Washington • Of all the second acts being performed in American life (remember when Donald Trump supported abortion rights?), there are few as bold as the show Linda Tripp is starring in right now.
Twenty years ago, Tripp’s surreptitious recordings of Monica Lewinsky led to President Bill Clinton’s impeachment. A former White House official, Tripp befriended the young Lewinsky, won her confidence, coaxed from her details about her tryst with the president and then betrayed her — making sure the world knew about a certain semen-stained blue dress.
But now Tripp is back, reinvented and reimagined, as a pioneer of the #MeToo movement, a bold fighter against corruption in government and a woman who placed principle above self.
Her actions in the Lewinsky scandal “had nothing to do with politics,” she said in an appearance on Capitol Hill on Monday — her first public speech in 18 years. “I was faced with a corruption — and again this was not partisan in any way — that was infecting the office of the presidency.”
This is a tricky case to make, given her oft-expressed animus toward the Clintons, and Tripp had trouble as she proclaimed her impartiality. “It was simply at its core about left and right,” she said. She caught this Freudian slip and started again. “Rather, it was always about right and left,” she said, then halted again. “No. Wrong,” she said. “Right and wrong — never left or right.”
With 20 years of hindsight, Tripp did admit to one regret: that she didn’t do more, sooner, to bring down Clinton. She should have taken contemporaneous notes and gathered more evidence, she said. “Had I done all that … it might have been the removal of a president from office. What I provided to the independent counsel was insufficient.”
Tripp is being modest. The information she gave Ken Starr transformed the sleepy Whitewater land-deal investigation into a lurid exposé about sex and lies. She helped move American politics toward the tawdry carnival it has become. She alleged corruption but exposed oral sex; the “crime” undergirding impeachment was Clinton’s lying about the affair after Tripp’s “whistleblowing.”
Fortune has been creative with many participants in the Clinton-Lewinsky imbroglio. Starr lieutenant Brett M. Kavanaugh is now a Supreme Court nominee. Lanny Davis, a Clinton lawyer, is now Trump-fixer Michael Cohen’s lawyer (and arguing for secret taping). Jonah Goldberg, the son of Tripp’s PR agent Lucianne Goldberg, is now a leading voice of anti-Trump conservatism. And Trump, who then called Tripp “evil personified,” has a new job, too.
But Tripp’s makeover tops theirs. The woman who spoke on Capitol Hill on Monday was leaner and stylish, now with a collar-length hairdo, pearl jewelry, manicured nails and striped reading glasses. Remarried, she operates a year-round Christmas store in Middleburg. And the physical transformation is the least of it. In an interview with Britain’s Daily Mail in December, she positioned herself as a #MeToo forerunner, exposing “what people will put up with of men, specifically in positions of power.” She has scolded women who were not with her back then as Jane-come-latelies.
On Monday, Tripp positioned her long-ago actions in the honorable tradition of whistleblowing, in which the “truth is not disposable” and “integrity and honor means something.” She also spoke of the suffering she endured for her selfless gesture. “I know what it’s like to be in the crosshairs of the most powerful person in the world,” she said, describing the “high-tech lynching” she endured. “When you speak truth to power, the powerful push back.”
Among the truths Tripp has spoken since then have been telling Breitbart during the 2016 campaign that “everyone” in the West Wing knew Clinton slept with “thousands of women” and that “Monica Lewinsky is alive today” because Tripp exposed the affair. She told the Daily Mail that when Trump won the election in 2016, Tripp told her husband, “The nation will never know what a bullet it dodged tonight.”
Tripp made no mention of Trump on Monday. The “lying president” she mentioned telling “falsehoods to the American people” was Clinton. But Tripp was in a safe place. The group, the National Whistleblower Center, was created by her lawyers, one of whom introduced Tripp by saying that she “helped cement the cornerstone of our democracy.”
Tripp spoke of the success she and her fellow whistleblowers have had. “Over time we’ve forged a path leading to much greater accountability in industry, in politics, justice and a more safe and honest world,” she said.
Much greater accountability? In politics? Thank you for that, Linda Tripp.
Dana Milbank is a Washington Post columnist. He sketches the foolish, the fallacious and the felonious in politics. Follow Dana Milbank on Twitter, @Milbank.