Discover more from Understandably by Bill Murphy Jr.
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Can you speak into the microphone please, and say that thing a bit louder?
This is a story about a woman in her late 40s who acted as a caring mentor to a coworker in her early 20s, and who set out to give good advice and protect the younger friend from powerful forces.
Only kidding. It's actually the 25th anniversary of when Linda Tripp started surreptitiously recording her phone conversations with Monica Lewinsky.
There are no heroes in this story.
First of all, not President Clinton, of course: the world's most fortunate philanderer, who got skeevy with an intern in the Oval Office, got caught and lied about it both under oath and in a national press conference, and who got away with it all.
No, not Lewinsky, although she qualifies as both culprit and victim.
I mean, it takes two to tango, or whatever they were doing. But, she was 21 at the start and Clinton was in his late 40s and literally the world's most powerful person. Also, it didn't help that she wasn't allowed to defend herself in any way while the story dominated everything.
She was right afterward when she said basically (I wish I could find the exact quote): Whatever guilt I carry, I'm not the one who swore an oath to uphold the Clintons' marriage.
Tripp gets special mention, however. Personally, I'd put her culpability for the scandal (not the relationship itself) somewhere above Lewinsky's but below Clinton's, because without her, none of us would probably ever have known anything. And I think we’d be better for it.
The phone calls and the audio tapes and the blue dress ("Don't clean it!") and the helpful response once Lewinsky told her about the affair -- most of which involved reaching out to literary agent Lucianne Goldberg and then stringing Lewinsky along, getting her to talk more and more and more on the secret recordings.
“Linda," Lewinsky said on one of the calls, "if I ever wanna have an affair with a married man again, especially the president, please shoot me.”
The tapes were illegal (wiretaps weren't allowed in Maryland, where Tripp lived), but she got out of personal jeopardy by turning them over to Independent Counsel Ken Starr, who was then able to shift the focus of his $30 million Whitewater investigation.
And, while we can get into Harry Turtledove territory pretty quickly wondering what might have been if Tripp hadn't done what she did, I do think there's a straight line from Tripp to a pretty disastrous war in Iraq.
No Tripp tapes? Likely no impeachment. No impeachment? Al Gore is probably the 43rd president (since he doesn't have to distance himself from Clinton in the 2000 election).
I know many readers probably didn't want Gore, but it also means no Florida recount, and my attorney colleagues don't wind up in the world's most pathetic fistfight just before Christmas 2000.
George W. Bush either doesn't become president at all or is elected in 2004 at the earliest, and no matter what winds up happening in 2001 -- whether 9/11 happens as it did in our real life history or not -- there's probably nobody in the White House or Pentagon pushing to depose Saddam Hussein in 2003.
And then, and then, and then.
OK, I don't know. But I'm writing this just before leaving on vacation and I wanted to mark the occasion.
Back in her heyday, Tripp was pretty roundly vilified, even by those who used her and took her tapes to take on Clinton.
“I’m really sorry for everything that’s happened,” Lewinsky said at the end of her testimony back in 1998. “And I hate Linda Tripp.”
On Saturday Night Live, they had John Goodman put on a wig and dress to play her. Even Donald Trump called her "evil personified" at the time.
In later life, Tripp seemed not to regret what she'd done, but to want to move on, almost anonymously. She had plastic surgery, remarried, apparently ran some kind of store specializing in Christmas decorations.
"Tripp is abusive and conniving," the New Yorker wrote last year in a review of the Ryan Murphy series about the whole sordid affair (I didn't see it). "But she is also a person -- one who happened to be right about Clinton."
She died in 2020 after a short battle with pancreatic cancer. When news of her health struggles broke, Lewinsky appeared to have forgiven her.
Morals of the story (and I admit that's a funny word to use here):
Choose your friends wisely. Don't mess around with the interns.
And when you're writing a newsletter and planning to be on vacation, be sure to check the calendar for anniversaries you can mark while you're away.
We’ll be wrapping up low power mode sometime in the next few days. Thanks for your support and readership!
(Reminder, while we’re operating on “low power mode,” (aka Bill’s Vacation), we’ll be skipping the “7 other things” we normally run. But I invite you to share links to things you think your fellow readers would appreciate or enjoy in the comments.)