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Tripp presents mixed picture Some familiars call her upright, others intimidating

Some years ago, Linda Tripp's son Ryan teased the daughter of a neighbor. That evening, the neighbor called Tripp to enlist her help in easing tensions between the children. "If my children do anything wrong, let me know," said the neighbor.

"I'm not a tattletale," Tripp retorted.

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The portrait of Linda Rose Tripp is still a work in progress, but one thing is clear. The woman whose secret tapes now threaten to bring down a president no longer can make that claim.

As a small-time White House staff member, Tripp displayed a knack for being in the right place to witness big-time news. She has left a trail of deeply mixed impressions on those who know her.

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A military wife divorced by her husband in 1992 after 21 years of marriage, Tripp, 48, is described by some government colleagues as smart, efficient and hard-working. They believe she is motivated in the current scandal by honesty and self-preservation.

But they say she experienced a growing disillusionment with the Clinton White House, especially after witnessing the aftermath of Vincent W. Foster Jr.'s suicide in 1994. She considered sharing her secrets in a book and spent nighttime hours on the phone, gossiping with friends about her brushes with Washington's powerful.

Closer to her home in suburban Columbia, some neighbors and acquaintances have found her oddly unfriendly, like the neighbor with the tattletale story, who asked not to be named. Others describe her as quick to argue. Some say she can be intimidating and manipulative. They express little surprise at her offering White House intern Monica Lewinsky a sympathetic ear -- and switching on a tape recorder.

"I just got nervous talking to her because she was so demanding," said Elizabeth Blakey, an insurance adjuster who dealt with Tripp on three claims she filed over the last four years. "I was really scared to mess up with her. This woman is tough. If I was President Clinton, I'd be afraid. She's going to make Paula Jones look like a marshmallow."

A longtime family friend who cut her ties to Tripp after the two quarreled more than two years ago says she found in the woman two distinct personalities.

"There are two sides to Linda Tripp," said the former friend, who spoke on condition of anonymity. "She can be the most charming, endearing person in the world. She's a perfectionist. She has a high energy level, she's a detail-oriented woman who does a lot. And then there's the vindictive [side]. Nobody in the Clinton administration knew they were playing with fire when they got involved with Linda Tripp."

High standards

Tripp's admiring friends and former colleagues say that is not fair, that she should not be pilloried for holding herself and others to high standards.

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Ellen Strichartz, a longtime friend who helped Tripp land her job at the White House, calls her a loving mother and friend as well as a "crackerjack secretary" who worked long hours. She defends Tripp's secret tape-recording as a reasonable reaction to being asked to participate in a cover-up.

Tony Snow, who was her boss in the Bush White House, where he worked as a speech writer, said Tripp's philosophy was: "You play by the rules, you do the right thing."

"Linda's a career type," said Snow, now a syndicated columnist and host of "Fox News Sunday." "She basically worked all the time and then went home to her kids."

One official in the Bush administration who served briefly in the Clinton White House, however, remembered Tripp as a "gossip, a very strong-willed woman" who wanted to be in the limelight and traveled from office to office spreading stories.

"She seemed to be very interested in being considered a part of what was going on," said Richard Ben-Veniste, a former Democratic counsel for the Whitewater investigation who sat in on her depositions.

If acquaintances have conflicting views of Tripp and her motives in the sex scandal, Tripp herself appears to have experienced mixed feelings. In transcripts published by Newsweek of her conversations with Lewinsky, she sounds alternately thrilled and horrified.

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"This is so amazingly huge to me," Tripp told Lewinsky at one point.

But later she declared, perhaps with the spinning tape in mind, "I can't be involved in this. I can't be party to all this ugliness that will do nothing except destroy people."

Extra in the limelight

For an extra on the Washington stage, Tripp has turned up in the limelight on a striking number of occasions.

She testified in 1993 about the controversy surrounding the White House travel office. In 1994, she was one of the last people to see deputy White House counsel Foster before his suicide. She witnessed the chaotic aftermath, testifying about that, too.

Last summer, she told Newsweek about seeing White House social office aide Kathleen E. Willey emerging from the Oval Office flustered and with clothes askew after allegedly being kissed and fondled by President Clinton.

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That report led in December to a subpoena requiring Tripp to testify in the lawsuit filed against the president by Paula Corbin Jones, who claims Clinton made an unwanted sexual advance to her while Arkansas governor.

Tripp has declined to speak to the press, but her attorney, James Moody, insisted in an interview that his client has absolutely no vendetta against the president.

"There's not an ounce of vengefulness in her body," Moody said. He acknowledged her unusual position as a witness in cases of alleged White House misdeeds, but said her only cause is the truth.

Moody said Tripp began taping her conversations to protect herself after Clinton attorney Robert Bennett questioned her credibility in the Newsweek article about Willey.

Tripp received no subpoena from independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr before calling his office Jan. 12 and offering the tapes of her conversations with Lewinsky. She took that step after growing angry with her then-lawyers, whom she considered too close to the White House.

Once an Army wife

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For years, Tripp moved around the world with her Army officer husband, Lt. Col. Bruce M. Tripp. After their 1992 divorce, which he sought, Bruce Tripp -- who has refused to discuss his ex-wife -- agreed to pay $800 a month in alimony and another $843 in support for their two children, Ryan, now 22, and Allison, 18.

She needed a good job, and with the help of Strichartz, who had worked at the White House for 21 years, she found one in 1991 in the secretarial pool in the Bush White House.

Linda Tripp's previous work experience had been in the buttoned-down atmosphere of the military, where some of her jobs required security clearances.

When President Clinton moved into the White House in 1993, Tripp found the atmosphere exciting, but after a time uncomfortably loose, some friends say. It was an impression that was strengthened after the Foster suicide.

In e-mail she exchanged with other staff members, she referred to her boss, White House counsel Bernard W. Nussbaum, and two other lawyers as "the three stooges." After one of the lawyers discovered scraps of a suicide note in Foster's briefcase -- a discovery not reported to police for 30 hours -- Tripp wrote a skeptical e-mail to a colleague: "I can't imagine that anyone as meticulous as this individual [Foster] was, would have left anything he did not intend to be found."

Snow says Tripp was deeply troubled by Foster's death. The day of his death she had brought Foster a hamburger and some M&M; candies, which he offered to share with her, before driving to Fort Marcy Park outside Washington and ending his life.

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"The one thing she said to me was, 'It doesn't make sense to me he killed himself,' " Snow said. "She said she was reading all these books on depression."

Snow said her reaction did not seem unnatural. "It's haunting -- you give a guy his hamburger and his M&Ms; and the next thing he's dead. If not an obsession, it really troubled her a lot and she wanted to get to the bottom of it."

Connection with agent

It was Snow who introduced Tripp to Lucianne Goldberg, a New York literary agent who had expressed interest in selling a book on Foster. Snow told her, "I know one person who served him his last meal."

At one point, Tripp wrote a proposal for an inside-the-White-House book, but the idea did not lead anywhere, Moody said. But the agent has said she was the one who advised Tripp to tape her conversations with Lewinsky.

The former friend of Tripp who is now estranged also remembered how shaken she was by Foster's death and its handling.

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"She thought the world of Vincent Foster. She thought he was a honest, decent, caring man. She loved working with him," the former friend said.

But, said the woman, who had regular hourlong conversations with Tripp at the time, "Linda was appalled by what happened after his death. She thought he was not treated well by the White House. She was so angry people were questioning his involvement in anything. She said she was distraught."

Moody denied that such feelings on Tripp's part turned into any general hostility to the president. He said she left the White House in August 1994 as the staff was cut by 25 percent, but she was liked by superiors and had an opportunity to stay.

"They wanted to keep her because they said, 'Here's a better job,' " Moody said.

But he said Tripp was glad to return to the Pentagon, where she had worked as a secretary some years before. She now works as an $88,000-a-year public affairs specialist.

Moody, who specializes in agricultural law, said that when Tripp first approached him to represent her two weeks ago he was astonished by the story she told.

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"My jaw was on the ground -- and that was before I heard the tapes," he said. "I checked her out to see if she was a wacko. All the reports came back aces."

Now, Moody said, he has a high opinion of his client. "She is as solid-gold, true-blue, honest, as the day is long," he said.

But to her neighbors on Cricket Pass, a tree-lined cul-de-sac of a dozen homes where Tripp and her then-husband moved in 1981, Tripp remains a puzzle.

By all accounts, she worked long hours, often leaving at dawn and returning after dark.

One regular stop, at least in recent years, was the Mobil gas station a mile from her home. Assistant manager Bill Moss said Tripp complained so often that he recognized her instantly on the news last week.

"She used to come in and give our cashiers holy hell," Moss said. "We have customers like that all the time who have bad days. When you have four or five bad days, it gets memorable. They get known as a troublemaker."

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"She's not real pleasant," said Larry Valentine, a next-door neighbor who works at Social Security Administration headquarters in Woodlawn.

Several longtime residents of the street can't recall Tripp's ever saying hello -- even at the street's common mailbox that stands virtually in front of her house.

"She never waves to anyone, that's all we know," said Mark Farfaras, a nine-year neighbor on Cricket Pass.

Pub Date: 1/26/98


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