Everyone in Washington, D.C., thinks their experiences and insights are interesting and should be part of the historical record — which explains why there are so many memoirs and why so many are so bad.
Linda Tripp, who died Wednesday, was one of those people. She wanted to write a book about her life as a secretary in the White House for two presidents: George H.W. Bush, whom she adored, and Bill Clinton, who she thought was crass and immoral. She believed that she could write a book exposing Clinton’s infidelities and that history would remember her as a truth-teller and a whistleblower.
Instead, she became a supporting player in Clinton’s impeachment, stuck forever in the role of the duplicitous harpy who betrayed then-White House intern Monica Lewinsky by secretly recording their conversations.
“Central casting couldn’t have cast a better villain,” she told the podcast “Slow Burn” in 2018. “The entire country had decided who I was, and it was evil incarnate.”
Unfair? Of course it’s unfair. History is a narrative written by the winners, and Clinton was acquitted and thrived. Thanks, in part, to the #MeToo movement, Lewinsky has been able to transform her image from oversexed intern to a more accurate and nuanced characterization: a naive young woman swept up in an affair with a powerful man — in fact, the most powerful man in the world.
But Tripp’s legacy is frozen in time: a big, brash caricature of a woman with bad highlights and questionable motives. That image was sealed in popular culture by actor John Goodman, who dressed in drag to play her on “Saturday Night Live.” How did it feel to be the most hated woman in America? “Feels like high school,” Goodman-as-Tripp giggled.
But it all started with a book proposal.
The New Jersey native had spent two decades as a secretary for the military, following her Army husband around the globe. After their separation in 1990, she landed the most glamorous job of her life — working at the White House.
It was a blissful two years, despite her divorce. Then, Clinton defeated Bush and the gang from Arkansas descended on the executive mansion. Tripp, a career civil servant, stayed on to work for White House counsel Bernard Nussbaum and deputy counsel Vince Foster. She didn’t like them, but they liked her work: After two years, she was transferred to the Pentagon’s public-affairs office — a job with higher pay and prestige because she was now a political appointee.
Tripp always maintained that she was never motivated by politics, that she was just deeply troubled by Clinton’s behavior toward women. Armed with little more than suspicions, she approached her friend Lucianne Goldberg, a literary agent known in conservative circles as a vocal critic of Clinton. A proposal was written for a book focused on Clinton and a ghostwriter was secured, but the book was never completed or sold.
Then in 1996, fate handed her the proof she needed: Monica Lewinsky. The former White House intern, in the midst of her two-year affair with the president, was transferred to the Pentagon in an effort to limit their contact. At 46, Tripp was 24 years older than the young woman, but the two became close.
Although some co-workers described Tripp as abrasive and overbearing, others said she was a maternal figure, nurturing and understanding. Lewinsky began to share details of her tortured affair with a married man — and not just any married man.
After a year of listening to Lewinsky — they talked up to a dozen times a day — Tripp was contacted by a Newsweek reporter digging into allegations about Clinton’s womanizing. Unnerved, Tripp went back to Goldberg, shared what she knew about Lewinsky and again pitched a book.
Goldberg encouraged Tripp to secretly tape her conversations, and the trap was set: Tripp recorded 22 hours of Lewinsky’s confessions and encouraged the young woman to save a blue Gap dress with a stain of presidential semen instead of having it cleaned — just in case she needed evidence of the affair.
In January 1998, Tripp called independent counsel Ken Starr and, soon after, agreed to wear a wire to meet Lewinsky at a local hotel, where FBI agents confronted the unsuspecting former intern.
After the betrayal was fully revealed, Lewinsky told the grand jury: “I’m really sorry for everything that’s happened. And I hate Linda Tripp.”
While politicians debated whether Clinton’s infidelity was America’s business or just his wife’s, the impeachment centered, properly, on the question of perjury: Did the president lie under oath? But Tripp was more fixated on the sex and defended her actions based on her moral code: The president was damaging the reputation of the Oval Office.
Reporters dug into her background and discovered her parents had divorced because of her father’s blatant philandering. The reasons for Tripp’s own divorce were not clear.
But perhaps the most shocking to Washington insiders were Tripp’s secret recordings. It’s hard enough to know whom to trust in this most transactional of cities, but taping was next-level betrayal. The fact that, as a woman, Tripp had broken the confidence of a friend who had trusted her with the most intimate details of her life was beyond the pale. And it was against the law: Maryland, where Tripp lived, doesn’t allow recordings without both parties’ consent. She was investigated, but the case was eventually dropped.
In 1999, Tripp defended herself in a CNN interview, saying she had “no choice” but to tape the conversations. “How would I prove I was telling the truth?” Tripp said on “Larry King Live.”
“All I can say is Monica made choices, the president made choices, and I was forced to make choices.”
By the late 1990s, Tripp had become a hero to Clinton’s conservative critics, and she remained so for the rest of her life. On the last day of Clinton’s presidency, she was fired from her Pentagon job because, as a political appointee, she had refused to resign.
And then she disappeared from the landscape. She remarried and moved to Middleburg, Virginia, where she ran a holiday store called “Christmas Sleigh.” She lost weight and became chic and polished, almost unrecognizable from the woman in the headlines. And that was pretty much it until 2018, the 20th anniversary of the scandal.
Last July, she delivered remarks at an event for National Whistleblower Day on Capitol Hill, where she said her actions were motivated not by left or right politics but by right and wrong.
“We’re different,” she told the group. “We’re compelled to act. There comes a point where it’s no longer a choice. And despite the hardships and the personal pain — not only to us but to our families — when asked most of us say we would do it all again. You know, in my case, had the circumstances been similar and had the sitting incumbent been a Republican, I would’ve acted no differently at all.”
That summer, she also sat down for the “Slow Burn” interview. She said she feared for her life and believed the Clintons would have her killed.
And her betrayal of Lewinsky?
“Even though I believed it was the right thing, I couldn’t face her, because I knew she would never in a million years understand,” Tripp said. “I kept holding on to thinking that had that been my daughter, I would want to have had someone stop it — kind of like ripping a Band-Aid off a wound. It has to be done. It’s not something you enjoy, but you do what you have to do. But there was no enjoyment in it. None.”
Tripp was 70 when she died this week, not of coronavirus but of cancer, according to media reports. When news of her condition went public, Lewinsky tweeted: “No matter the past, upon hearing Linda Tripp is very seriously ill, I hope for her recovery. I can’t imagine how difficult this is for her family.”
And no, Tripp never did write the book that started it all. History will remember her, just not in the way she ever hoped or imagined.
The Washington Post’s Dan Zak contributed to this report.