BALTIMORE — Twenty years ago, on the morning Linda Tripp first became a household name – especially in the Clinton household – she gazed out of her Columbia, Md., living room window and saw before her the multitudinous evidence of her new public profile.
And the first signs of a government about to come undone.
Out there on her front lawn were reporters, and TV cameras and radio microphones, all waiting to hear from the New Linda. But Tripp did not speak a word. She had a little sign on her front door: Do Not Disturb.
This was considered ironic, since Tripp was now disturbing the entire country with her accusations that the president of the United States, Bill Clinton, had been romancing (so to speak) a young White House intern named Monica Lewinsky.
In a nation that had not yet become accustomed to such names as Stormy Daniels and Karen McDougal, and still only half-believed the stories about John F. Kennedy’s private life, the news about Bill and Monica was considered stunning.
It was Tripp who brought us that news. And, last week, she showed her face in public again, and shamelessly tried to rewrite her little moment in history, which so many would like to cast aside altogether.
Now, in Tripp’s telling, she’s a national hero instead of tattle-tale. Now she’s a proud patriot instead of a national pariah.
Do we need a refresher course here? Tripp’s the one who romanced (so to speak) young Monica. In long, late-night telephone conversations, she seduced her into giving up the secrets of her tawdry little sex life with President Clinton. Tripp sweet-talked young Monica, played understanding Big Sister to the distraught, confused young lady. Come on, Monica, you can trust me. Who would I tell?
And then, having tape-recorded their conversations, Tripp proceeded to tell the whole country.
She told us about secret trysts in the White House, and semen stains on dresses and cigars indiscreetly placed – and all of this led to a special government counsel and Peeping Tom named Kenneth Starr, who issued a report (with the considerable help of a young attorney named Brett Kavanaugh, who now anticipates an appointment to the U.S. Supreme Court) – a report full of graphic sex, leading to an impeachment of Clinton that aroused the country until cooler heads prevailed.
Oh, and one other thing which we probably forgot about from 20 years ago – all of this mixing of sex and politics changed forever the limits of public discourse in America. It tore down the last wall between news and gossip.
The old rule was: you didn’t write about a politician’s private life unless it directly affected his public performance. In such a world, Bill Clinton’s extramarital sex life – tawdry as it was – was nobody’s business but Bill and Hillary’s.
In that context, Donald Trump’s alleged adventures with porn stars and playmates would be nobody’s business but his and Melania’s – except, of course, for that little business of hush money slipped to these women in the weeks just before the last presidential election.
Anyway, Linda Tripp’s back.
She resurfaced last week, on National Whistleblower Day, and gave a speech declaring herself an American heroine. Never mind that she had transferred a boring land-deal investigation into a titillating sex story. In her telling, hers was the action of a patriot.
“I was faced with a corruption,” said Tripp, who’d previously worked in the George H.W. Bush White House but was later transferred to the Pentagon. It was “corruption,” she said, “that was infecting the office of the presidency.”
That’s just Tripp trying to rewrite her shameful little moment in the national spotlight.
Do you want to know what this was? It was Tripp looking for a big-money book deal. It was public exploitation of a private relationship between a foolish young woman and a sexually reckless president.
This was the act of a woman who was…
Well, 20 years later, let’s recall someone else’s description of her. Linda Tripp, this person declared, was “evil personified.”
Who called her that? Some guy named Donald Trump.
Of course, maybe he was thinking 20 years down the road when the blurring of news and gossip would invade his own life.
Michael Olesker, columnist for the News American, Baltimore Sun, and Baltimore Examiner has spent a quarter of a century writing about the city he loves.He is the author of five previous books, including Michael Olesker’s Baltimore: If You Live Here, You’re Home, Journeys to the Heart of Baltimore, and The Colts’ Baltimore: A City and Its Love Affair in the 1950s, all published by Johns Hopkins Press.