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Was the 'talking points' document written by the White House -- or its enemies?

Published July 8, 1998 7:00PM (EDT)

In the seemingly endless babble about the Monica Lewinsky affair, it is now the season of scrutiny for the infamous "talking points" document. The three-page document, it will be recalled, is the allegedly damning paper that Lewinsky gave to her confidante Linda Tripp on Jan. 14 when Lewinsky gave her former Pentagon colleague a ride home from work. That night, Tripp handed over the document to Starr's office. Two days later, Tripp met Lewinsky for lunch at the Ritz-Carlton Hotel in Pentagon City, Va., where Starr closed his trap on the former White House intern.

The talking points document reportedly instructs Tripp how to respond to questions about the alleged 1993 sexual encounter between Clinton and White House volunteer Kathleen Willey. In systematic, lawyerly tones, the document walks Tripp through a series of explanations, or talking points, to suggest that her original account of the incident, given to Newsweek, was erroneous. "You now do not believe that what (Willey) claimed happened really happened," the document instructs Tripp to say. "You now find it completely plausible that she herself smeared her lipstick, untucked her blouse, etc."

Tripp has said the paper instructed her to make these points during the deposition that Clinton lawyers believed was imminent in the Paula Jones sexual harassment case. Therefore, the document has been trumpeted as the strongest evidence yet of attempted White House obstruction of justice and possibly the smoking gun that could topple Clinton's presidency.

The key, of course, lies in who authored the document. Until now, the conventional wisdom has held that it was dictated by one of Clinton's aides to Lewinsky, who typed it up on her computer, printed it out and handed it to Tripp. But with the document coming under closer scrutiny, many of these assumptions are being challenged. In the legal-thriller style that has come to define the Lewinsky affair, there are now suggestions that Tripp and her allies may have authored the talking points themselves in an elaborate frame-up of Lewinsky.

There is no shortage of theorizing about the authorship of the talking points document. The speculation began in earnest a few weeks ago when New York Observer staff writer Philip Weiss analyzed its lawyerly language and concluded that it had been written by Clinton's close aide Bruce Lindsey. Weiss argued that the key to the talking points' authorship lay in its timing: Only a few days earlier, in a closed court session in Richmond with lawyers for the president and Paula Jones present, Willey had told a judge about her sexual encounter with Clinton. The only way to prevent the damage spreading to the Jones case was to get Tripp, who had already spoken about the incident to Newsweek, on the president's side, Weiss says. He notes that Lindsey reportedly phoned Tripp to discuss the matter.

"Why would the Clinton team now go back to a woman who had sold them out just months before?" Weiss wrote. "The key is that they were desperate, and that Linda Tripp knew they were desperate. She saw that their desperation presented her with a gold opportunity to implicate the big kahuna.

"My theory is that Bruce Lindsey dictated the talking points, but that Linda Tripp's is the intelligence behind them. She did to Bruce Lindsey what she had done to Monica -- lured him into her confidence, made him think she was on their side after all and, probably using Monica as a go-between and typist, pleaded for help on an affidavit. Because he was so desperate, Mr. Lindsey ignored the warnings and stepped willingly into the trap."

In what they call their own "Talmudic exegesis" of the talking points, Slate's Jodie Allen and Franklin Foer lay out seven theories of possible authorship. First there is Lewinsky, who "mustered all her intellectual resources to cobble together" the talking points in a panic-stricken effort to avoid Tripp's exposure of her affair with Clinton. Allen and Foer then shoot down this theory, noting that Lewinsky "is not the sharpest tool in the shed."

They go on to consider Tripp, who may have manipulated Lewinsky to write the talking points so that Tripp could have physical evidence of obstruction of justice to give to Starr. This theory's defect: "Why would Tripp risk getting caught fabricating evidence when she has mountains of damning tapes and e-mail," Allen and Foer write.

Slate's other prime suspects are Clinton himself (he could have dictated the talking points to Lewinsky on the phone, but he has traditionally used fixers to clean up his messes); Tripp's ex-lawyer, Kirby Behre (loyal to the White House but too savvy to instruct a witness to prepare false testimony); Lindsey (Clinton's point man on the Paula Jones case and a social acquaintance of Tripp's, but there's no evidence that Lindsey and Lewinsky knew each other); the "right-wing conspiracy" (conservative lawyers who helped Tripp draft the document); and a combination of some of the above.

While Slate draws no conclusions, two academics -- English professor Skip Fox and his assistant John Gillis of the University of Southwestern Louisiana -- have applied literary forensics to the talking points documents to point their fingers squarely at Tripp and her cohorts.

First of all, they note, there appear to be several versions of the talking points document, indicating multiple authors. Secondly, they say, the content of these various versions does not suggest that Lewinsky was trying to get Tripp to lie about the Willey incident, but only to speak up about doubts that Tripp herself had expressed publicly about Willey's account.

Then, these literary sleuths note, there's the fact that the talking points contain information that Lewinsky and the White House could not have known at the time -- namely that Tripp had been secretly talking to Jones' lawyers from the time she received her subpoena for that case on November 24. To bolster their contention, Fox and Gillis point to what they call a "telling paragraph" in the document in which the anonymous writer says: "By the way, remember how I said there was someone else that I knew about. Well, she turned out to be a huge liar. I found out that she left the WH (White House) because she was stalking the P (president) or something like that. Well, at least that gets me out of another scandal I know about."

Fox and Gillis note that for Lewinsky to have written this, she would have to have known that Tripp was already in contact with Jones' lawyers, for which there is no evidence. Moreover, they note that the word "huge" (as in "she turned out to be a huge liar") is a favorite adjective of Tripp, who employs it three times in approximately 550 words of transcribed tapes that appeared in Newsweek on Feb. 2. It is also highly doubtful, they say, that Lewinsky would have characterized herself as "stalking the P."

"And it is hard to conceive that the last sentence of this paragraph, 'Well, at least that gets me out of another scandal that I know about,' was written by anyone other than Tripp herself," Fox and Gillis write. "The context strongly suggests that the previous sentences of this paragraph were written by the same author, most likely Linda Tripp."

Support for this theory of authorship has come from a most unlikely source -- Michael Isikoff of Newsweek magazine, who has probably done more than any other journalist until now to suggest possible White House obstruction of justice on the talking points. But in Newsweek's current issue, Isikoff and Assistant Managing Editor Evan Thomas note that Tripp and Lewinsky had talked about the content of the talking points before they were committed to paper. "Is it possible that Lewinsky was basically recycling Tripp's own ideas and words right back to her?" Isikoff and Thomas ask, noting that a letter Tripp wrote to Newsweek in August after the Willey story ran supports this suggestion. In the letter, Tripp questioned Willey's credibility, Newsweek says. "Whatever happened that day in the Oval Office, if anything, is known to only two people," Tripp wrote Newsweek.

At the end of the day, it will fall to Starr to prove who wrote the talking points. But that may prove easier said than done for a document that seems to speak in several voices.

By Jonathan Broder

Jonathan Broder is Salon's Washington correspondent.

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