Press Just Doesn’t Get the (Talking) Points

For months, none of the smart people in the national press figured out who had written Primary Colors , and perhaps they never would have without the assistance of Donald Foster, the Vassar College English professor who exposed Joe Klein as Anonymous. Now, amid much uninformed speculation about who composed the “talking points” at the crux of Kenneth Starr’s investigation, a pair of academics has prepared an original analysis that strongly suggests the three-page document had multiple authors–none of whom is Bill Clinton’s aide and best friend Bruce Lindsey.

But one of them, according to the two scholars, just may be Linda Tripp.

Willard Fox is a professor of English at the University of Southwest Louisiana, where his associate John F.X. Gillis is a graduate assistant and Ph.D. candidate. Over the past few months, they have compiled evidence that raises serious questions about the origin of the “talking points” document and its handling by the media. In some respects, what they’ve pointed out is so plainly obvious that it is amazing no one else noticed the anomalies earlier (and that no one, including me, paid sufficient heed to Mr. Fox and Mr. Gillis when they first began to distribute their work three months ago).

The semiofficial story about the talking points, as told by Ms. Tripp to Newsweek magazine, is this: Monica Lewinsky gave Ms. Tripp the document during a car ride home from the Pentagon on Jan. 14 with the aim of inducing Ms. Tripp to perjure herself in answering questions about the President posed by lawyers for Paula Jones. Ms. Tripp, faithless friend but upright citizen, then turned the “talking points” over to the independent counsel to help corroborate her allegations of obstruction of justice.

Although Ms. Tripp has said she doesn’t know who wrote the document, she and others (notably Philip Weiss in this newspaper, William Safire in The New York Times and the loquacious Lucianne Goldberg on Larry King Live ) have voiced suspicion of Mr. Lindsey, in part because he and Ms. Tripp had discussed its main topic–Kathleen Willey’s allegations of Presidential “groping”–at some point last summer. There has been much loose talk that this was a “smoking gun” that implicated the President.

But as Mr. Fox and Mr. Gillis point out, a closer reading of the “talking points” document shows it to be an ambiguous piece of evidence at best. After examining the text as published by seven major media outlets on 10 occasions, they have found at least three versions of what is supposedly a single physical document. The text variances are mostly minor but still telling, especially because all the media outlets involved claim to possess a true copy obtained from “sources.” An entire sentence–”You have never observed the president behaving inappropriately with anybody”–is absent from the versions published in The Times and The Washington Post . (The complete Fox-Gillis analysis can be found on their Web site at http://www.ucs.usl.edu/~jfg0701/essays/tripp.html).

If Ms. Tripp told the truth to Newsweek –that she got the “talking points” from Ms. Lewinsky and gave them to Mr. Starr–such variations would be impossible, except in the highly unlikely event that Mr. Lindsey played a prank by printing out various versions of the talking points that he then gave to The Times , The Washington Post , USA Today , ABC, NBC, U.S. News & World Report and Newsweek . Otherwise, somebody is lying. When Village Voice media critic James Ledbetter posed this conundrum recently to several editors, he got few answers, none of them satisfactory.

Then there is the meaning of the text. Read it again with guidance from Mr. Fox and Mr. Gillis, and you’ll probably notice, as they did, that it is written in three distinct voices. The first sounds like an attorney, formally laying out a template for Ms. Tripp’s response to questions about Ms. Willey and the President. (This section is reproduced later in the first person, as if Ms. Tripp had block-copied the template to create a draft affidavit.) To anyone familiar with Ms. Tripp’s account of the alleged Willey incident, it is clear that these instructions vary little from what she has said publicly. In what sense is that “subornation of perjury,” as Newsweek baldly charged last February and so many babbling pundits have repeated since?

The document’s second voice is more familiar and colloquial, written by someone who refers to Ms. Tripp’s former attorney Kirby Behre by his first name and who isn’t sure about the difference between a deposition and an affidavit. The third voice identified in the talking points by Mr. Fox and Mr. Gillis is the most peculiar. To them it sounds like an e-mail written in real time: “By the way, remember how I said there was someone else that I knew about. Well, she turned out to be this huge liar. I found out 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.” Would Mr. Lindsey have written that paragraph about the “distraught” Ms. Lewinsky and then sent it to her while trying to secure her silence? Would Ms. Lewinsky have written that unflattering description of herself? If so, how would she have known on Jan. 14 that Ms. Tripp already had mentioned her to the Jones lawyers?

These are merely pertinent questions. Mr. Fox and Mr. Gillis think the answers are in the hands of the F.B.I., which reportedly is examining computers used by Ms. Tripp and Ms. Lewinsky. They suspect that the “talking points” document is a composite of e-mail messages between Ms. Tripp and others, perhaps including Ms. Lewinsky (and perhaps not).

Such an alternative scenario would help explain why Mr. Starr has had such difficulty in reaching an immunity agreement with Ms. Lewinsky and her lawyers. She is reported to have balked at the independent counsel’s demand that she testify about obstruction of justice as well as sex. If the talking points didn’t come from Ms. Lewinsky–if, for example, her fingerprints aren’t found on the document and it doesn’t match up with files in the computers she used–then there may be scant hard evidence of an obstruction conspiracy. And Ms. Tripp’s credibility as a prosecution witness, never radiant, would be fatally tarnished.

Meanwhile, are the accusers of Bruce Lindsey willing to wager a dinner that he will be proved the author of the talking points, despite his firm denial? At this point, I would be inclined to take that bet, and I know a few others who might be, too.

Press Just Doesn’t Get the (Talking) Points