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A hustler dressed in patriot's clothes

The indictment of Linda Tripp seemed to arrive last week with the faint, fetid aroma of old laundry. Didn't we jam her into some attic trunk last winter with all those other self-righteous creeps who'd turned consensual sex into a constitutional crisis? Hadn't we been through Bosnia since then, and the Kennedy grief, and the terrors at Columbine High and Atlanta? Hadn't we driven a stake through the holier-than-thou hearts of all those who'd dragged us through the loathsome Clinton-Lewinsky-Tripp business?

Well, no, not exactly. And because we hadn't, more power to us.

Maybe the need for simple privacy can count for something in America. Maybe the notion of coaxing a foolish young woman's trust and then undressing her in front of the whole world stirs a sense of revulsion in the national psyche.

Last week, a grand jury in Maryland, having listened to a year's worth of evidence from State Prosecutor Stephen Montanarelli, expressed its sentiments, indicting Tripp on two charges of violating state wiretap laws.

"The grand jury action screams out that Ms. Tripp did not accidentally cross over the line but that she eagerly jumped and did so willingly and repeatedly," James Cabezas, chief investigator for the state prosecutor's office, said last Friday, moments after the indictments were handed up.

What the grand jury reminds us, in this postscript to the degrading White House sexual scandal, is that Tripp lied in all the scuzziest ways. She lied when she called herself Monica Lewinsky's mother confessor, and she lied when she tried to skirt the edges of the law, and she lied again when she tried to declare her back-stabbing-for-profit an act of national patriotism.

Just to refresh everybody's memory, here's one example of the high-minded Tripp patriotism, in October 1997, as she tries to seduce Lewinsky into describing her sexual relationship with the president of the United States. Lewinsky mentions that she's had sex with eight men in her life.

"Well," Tripp says, "I guess you can count the big creep . . . ."

"Not at all," Lewinsky replies. "I never even came close to sleeping with him."

"Why, because you were standing up?"

"We didn't have sex, Linda! Not _ we didn't have sex."

"Well, what do you call it?"

"We fooled around. . . . Having sex is intercourse."

On such subtleties _ the definition of "sex," among them _ the nation went through wrenching months and sometimes lost sight of the piffling, private nature of the charges _ and the way we'd managed to learn about them.

The central fact about Tripp and her secret tape-recording of intimate conversations is simple: We have laws against this, and she knew it. We also have a criminal law in Maryland that says secretly tape-recording a phone conversation is forbidden.

Tripp knew this, and she's admitted that she knew it. That's a crucial point. Last year, she told a federal grand jury that she knowingly violated Maryland's anti-eavesdropping law _ but she made the statement after being granted immunity by independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr.

Starr gave her federal cover. The indictment in Howard County, Md., says we value the privacy of individuals a little more here.

Does any of this excuse the sexual recklessness of President Clinton? Of course not.

But the Tripp indictment also reminds us of the excesses of Starr, the prosecutor who tried to turn Clinton's sex life into a constitutional crisis _ with Tripp's help.

For all his grand moralizing, Starr happily took possession of Tripp's tape-recordings of her conversations with Lewinsky. He knew they'd been made illegally, and Tripp knew they were illegal. In a lot of people's minds, that makes both of them traffickers in illegal goods. Not patriots _ criminals.

So, while Starr skips away, Tripp does not. She'll await a trial date, while her lawyers look for loopholes. And that familiar, fetid aroma lingers with her: the smell of a self-righteous hustler who tries to pass herself off as a patriot.

+ Michael Olesker is a Baltimore Sun columnist. +

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