WASHINGTON -- With a newly tinted blond mane, an extra coat of lip gloss and an attitude that said anything but "I'm sorry," Linda R. Tripp burst back on the public scene yesterday in a campaign designed to recast her image into something other than the woman America loves to loathe.
Just as America was beginning to forget her, on the very day the Senate was formally closing the scandal she helped deliver, Tripp took her case to the people. The woman whose secret taping of Monica Lewinsky led to 13 months of political upheaval culminating in President Clinton's impeachment trial vowed yesterday that she would do it all over again.
On NBC's "Today" show, Tripp defended her role in exposing Lewinsky's relationship with the president. Tripp said she did it for Lewinsky's own good.
She even suggested that she had helped save Lewinsky's life by seeking to end the young woman's affair with President Clinton, which Tripp considered abusive.
Tripp's media blitz continued with a reluctant smile and silk scarf warming her face on the front of yesterday's New York Times. In the interview, Tripp called Lewinsky "a kid" and described herself as her surrogate mother -- a theme that Tripp will likely pursue in her scheduled appearance on CNN's "Larry King Live" on Monday night.
In speaking at length publicly for the first time, Tripp was a far more polished figure than the quaking woman who whined, "I'm you," before a bank of cameras and microphones last July. But she remained just as concerned with her image as was the weight-obsessed matron from the Lewinsky tapes.
Dressed in a warm taupe jacket with hair-sprayed wisps framing her face, Tripp focused on serving up a maternal picture: She described herself as a true friend to Lewinsky and an empathetic confidante to a young woman whose mother, Tripp said, was "emotionally distanced."
Speaking of her effort to reveal the affair, which, Tripp alleged, made Lewinsky feel suicidal at times, Tripp told the "Today" show: "I still to this day believe it benefited Monica as well. Embarrassing, yes. She's alive today. She has a future today. I would not have given you odds on that in December. I think I may have contributed to her future health, yes."
A 49-year-old Pentagon employee and Columbia resident, Tripp chose not to approach the media 13 months ago, when the country largely viewed her as a she-wolf sniffing for scandal.
Now she is offering her own counter-argument. She is slimmed down and smooth-talking in her television appearance, making repeated references to her two children while sitting with her hands folded daintily in her lap.
But not every element of Tripp's TV debut was within her control. Her signature lip-curl was firmly in place. Beads of sweat formed on her upper lip as she discussed how Lewinsky was "more and more horrified at what was happening to her."
When asked a tough question, she responded, "Excuse me?" in the same snippy tone she used on the tapes when skewering White House staffers she didn't like.
In taking her story to the airwaves, Tripp opens herself to more late-night ridicule. On "Saturday Night Live" tonight, John Goodman is expected to reprise his scathing imitation of Tripp, in which the actor appeared in garish makeup and drag, according to a member of the NBC show's staff.
Tripp is under investigation by a Maryland grand jury looking into whether Tripp's secret taping of Lewinsky violated the state's wiretapping laws.
Now, she is trying to reinvent herself as a sympathetic figure.
Needed to protect job
She had to expose the Lewinsky affair, Tripp contended, in part to protect her job.
For the past year, Tripp, a $92,000-a-year Pentagon public affairs specialist, has worked from her home, drafting a report on her job with the Joint Civilian Orientation Conference, which provides tours of military bases for civilian leaders.
Tripp said she felt a different kind of fear, too -- that Clinton was indirectly demanding that she must "be a team player or else." She said she believed Lewinsky was passing along, from the president, "threats to my life, threats to the lives of my children."
Joe Lockhart, Clinton's spokesman, dismissed the allegation yesterday: "Oh, I think any suggestion from Linda Tripp or anyone that the president has made threats is absolutely ludicrous."
As for her role in the investigation, Tripp made a significant admission in the NBC interview: that she had informed FBI agents from independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr's office that she was talking to the Paula Corbin Jones lawyers about Lewinsky.
Whether the Jones and Starr teams colluded is a key point in proving whether the independent counsel's office set a perjury trap in President Clinton's deposition.
Referring to the day she met Lewinsky for the sting by the Starr investigators, Tripp said: "I may have mentioned to one or two of the agents, one of the agents that was responsible for transporting me, that I needed to get home because I had an interview with the Paula Jones attorneys."
Efforts to reach Starr's office yesterday were unsuccessful.
Later yesterday, one of Tripp's lawyers pulled back from that statement, saying she misspoke "in the heat of a live interview" and that she never specified to the agents that her interview was with Jones' lawyers.
'Dying to defend herself'
Lucianne Goldberg, the New York literary agent who encouraged Tripp to secretly tape Lewinsky, said it is long since time that Tripp spoke out. Goldberg, who said she has not spoken to Tripp since November, said Tripp was "dying to defend herself" since the story broke.
Overall, image experts say Tripp showed real preparation.
"Oh boy, did she ever get a lot of coaching," said Camille Lavington, a New York image consultant who has written a book about first impressions. "The new hairstyle was a great idea. When you change somebody's hair, you change their mental state."
Sun staff writer Tom Bowman contributed to this article.
Pub Date: 2/13/99