July 9, 1998

The 'Talking Points' Mystery

From the start of Monica-gate, we've been told that three pages of "talking points" rest at the center of the scandal.

Early on, Newsweek announced that they "may turn out to be a smoking gun." While the authorship was a mystery, the press seemed to agree on the basic facts: the talking points were delivered by Monica Lewinsky to Linda Tripp on Jan. 14; they urged Tripp to lie; and the suspect author was likely someone close to President Clinton.

In a typical formulation, The Washington Post reported on July 1 that "the grand jury ... will be keen to learn the circumstances under which Tripp obtained the so-called talking points from Lewinsky, in which Lewinsky instructed Tripp to lie to [Paula] Jones's lawyers. A central question in the investigation is who, if anyone, helped Lewinsky prepare the document."

A day earlier, Tripp's book agent Lucianne Goldberg appeared on CNN's "Larry King Live" and gave her opinion that the talking points came from Clinton aide Bruce Lindsey, an act that could be a felony obstruction of justice. "I can't prove it," Goldberg acknowledged. "I don't know it as a fact. It's just a feeling in the gut. What can you do? All you can do is claim it."

Amid this speculation, however, it seems to have been lost that there is no evidence implicating Lindsey or any other Clinton associate in preparation of the talking points.

Indeed, the document is so clumsily written -- in pseudo-legalistic jargon and a chatty personal style -- that it could easily be the work of a 24-year-old government public affairs official, especially one like Lewinsky who had just written an affidavit of her own and might have been asked by a friend to suggest what form one should take. However, that more reasonable supposition is rarely mentioned.

It is also debatable whether the Washington press corps' key conclusion is true: that the talking points "instructed Tripp to lie." For instance, on the central point of what Tripp should say about Kathleen Willey's 1993 meeting with President Clinton, the talking points advised the following:

"She came to you after she allegedly came out of the Oval [Office] and looked (however she looked), you don't recall her exact words, but she claimed at the time (whatever she claimed) and was very happy. You did not see her go in [to the Oval Office] or see her come out." [Words in parentheses were in original; the words in brackets were added for clarity.]

Next, the talking points noted the public statement of another Willey friend, Julie Steele. In 1997, Steele alleged that Willey had importuned her to lie by telling Newsweek correspondent Michael Isikoff that Willey had mentioned contemporaneously being groped by Clinton in 1993.

In that context, the talking points added: "You now do not believe that what she [Willey] claimed happened really happened. You now find it completely plausible that she herself smeared her lipstick, untucked her blouse, etc."

In summarizing this section in its original Monica-gate story, Newsweek declared that the talking points had "baldly instructed [Linda] Tripp to change her story" about Willey. It is now clear, however, that Newsweek was withholding a crucial piece of evidence that belied its own story.

After Newsweek published its Aug. 11, 1997, article on the Willey controversy, the newsmagazine received a letter from Tripp dated Aug. 14. The letter confirmed that Tripp already doubted Willey's credibility and, therefore, needed no instruction "to change her story."

"Whatever happened that day in the Oval Office, if anything, is known to only two people," Tripp wrote. "One must wonder, however, how such disparate allegations spanning a period of four years could have much, if any, credibility." The reference to the "disparate allegations" related to Willey's apparent happiness over her meeting with Clinton in 1993 and her claim in 1997 that she was distressed because Clinton had forced himself on her. [Newsweek, May 11, 1998]

The Washington press corps was wrong, too, in writing that Tripp saw Willey enter or leave the Oval Office and that the talking points wanted her to lie about this. Tripp did meet Willey in the White House after her encounter with Clinton, but not within sight of the Oval Office. Tripp's lawyer Anthony Zaccagnini told Larry King that "actually what happened is Kathleen Willey had come down to Linda's office at a different location in the West Wing." [CNN's "Larry King Live," May 26, 1998]

Again, the talking points matched the facts.

'Huge Liar'

One other passage has drawn media speculation about suborning perjury. The paragraph is deeper in the document at a juncture where the talking points switch abruptly from third person to first person, without clear explanation of exactly who is discussing what. The paragraph read:

"By the way, remember how I said there was someone else that I knew about. Well, she turned out to be a huge liar. I found out she left the WH because she was stalking the P or something like that. Well, at least that gets me out of another scandal I know about."

The assumption has been that Lewinsky put herself in the third person and Tripp in the first person. If that's the case, Lewinsky was calling herself "a huge liar" who "was stalking" Clinton.

However, the "by the way" introductory clause is confusing as is the language, "remember how I said there was someone else that I knew about." That sentence makes little sense in the context of proposed language in an affidavit. The wording also would suggest that Lewinsky knew that Tripp already was cooperating with the Jones legal team.

While the Washington news media has given the crucial talking points almost no critical analysis, two professors in the English Department at the University of Southwestern Louisiana have.

Beyond comparing the talking points with the factual record, linguistic specialists Jack Gillis and Willard Fox noted inconsistencies in the texts of the talking points as published by various newspapers and networks. The Gillis-Fox suspicion is that there were multiple versions of the talking points, rather than just one document handed over from Lewinsky to Tripp.

In The New York Times' version, for instance, a sentence near the beginning -- "You have never observed the President behaving inappropriately with anybody" -- is missing. Gillis and Fox suggest that Tripp or an associate might have manufactured the talking points on a word processor and then distributed slightly varied copies. [See http://www.rain.org/~openmind/talking2.htm]

But even if the inconsistencies resulted from typographical errors, the larger point remains: the talking points are not as clear-cut as the public has been led to believe.


Copyright (c) 1998

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