Mommie dearest

Linda Tripp, America's favorite back-stabber and ghoul, kicks off her long-awaited national rehabilitation tour '99.

By Gary Kamiya
Published February 13, 1999 8:00PM (EST)

The same week an Italian court ruled that a woman wearing blue jeans could not have been raped and the Rev. Jerry Falwell, in an ecstatic vision, divined creeping homosexuality in the purple Teletubbie, a nicely coifed Linda Tripp appeared on NBC's "Today" to tell America that she did it all to protect Monica.

"I tried to be almost a surrogate mom," Tripp said in a soft, sincere voice. "She often said, 'I wish I had a mom like you.'" With soft sincerity, she spoke of her warm feelings toward Monica. Sincerely and softly, she said, "The notion that [Lewinsky and President Clinton's relationship] was consensual should offend every mother in the country." There was so much sincerity and softness in the air that it would have taken every mother in the country to fumigate the studio.

Tripp, 40 pounds lighter and completely made over since her August post-grand jury rehab show bombed on the courthouse steps, was tastefully attired in a checked jacket. Gone were the ungainly wings of hair, which at various times had given her the unwished-for appearance of a vast, demonic Pekingese. The formerly Pullman-size bags under her eyes had been reduced to carry-ons. The Tripp chin, which had tended toward floppiness in her earlier performances, was trimmer and tighter. Before she began her rigorous training for the National Rehab Tour, Tripp's face had an oversize, mannish quality that conjured up unfortunate images of a cackling hag stirring hideous ingredients in a big iron pot. Now her entire face looked more tender, more feminine, as if it had been skillfully sandblasted. Virtually all physical reminders of the bad old Tripp, the double double toil and trouble, hover through the fog and filthy air Tripp had been erased.

Tripp's on-camera demeanor also appeared to have benefited from first-class professional de-wicca-ing. Her expression, as reporter Jamie Gangel grilled her, remained sensitive and solicitous. The aggressive, quavering sanctimony of her infamous courthouse-steps appearance, when millions of Americans ran screaming in terror from their houses after she abruptly informed them that "I'M YOU," was replaced by a more low-key, affable persona. Gone was the ineffective Body Snatcher rhetoric; instead, Tripp spoke, apparently from the region of her heart, of her maternal feelings. (It appears not to have occurred to her or her handlers that the idea of Linda Tripp as the Mother of America is a nightmare on an almost Boschian scale, a kind of metaphysical demon wrapped around existence itself.) "This was to protect Monica," she said in all candor. Candidly, she revealed that she had taped her friend to save her life. "She threatened suicide on more than one occasion," she candidly revealed. She also said that she believed President Clinton might have, not to put too fine a point on it, put a contract out on her. "There were threats," she said.

But perhaps sensing that this Vito Clintonioni, Linda Tripp has become a stone in my shoe line might not be the best choice, Tripp moved on to other subjects. Flag-waving was her first refuge. Of the taping, she said, "I thought of it as my patriotic duty." She even, in what may have been a slight reach, solemnly reminded viewers that she had been an Army wife for many years.

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At the end of the interview, Gangel said that the country had gone through a long and divisive ordeal, and the upshot had been that Lewinsky's life had been ruined and Clinton acquitted. Was it worth it? "I would do it again," Tripp said.

The "Today" appearance was just one tentacle of a multi-armed media strategy that Tripp is employing to transform herself from a comic villain, the Snidely Whiplash of the '90s, into a maternal moral exemplar, the mother America never had. On Monday, she will perform on Larry King, and she has also given an interview to the New York Times in which she reportedly broke down in tears. No tears were visible during the "Today" broadcast. Whether this is because the tears just wouldn't come, she wished for some reason to avoid having them captured on film or the print interview simply made her more emotional remained unclear at press time.

Will the National Rehabilitation Tour '99 (has anyone noticed that such tours are now announced without irony or even comment in the media, as if there was nothing peculiar about a private citizen undertaking an enormous PR campaign?) work? Tripp can surely take heart in the comebacks of such recent butts-of-all-jokes as Dick Morris and Marv Albert, those dueling poster boys for the Oral Stage who have graduated from sucking toes and biting backs to pontificating and calling basketball games. America does indeed appear to forgive quickly, and a few months of slick media mumbo-jumbo, better hair and a quick reinsertion into the all-plastic-parts American spectacle machine can turn just about any misdeed into a commercial for a smiling, artificial self.

Tripp, however, faces a tougher road than Morris or Albert, or even earlier mustache-twirlers like Oliver North. Since her position makes it impossible for her to express formulaic remorse, she doesn't have access to our formulaic forgiveness, the first stage in the well-defined path that ends with her being able to walk down to the 7-Eleven without being regarded by people as someone combining various elements of Goneril, Judas, Lizzie Borden, Mrs. O'Leary and Tokyo Rose. Moreover, complete personal betrayal is still regarded by most people as a greater misdeed than doing the nasty, even with those you ain't supposed to. Finally, we need a permanent comic villain -- both to put this whole mess behind us, and just because we're kinda sadistic that way -- and Tripp is too perfect for the role. The egregiously slimy nature of her offenses -- those smarmy recorded instructions to Monica to "put the dress in a zip-loc bag," those "re-created" conversations she manipulated Monica into -- just can't be plastic-wrapped. They're too ridiculously over the top.

For all of these reasons, Tripp's rehab odds are down there with the likes of O.J. Simpson, Tonya Harding or another misunderstood savior, Ted Kaczynski (who, in a bit of cosmic serendipity, announced Friday that he too was embarking on an image-rehab campaign!). Tripp should either embrace her fate, starting a new postmodern career as a villainess in Quentin Tarantino flicks, or move to the friendly confines of the white-supremacist portion of some Western state, where the idea that Clinton ordered her whacked will fall on fertile soil. Maybe they'll even declare her their Honorary Mother.

Gary Kamiya

Gary Kamiya is a Salon contributing writer.

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