I'm sticking a knife in your back," Tripp told Lewinsky in one of their endless phone calls. "And I know at the end of this, if I have to go forward, you will never speak to me again."
The tape Tripp secretly made that day was one of dozens of phone calls in which she recorded Lewinsky's angst over her affair with President Clinton. But yesterday, long after the political soap opera that resulted in Clinton's impeachment was supposed to be over, the Dec. 22 tape was the one that came back to haunt Tripp.
A Howard County grand jury indicted her on charges that she illegally taped Lewinsky without her consent. The prosecutor cited only this particular phone call, the one where Lewinsky tells Tripp, "I have lied my entire life." In an irony sure to please Tripp's many detractors, Lewinsky's lying has produced not a single criminal charge. Tripp's taping now has.
The transcript of the call runs to 68 pages. In it, Tripp cries. She lectures. She plots a foot operation to avoid testimony in the Paula Jones case. She eats a truffle. And she lies--outrageously, at times--as she listens to Lewinsky puzzle over why the Jones lawyers seemed to know details about her affair with Clinton.
By then, of course, Tripp was already the secret informer for the Jones team--the back-stabbing she threatened had already been done. Within a few weeks, Tripp would go to independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr and trigger the investigation that led to Clinton's impeachment. She had to, Tripp told Starr. After all, she was being urged by Lewinsky to commit a felony, to lie under oath.
Unwittingly, of course, Tripp was also giving rise to another, much diminished trial of the century. Six months ago, a weary Senate acquitted Clinton of the charges that he lied under oath and obstructed justice to conceal his affair with Lewinsky. Now, l'affaire Lewinsky will be re-litigated, and some of its main players reunited, this time over the seemingly narrow questions of what Tripp knew about Maryland's wiretapping law and when she knew it.
"It seems like farce the second time around," said Jonah Goldberg, one of the many bit players made briefly famous by the Tripp tapes. It was in Goldberg's Adams-Morgan apartment that an early batch of the tapes was first played. He listened with his mother, anti-Clinton provocateur Lucianne Goldberg, who first urged Tripp to make them. Yesterday the sound trucks were back outside Goldberg's New York apartment, and the cable shows were calling again.
Everyone else is getting over it, or at least trying to. President Clinton was in Bosnia yesterday to chart the postwar progress, getting to be a statesman again. Lewinsky, after an international book tour, pops up only occasionally in the gossip columns. Vernon Jordan still plays golf with the president, though he is possibly less willing to give job help to former interns.
But Tripp, the woman who served White House lawyer Vince Foster his last cheeseburger and never stopped testifying about the Clinton administration's misdeeds after that, remains in scandal limbo. She has no book contract. There are no testimonial dinners celebrating her courage. Even the conservatives don't fete her; their heroes are the House managers who prosecuted Clinton, not the Pentagon functionary who told his secret.
She still has a $90,000-a-year Pentagon job, though her new assignment as public affairs officer for the Defense Manpower Data Center is hardly glamorous. Her kids--24-year-old Ryan and 20-year-old Allison--have stuck by her, even penning anti-Clinton screeds in this month's issue of George magazine to defend their mother's honor.
And yet there is no revisionist school of thought on Tripp. Her image is indelible--the false friend, the tattletale, the "Saturday Night Live" caricature and cruel gibes about her appearance.
Tripp has all but given up speaking in her own defense. She had one, and only one, news conference--almost a year to the day before her fate was being weighed by the Maryland grand jury. It went badly.
"I am you," she declared to America as she emerged from Starr's grand jury. "I'm an average American who found herself in a situation not of her own making." Many months later, doing a round of interviews after Clinton's acquittal and Lewinsky's book, Tripp told an interviewer that she regretted the phrase.
Not surprisingly, Tripp herself was silent yesterday. Her Pentagon bosses reported her out "sick" for the day as her lawyers tried to put the best face on their case, deeming her a "whistleblower" unfairly prosecuted for taking on the president. Her friend and spokesman Phil Coughter told reporters that the indictment was "disgraceful, transparent and politically motivated." He didn't say how Tripp felt, whether pressing the Record button that day in December 1997 was still worth it.
But Tripp has already answered that question. Offered the chance by an NBC interviewer to apologize, Tripp declined. She wasn't saying she was sorry. Not to Lewinsky. Not to Clinton.
"And yes," she told NBC, "I would do it again."