The Magazine

Linda Tripp's Vindication

A Clinton scandal reaches its end.

Nov 17, 2003, Vol. 9, No. 10 • By JAY NORDLINGER
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LINDA TRIPP--remember her?--is back in the news, with a bit of vindication. The Defense Department will pay her $595,000. It will also give her a retroactive promotion and retroactive pay. Why? Because the Clinton Pentagon played a nasty trick on her, and violated the Privacy Act in so doing. Tripp sued, and has won this settlement.

What happened, back then? It is a tale with many twists and turns, but I'll provide the briefest of summaries.

In March of 1998--two months after the Lewinsky affair exploded--Jane Mayer, a reporter for the New Yorker, acquired a valuable piece of information: Linda Tripp, Monica's onetime confidante, had been arrested for larceny as a teenager. So Mayer called up her old friend Kenneth Bacon, who was Pentagon spokesman. Got a question for you, she said. How did Tripp answer Question 21, Parts A and B, on Form 398 (a highly confidential security questionnaire)? This was the question dealing with prior arrests. Bacon, in a comically flagrant violation of the Privacy Act, moved heaven and earth to make sure that the reporter got her answer--on deadline.

Tripp had not indicated an arrest, and it looked like she was in big trouble. But the "arrest" turned out to be a mix-up having to do with a juvenile prank (perpetrated against her), and it was Ken Bacon who was in big trouble. The Pentagon's inspector general, Eleanor Hill, launched an investigation, and in about two seconds determined that, of course, Bacon and his deputy Clifford Bernath had violated the Privacy Act. She referred the matter to Janet Reno's Justice Department, which sat on it for two years, then refused to prosecute. So Tripp had to lodge suit herself.

While covering this story, I made a couple of points, repeatedly. First, Charles Colson reminded me that it was exactly this type of offense to which he had pleaded guilty back in 1974. Colson had leaked Daniel Ellsberg's FBI file to the Copley Press, when Ellsberg was a witness in the Pentagon Papers case and a thorn in the Nixon administration's side--just as Tripp was a thorn in Bill Clinton's side. Colson, as you know, went to jail. The special prosecutor, Leon Jaworski, rejoiced that Colson's plea had set a precedent: No more smearing, of this kind, in this way.

Second, I and others made reference to Passportgate (talk about ancient history). This was the incident in the 1992 presidential campaign in which officials in the Bush State Department rooted through Governor Clinton's passport files--and those of his mother. In his first press conference as president-elect, Clinton declared, "If I catch anybody doing it, I will fire them the next day. You won't have to have an inquiry or rigmarole or anything else." Oh, well.

A couple of great questions have always hung over this little case. First, who tipped off Jane Mayer? She said Linda Tripp's ex-stepmother. (Ah, yes, there was a stepmother--an ex-stepmother!--in this case, and, in my opinion, a wicked one.) A lot of us were suspicious, casting our thoughts toward the White House: Sid Blumenthal, Harold Ickes, Bruce Lindsey, and the rest of that merry band. In a deposition, the chief recordkeeper in the White House testified that the White House counsel's office had requested "anything and everything that we might have in our files relating to Linda Tripp." Sure.

The other question is: Did Ken Bacon act on his own (that is, release the information all by his lonesome, on his own initiative)? He said yes. Others said, essentially, "Oh, come on."

In the Lewinsky era, liberals forgot a number of things. They forgot their feminist lessons, and they forgot their Watergate lessons. Tripp was ridiculed, even vilified, for her looks, which were sub-Hollywood. Even today, these comments make for painful reading. Tripp herself said that she had been ridiculed "in a manner so mean and so cruel that I pray none of you is ever subjected to it." She later had dramatic cosmetic surgery, paid for by sympathizers.

As for the Watergate lessons, you're not supposed to, like, play dirty tricks, with confidential files, etc. You know?

But all such lessons went out the window when the first rock 'n' roll president had to be defended. Linda Tripp, the taper of Monica, was always an ambiguous figure, but the Clintonites and their supporters wouldn't let her be: She was pure villainess. They cried, "Friends don't tape friends!" The other side cried back, "Friends don't pressure friends to lie, and to break the law!"