I write in defense of Saddam Hussein. No, that's too easy. I write in defense of the Iranian mullahs. No, that's too easy, too. Okay, actually I write in defense of Linda Tripp. This is going to be hard.
But necessary. Tripp, after all, is facing trial in Maryland for taping her phone calls with Monica Lewinsky without Lewinsky's permission--two felony counts, would you believe? The question at the moment is not whether Tripp in fact taped Lewinsky--hermits in the Siberian woods know she did--but whether the immunity deal she struck with Ken Starr covered her in Maryland as well. It may well be that Starr, no Perry Mason as we have all come to learn, failed to protect his chief witness. He maintains otherwise. We shall soon see.
But to my mind, the question of immunity is the least of the problems here. More troubling are the indications that Tripp has been selectively prosecuted and that her selection was based on politics. If that's the case--and it sure looks like it--then Linda Tripp, as hard as this is to imagine, may well be the martyr she thinks she is.
It is, of course, impossible to defend what Tripp did. Her taping of Lewinsky was a reprehensible betrayal of her friend and was clearly undertaken for political purposes and personal gain--a book deal. Whatever the reason--her dismissal from her White House job, her exile in the Pentagon, her political ideology or even her personal morality--she was out to get Bill Clinton. She seduced Lewinsky as surely as Clinton did and used her even more callously. This woman is a skunk.
But being a loathsome figure in this affair is not a crime and not cause for prosecution. If it were, we would have to do something about Starr himself, not to mention the gaggle of political figures who waxed indignant about Clinton's affair while they, as it turned out, did not exactly have a clean slate themselves. In this regard, justice and history itself demand that I mention Newt Gingrich, who unfailingly denounced the president for moral and legal transgressions while carrying on his own extramarital affair. For hypocrisy, for sheer gall, Gingrich should be hanged.
Yet it is Tripp who winds up in court, and she does so for a crime that is almost never prosecuted in Maryland. It has been at least a decade since a similar prosecution was attempted, and when one occurred before that is anyone's guess. Suffice it to say that never in my memory--and I used to cover Maryland affairs for The Post--has this crime been prosecuted. Tripp was certainly entitled to think, as she supposedly did, that she was breaking a law no one ever enforced.
Just as the very investigation of the president had its genesis in partisan politics, just as sweet Paula Jones's indignation seemed a touch insincere, just as Keyhole Ken's prosecution smacked of a political posse on the loose (keep on looking until you get something, fellas), so does the prosecution of Tripp suggest an attempt to first punish and then find the appropriate crime. (Sound familiar, Ken?) Not only was Tripp's prosecution demanded by 49 Democratic state legislators but it was moved from the office of a local, but Republican, prosecutor to the office of the state prosecutor, a Democrat by sheer coincidence.
So what? I hear you say. What does it matter who prosecutes Tripp and that such prosecutions are very rare? She's loathsome and guilty anyway. Enough said. Get the rope!
But when rarely invoked laws are used in highly political cases, we should all get a bit nervous. After all, what is being punished here--the surreptitious taping or the use to which it was put? I'd say the latter. Had Tripp taped someone else and put an ad in the paper to confess, no Democratic legislators would have bestirred themselves. Some of them might even have confessed to doing the same thing. I mean, you can never be too careful nowadays--especially in Maryland politics.
This, too, is hypocrisy--the burning of Tripp for sins that others have casually and routinely committed as well. Tripp's behavior was awful--vengeful, meretricious and dishonest. But she remains an individual, no different in that regard from you or me, and now she is up against the state--its power to imprison and, given the cost of lawyers, to impoverish. Her crime is real, the prosecution bogus.
"I'm you," she famously cried on the courthouse steps. Now, finally, she has a point.