Linda Tripp: The Friend From Hell

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Roberto Borea / AP

In his Inferno, Dante Alighieri (1265-1321) had nothing to say about someone who secretly tape-records the conversations of a friend with the intent to make those conversations public knowledge. But that omission only underscores the late Middle Ages' ignorance of the new occasions for sin that electronic technology would someday provide. About betrayal, the diverse ways in which people use and abuse the confidence of others who trust them, Dante possessed an encyclopedic knowledge and an unforgiving eye. He consigned history's fraudulent figures, including those who gave bad counsel or who spread scandal, to various folds in his eighth circle of hell. The only lower and more hideously painful depth was the ninth circle, the place Dante reserved for those who went beyond personal betrayal into public treachery.

So there isn't much doubt, within a circle or two, about where Dante would have pigeonholed Linda Tripp had he been able to foresee such an apparition--a false counselor wired for replays. For all their stupefying banality, the tapes Tripp made over a three-month period of her conversations with Monica Lewinsky are self-incriminating, an eloquent and chilling record of ongoing personal treachery. What is surprising is how many contemporary Americans find Tripp's conduct as hellish as Dante would have. We live at a far remove from the medieval poet's moral cosmology. Where he prescribed eternal damnation and torture, we are inclined to recommend therapy, to empathize, to view the malefactor as a victim.

That, in fact, is what Tripp invited us all to do in late July, after she completed her testimony before the Starr grand jury: "I understand that there has been a great deal of speculation about just who I am and how I got here. Well, the answer is simple. I'm you. I'm just like you."

Really? Show of hands, please. How many of you would do what she did? Tripp's supporters argue that she had no choice. She possessed, thanks in part to her own inveterate busybodyness, explosive hearsay information about presidential sexual misconduct. And Lewinsky, the voluble informant, was allegedly urging Tripp to commit perjury in the Paula Jones civil lawsuit. What else could Tripp do to buttress any testimony she might be forced to give except start taping Lewinsky?

Unfortunately for Tripp, this line of defense amounts to a condemnation: she hoodwinked a friend in order to protect herself. Even the most rabid Clinton haters, who would welcome any means of getting a philandering perjurer out of the White House, must, or should, wonder: What would life be like if everyone, all friends and loved ones, behaved like Linda Tripp?

--By Paul Gray