In another season, and another place, far removed from the wintry mob scenes in downtown Washington, the final chapter in the Monica S. Lewinsky saga opened yesterday in a manicured suburban county seat under a hazy summer sun.
None of the famous players were there, not Lewinsky, not Kenneth W. Starr, not Vernon E. Jordan Jr., not even Linda R. Tripp, who was being indicted in Howard County because she secretly tape-recorded chats with Lewinsky about Lewinsky's dalliance with a president.
There was no pushing and shoving, with reporters engulfing fearful grand jury witnesses. No wincing, shrinking Betty Currie. No umbrellas or raincoats or hurrying figures ducking into limos.
There was only a battalion of 50 sweating reporters. They scuttled like beetles from the humid conference room at the Howard County government building -- where prosecutors made their case -- across the Omar J. Jones Jr. plaza to the tiny patch of parking lot shade where Tripp's attorneys and media adviser made their pitch.
Perspiration dampened shirt collars and dripped down foreheads as lawyers and spokesmen droned, and when Tripp's attorneys put a merciful end to the opening day of a dying story, someone in the crowd whispered: "Thank you."
But the story is not dead yet. If the Tripp prosecution goes forward, many of the characters in the long, weird story of President Clinton and his sexual liaison with the White House intern could, for better or worse, be summoned back to the national stage to testify.
"After due deliberation," Howard County State's Attorney Marna McLendon (R) announced in the county seat of Ellicott City, "the grand jury has issued an indictment charging Linda Tripp with violating the Maryland statute that makes it illegal to record a conversation without the consent of all participants." The indictment also charges Tripp with illegally disclosing the contents of those tape recordings.
Those are felonies. If convicted, Tripp could go to jail for five years on each count and be fined $10,000 on each count. McLendon said she was "satisfied" and "comfortable" with the outcome and noted the "proud traditions" of ethical law enforcement in the county.
It was not a milestone in the Lewinsky epic, as far as McLendon was concerned. "My focus . . . has never been on Lewinsky and her case," she said. "What we have focused on is someone who allegedly violated Maryland wiretap law."
But this went way beyond the usual in Howard County, where Tripp lives and where she gabbed for hours with Lewinsky.
This was about the notorious tapes that nearly brought down President Clinton -- tapes filled with the sounds of a sobbing Lewinsky, talk of "the big creep" and lost love, and the leading queries of her older interlocutor, Tripp, who seemed to be eating and watching TV most of the time.
It was about the woman who told the nation one day that she was just one of us, but who was widely seen as the queen of betrayal.
McLendon said yesterday, "There has never been a case like this." Prosecutions for wiretapping in Howard County, she said, are "few and far between. . . . This is a very extraordinary case, obviously."
Across the plaza outside, after the press had reassembled, Tripp's attorneys and spokesman described her as a hero and the prosecutors as the lowest of villains.
Tripp, they said, was the only one in this sorry case who had not lied. She was a strong figure of American history, a kind of Davy Crockett, and this was the thanks she got from her country.
Philip Coughter, who said he had "the honor" to be her spokesman and media adviser, said the prosecutors had embarked on "the most disgraceful, transparently politically motivated campaign of vengeance in recent American history."
"Our system makes it clear that American citizens have not only the right but the legal obligation to report knowledge of possible crimes, particularly those believed to have been committed by high government officials," Coughter said. "At incalculable personal costs, Linda Tripp fulfilled that obligation," he said. "Sadly, this is to be her reward."
Washington lawyer Stephen M. Kohn, who is known for defending high-profile whistle-blowers in trouble, went further.
"What occurred here today was not the enforcement of a law," he said. "What occurred here today is a person who is one of the most important federal witnesses in American history, one of the most important whistle-blowers in American history, is facing 10 years in prison, $20,000 in fines, [being] branded as a felon, and . . . destroyed."
Kohn likened it to McCarthyism, to the petty state prosecutions of activists during the civil rights struggle and worried that "the character of the country" was in danger.
Yeah, somebody asked, but wasn't Tripp still a cad for secretly taping the confidences of a friend? "I've heard that observation made repeatedly," Coughter said.
Fundamentally, he said, in the tangle of manipulations surrounding the relationship between Lewinsky and Tripp, "friendship had long since ceased to be."