She thanked me for acknowledging her new look; it was like I had confirmed its effectiveness as a disguise. “I wish they would say that I don’t look like that anymore,” Tripp said, referring to the media that once presented her to the world as a monster. “That would be a nice thing. But I’m not going to hear that.”
In what would turn out to be her last years, Tripp really didn’t want to be the person most of us remembered her as. She had built a new life since the scandal. She and her husband, whom she married in 2004, owned a Christmas store not far from the horse farm, and she had grandchildren she loved.
The question in my mind was whether Tripp’s new life and new look reflected some deeper change. Was she the same person she used to be, when she committed one of history’s most infamous acts of treachery? And what could she say to indicate that she was different?
The trouble was I really liked Linda Tripp. I could tell she was actually thinking about my questions instead of just reflexively reciting lines, and I thought she was trying to answer me honestly. Also, she made me and my producer sandwiches. As you see in that photo above, we had a cigarette in her backyard. We stayed in touch via text after Slow Burn came out; she thanked me for it, and we wished each other Merry Christmas. In some ambient way, I was rooting for her. And I was sad when I learned of her death.
It’s not that I was blinded by her warmth. The fact that she had done something that seemed obviously unforgivable to me was never far from my mind. On some level, I probably wanted her to tell me she regretted it, and that she had been wrong, just so I could justify my affection for her.
But she didn’t say that. Over the course of our four-hour interview, it was clear Tripp stood by her decisions, and had not lost the moral clarity she says informed them. She thought exposing the affair (her original plan had been to write a book about it) was the only way to save “a mixed-up kid” from the Clintons, both of whom Tripp despised. She acknowledged that she had systematically deceived Lewinsky into detailing the affair on tape, and persuaded her to preserve the blue dress that ended up at the center of Clinton’s impeachment. Tripp said she had been “guilt-ridden” about all of the lying but was “convinced in [her] soul” that, “in the end, it would benefit” Lewinsky.
Tripp did tell me she regretted what she did, but only because it didn’t work: Clinton remained president, and cultural attitudes about “the abuse of women in the workplace,” as she put it, didn’t change in response to the scandal, at least not for a long time.
It wasn’t lost on either me or Tripp that I was interviewing her during the height of the #MeToo movement. As Tripp saw it, there was a telling gulf between the way liberals talked about sex and power in 2018 and the way they had demonized Tripp. “When you think about today’s mores, where were they 20 years ago?” she asked. “What is known now that wasn’t known then?”
If you take Tripp at her word — that she was motivated, above all, by a desire to help Lewinsky and thwart a sexual predator — you have to reckon with a few questions I don’t have answers to. How much can you hold people’s delusions against them? Under what circumstances are good intentions exculpatory? And when is it fair to define a person based on who they were and what they did half a lifetime ago?
Tripp is a difficult case, or at least she has been for me. Part of me wonders whether she doubted herself more than she let on. Her relief when I told her I didn’t see her, physically at least, as the same person she was in 1998 made me think she didn’t want much to do with that person. But unlike the rest of us, she didn’t have the option to just stop thinking about herself once the Clinton scandal passed. Maybe that forced her to brace herself, and stave off engaging with true regret, because it would have been too much to live with if she made room for it.
But now I’m speculating about a person who can no longer speak for herself. When she could, what she said to me was, “I didn’t want to have to do it. I maintain to this day it was the right thing to do.”