The Magazine


Jun 15, 1998, Vol. 3, No. 39 • By JAY NORDLINGER
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THE EFFORT TO TARNISH LINDA TRIPP is sometimes appalling, sometimes comical. Ever since the former White House secretary emerged as a threat to Bill Clinton's presidency, she has been the target of furious examination. Her story has always had its share of intrigue: sex, divided loyalties, an FBI wiretap. Now it has a long-forgotten stepmother -- and not a terribly nice one at that.

Last week, the New Yorker ran its second expose of the hapless Tripp. The first, published in March, had created a minor sensation. It reported that Tripp, when a teenager, had been arrested for grand larceny -- and that she had failed to indicate any arrests on a government security form. The Pentagon, Tripp's current employer, quickly announced an investigation. But it just as quickly dropped that investigation -- and announced another.

The arrest, it transpired, had not been as damning as the New Yorker made out. Tripp maintained that she had been the victim of a juvenile prank, and the judge did indeed reduce the charge against her to one count of loitering. Tripp also recalled that the judge had reassured her that the incident would not remain part of her record. So instead of putting the screws to Tripp, the Pentagon launched a probe of its own employees: the men who had released information from Tripp's confidential file to the New Yorker's Jane Mayer. At least one of those men -- assistant defense secretary Ken Bacon, a former colleague of Mayer's -- may lose his job over the affair. Thus did the attempt to sting Tripp leave the stingers themselves stung.

This led to Mayer's second volley against Tripp, which was introduced by an extraordinary "Editor's Note." The original article, the note said, had been a 3,500-word profile, and yet "one short passage" -- that concerning the arrest and security form -- "quickly became the focus of controversy." This should not have come as a surprise to the magazine, given that it had trumpeted precisely that passage in a press release three days before the article's arrival on newsstands. The press release warned, in breathless and excited paragraphs, that Tripp could face dire consequences for concealing her past and trying to trick the government.

The New Yorker last week further contended that the basic facts of the case were not "disputed." And still -- who would have guessed? -- the magazine had been "attacked by some commentators and by activists interested in minimizing damage to Tripp, whose credibility is an important factor in the investigation by Kenneth Starr." In truth, Tripp's credibility is far less important than her numerous tapes of Monica Lewinsky, but the New Yorker apparently felt the need for a rationale in its campaign against Tripp. In addition, the magazine was eager to point out that, contrary to ex-presidential adviser Dick Morris and others, the tip on Tripp's arrest had not come from the White House and its team of detectives -- it had come from a curious source discovered by Mayer and by Mayer alone, without any assistance from Friends (or Sleuths) of Bill.

That source was one J. Lowe Davis, the former wife of Tripp's father. It was she who informed Mayer that Linda, back in 1969, had had a run-in with the law. Davis remembered that Tripp's father had received a call from Tripp's mother, who told him of Linda's predicament. According to Davis, the father later remarked that Linda had "sunk to the bottom," at first lying about the arrest, then confessing the truth. Davis's answer to Tripp's account of events? "No, she wasn't set up." She added to Mayer that her "motivation for speaking out" was "neither personal nor political" -- merely sincere. "I have searched my soul about this," Davis said, "and am sure I am not acting out of vindictiveness."

Davis, however, is no ordinary ex-stepmother: She is a journalist, and a columnist, no less, for the Pensacola News Journal. Three years ago, she was project editor for a series that won the Pulitzer prize. Her weekly column is a blend of Erma Bombeck and Molly Ivins. And on March 27 -- following the first Mayer article, but well before Davis was revealed as Mayer's principal source -- she devoted her column to her newly rediscovered former stepdaughter, Tripp.

"Believe me, I wish I had more to tell," Davis began, far too modestly. She was just sitting around, she said, when this reporter from the New Yorker dialed her number. She had always figured, as an "immutable truth," that "the editors of that elite magazine would never put my name in or on a story." Why, "they probably would not even allow me to subscribe."