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26 October 1998

Our current howler: A Tripp down memory-hole lane

Synopsis: Before the grand jury, Linda Tripp hammered Kathleen Willey’s Sixty Minutes account. But only the Post let you know it.

Aides Tried to Stem Brewing Scandal
Peter Baker and Susan Schmidt, The Washington Post, 10/3/98

Tapes Make Tripp’s Role Clearer
George Lardner Jr. and Jeff Leen, The Washington Post, 10/3/98

The ‘Process’ Begins
William Safire, The New York Times, 10/5/98

Waiting for Willey
Robert Novak, The Washington Post, 10/8/98

Starr turns attention to sex charges by Willey
Jerry Seper, The Washington Times, 10/12/98

On Friday, October 2, 1998, the Office of Independent Counsel Kenneth Starr released massive volumes of materials from the investigation of President Clinton. Included was the grand jury testimony of Linda Tripp, Monica Lewinsky’s well-connected work buddy.

In the course of her interview before the grand jury, Tripp was questioned at length about Kathleen Willey’s relationship with President Clinton. And, as became clear for the first time on October 2, Tripp told the grand jury a detailed story about Willey’s connection to Clinton. In her testimony, Tripp substantially contradicted the story Willey told in her Sixty Minutes appearance back in March.

According to Tripp, Willey had pursued the president from the start of his term, believing a promising flirtation was occurring between them. Willey had speculated with Tripp as to how she might be able to set up an assignation between herself and the president. She had routinely attended events at which Clinton would be present, wearing a black dress she believed he liked (and a pair of high heels). She wondered if she and Clinton could arrange to meet in Sweden, or in a home to which she had access along the Chesapeake Bay.

According to Tripp, when Clinton and Willey did have a sexual encounter in the Oval Office, Willey rushed to tell Tripp in her White House office; and, as she told Tripp about the encounter, she “smiled from ear to ear the entire time.” “She seemed almost shocked, but happy shocked,” Tripp told the grand jury.

In short, Tripp substantially contradicted the story Willey had told when she had appeared on Sixty Minutes in March. If Tripp’s account of these matters was accurate, it meant that Clinton and Willey had had a consensual encounter, one long pursued by Willey. This would not mean that Clinton’s conduct had been proper; and it would still be true that Clinton had misled the grand jury, when he denied any sexual encounter with Willey. But it would mean that the sexual assault that Willey described had never in fact occurred.

One would think that this would be substantial news, which the media would pass on to the public. Given the wide publicity that had gone to Kathleen Willey’s Sixty Minutes appearance, and the wide credibility she had enjoyed in the wake of her appearance, one would think that the press might feel a responsibility to tell the public that she had now been contradicted. It was, of course, not obvious that Linda Tripp’s statements to the grand jury were true. But, over the course of the previous eight months, the same media had routinely put unproven accusations into print, often accusations by anonymous sources. By contrast, this exculpatory account was offered in Tripp’s name, and was given to the grand jury under oath. Tripp had presented major evidence contradicting Willey--contradicting an exceptionally damaging claim that had been lodged against a sitting president.

But to date, only readers of the Washington Post have ever heard about Tripp’s account, and they were informed only once, on October 3, in the Post’s review of the newly-released Starr materials. Within the national press and TV networks, Tripp’s account has otherwise not seen the light of day. Despite the endless discussion of accusations against Clinton; despite the endless talk of his sexual misconduct; Tripp’s account of this matter has gone right down the memory hole, where material raising doubts about presidential accusers often seems to find its way. The New York Times has never told its readers about the account that Linda Tripp gave the grand jury. Readers of the Washington Times and USA Today have never heard about Tripp’s account. Tripp’s account has not been critiqued or reviewed for readers of Time or Newsweek. Our dogged analysts have not seen it mentioned on the round-the-clock Clinton scandal channels.

In short, the papers and networks that rushed accusations into print have suddenly become very reticent indeed--refusing to let the public know that Clinton’s accuser has been contradicted.

It is especially surprising that Tripp’s account has been ignored by the press because, in the three weeks since the Starr document release, there has been considerable speculation that the independent counsel will bring charges concerning the Willey matter. The story has hardly been in the dead letter bin; it has been mentioned in the press with some frequency. For example, here’s Jerry Seper, on page one of the Times, writing on October 12:

SEPER: President Clinton faces new political perils as independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr focuses on other possible impeachable offenses, including accusations of a cover-up of a crude sexual advance on White House volunteer Kathleen E. Willey.

Seper’s lengthy article said that Starr believes Clinton has lied under oath about Willey on two occasions. Seper also said Starr is investigating accusations that White House personnel may have pressured Willey to keep quiet about the alleged incident.

Seper was not alone in his reporting. On October 8, Robert Novak had reported, in the Post, that Starr was contemplating further action against Clinton and allies in the Willey matter. And on October 5, William Safire had “surmised” in the New York Times that “an indictment may be forthcoming about what was done to [Willey] after the alleged pass.”

Indeed, Safire had led his column with the grossly misleading claim that “among all the supplementary boxes of referrals by [the] Independent Counsel,” there is “not one word about the harassment and intimidation of Kathleen Willey.” Two full days after the Post had reported in substantial detail about Tripp’s account, star columnist Safire was telling Times readers that Starr’s document release contained no Willey materials. In this dispatch, the Times was not simply ignoring Tripp’s account; it was now actively misinforming its readers.

Is Tripp’s grand jury testimony an accurate account? Here at THE HOWLER, we have no way of knowing. But it is a detailed, sworn account by a Kathleen Willey associate that casts enormous doubt on Willey’s widely-publicized story; and by any reasonable standard of relevance, it should be passed on to the public. But then, it is hardly surprising that the national press has sent Tripp’s account down the memory hole. Sadly--and disgracefully, we might add--the press corps’ refusal to report Linda Tripp’s account is SOP for this celebrity press corps.

Indeed, from the very start of the Clinton scandals, the press corps has shown a remarkable tendency to bury material that casts doubt on accusers--has frequently looked the other way when evidence puts accusations into doubt. From Gennifer Flowers to Paula Jones; from the RTC’s Jean Lewis on up through Kathleen Willey; the press corps has demonstrated what we have long said--that the longest-running love affair in town is the one between the press corps and presidential accusers. That’s right--the press corps heart image presidential accusers. The refusal to report Linda Tripp’s account is just the latest chapter in this long-running tale.

Read on: The press corps truly heart image Gennifer Flowers. See tomorrow’s HOWLER for a full review of this mawkish, embarrassing tale.

Postscript: We assert again: we do not know if Tripp’s account is true, and even if her account is true, the president has still engaged in misconduct. But it is misconduct of a very different order from the kind described on Sixty Minutes; and by any normal standard of evidence, the public should surely be informed of Linda Tripp’s striking account.

Visit our incomparable archives: In the hard-cover Spin Cycle, Howard Kurtz had the story. Typically, of course, the press corps ignored it. See “Our current howler,” 9/30/98.

William Safire just tells you the parts that he likes. See “Our current howler,” 10/5/98.