WASHINGTON -- Although most Americans may be sick of the whole thing, Washington is agog over the long-awaited appearance of Linda Tripp before the grand jury. The issue may be trivial, but the political stakes are high.
Mobs of reporters and camera crews swarm around the federal court building to report her arrivals and departures. The airwaves are filled with speculation about the credibility of the woman who recorded her friend, Monica Lewinsky, talking on the telephone about her alleged relationship with President Clinton.
As is so often the case here, there appears to be little or no relationship between the sound and fury and what we really know about the substance of the story. No one in the press has heard most of the 20 hours of conversation taped by Ms. Tripp or what she said in her testimony about what Ms. Lewinsky told her.
But this time the attention being paid to a witness is probably proportionate to her potential for influencing the inquiry of special prosecutor Kenneth Starr -- and, ultimately, the impact of the whole affair on Mr. Clinton.
The two key questions have been there all along. The first is whether Ms. Tripp can identify the author of the "talking points" Ms. Lewinsky gave her as a guide to how to respond to prosecutors' inquiries. If the person who wrote those talking points is named, he or she can be vulnerable to charges of suborning perjury to obstruct justice.
The second key question is how much of the conversation between Ms. Tripp and Ms. Lewinsky can be corroborated by other witnesses or other evidence. Is there a pattern of objective evidence that seems to support Ms. Lewinsky's version of what was going on between her and the president?
In the five months since the existence of the tapes came to light, Ms. Tripp has been trashed repeatedly by supporters of the president. They are still asking how anyone can believe the testimony of someone who betrayed a friend by secretly taping her conversation. They are still suggesting the whole thing is an attempt by Ms. Tripp to sell a book aimed at destroying Mr. Clinton.
The treatment of Ms. Tripp has been remarkably similar to the savaging of Kathleen Willey after the former White House volunteer told the prosecutor and a national television audience that Mr. Clinton had groped her in the Oval Office.
In both cases, moreover, these campaigns of innuendo and leak have succeeded, at least to a degree, in tarnishing the president's accusers. Opinion polls have shown steadily rising disapproval of Ms. Tripp and skepticism about Ms. Willey.
But the investigation has reached a point at which it is no longer simply a public relations war between the White House and special prosecutor Kenneth Starr. The grand jury is going to tTC have to decide not whether there was a sexual relationship between the president and the intern but whether there have been crimes committed to cover it up for which someone can be indicted.
If the grand jury fails to find such evidence, Mr. Starr will be left naked to his enemies for having spent $40 million or $50 million pursuing the president to no avail. His only recourse in that case would be his own final report to Congress offering his own conclusions.
Republican leaders in Congress already have made it clear they would consider such a report too hot to handle before the November election. Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich has yet to decide how the material would be handled and by which committee, but the short answer is very carefully.
Although a report from Mr. Starr could be embarrassing to the president if it detailed his involvement with Ms. Lewinsky, opinion poll results suggest that most Americans believe the whole exercise has been a ridiculous excess. Except among a few extremists in the House, there is no demand for an impeachment.
By contrast, an indictment of anyone close to the president would prolong the controversy and raise the possibility of trials .. during the early stages of the 2000 presidential campaign. And if the story plays out that way, Vice President Al Gore would be confronted by awkward questions about the president with whom he has been so closely identified for the last six years.
The bottom line is that Linda Tripp is the key figure in determining how the situation is resolved. And that means this is one time when the capital's apparent obsession with Mr. Clinton and Monica Lewinsky is justified. The stakes are high.
Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover write from The Sun's Washington bureau.
Pub Date: 7/06/98