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."

It was Mayer, Davis wrote, who alerted her to the fact that the woman in the news, giving the president fits, was the daughter of her former husband. Both father and daughter, Davis said, "have been off my radar screen for more than 20 years." She had not connected "the 48-year-old notorious whistleblower" with the "27-year-old young woman" she met only once, "briefly," shortly before she and Tripp's father divorced. And Davis was, she admitted, the woman for whom Tripp's father had left his wife -- the root, in Mayer's mind, of Tripp's contempt for an adulterous and dishonest president.

In her column, Davis showed herself to be anything but neutral on the subject of Tripp: She referred to her as "the woman who gave betrayal a bad name." Furthermore, she claimed to be relieved that she had been unable to contribute to Mayer's research: "Thank heaven, I had nothing to add to the Linda Tripp file. Thank heaven, I didn't earn more than a mention in The New Yorker's pages." ("Don't you agree, Linda?" Davis ended. "You are listening, aren't you?" -- a gibe at Tripp's taping of Lewinsky.)

But, of course, Davis had had plenty to add. She was the very one who, according to Mayer, supplied the seemingly golden nugget about Tripp's criminal past. She was the one who whispered the word that, if valid, might have caused Tripp to be fired from her job, and that tempted the Pentagon's public-affairs office to violate the Privacy Act, and that embroiled an already-embattled Tripp in a brand-new scandal. Davis, it appears, has no less than a starring role in this drama. Her column, in which she played the innocent, and Mayer's second story, in which the stepmother laid the trap, cannot both be right. (Davis did not return the phone calls of THE WEEKLY STANDARD.)

The New Yorker, in its editor's note, conceded that the "details" of Tripp's difficult night 29 years ago "are of no great significance in themselves." What "makes them important," the magazine asserted, "is Tripp's prominence as a potential witness for Starr." Mayer herself concluded her piece almost apologetically, writing that, "whether or not Linda Tripp told the full truth," it is "remarkable that American politics now seems to hinge on such trivial pursuits." But nothing so grand as American politics hinges on those pursuits -- Mayer's chase is simply a game of "gotcha," played against a government employee whose tape recorder has proven dangerous to a slippery president.

On May 27, Frank Rich of the New York Times, perhaps anticipating dynamite in the second Mayer article, began his column, "Is it possible that there's even more embarrassing news yet to be learned about Linda Tripp?" It is possible, yes -- but whether such news will be true (not to mention relevant) is another matter. Tripp has been the object of legitimate and proper inquiry -- but also of smears and vilification. And there is no let-up in sight.

Jay Nordlinger is associate editor of THE WEEKLY STANDARD.

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