Mention the word conspiracy and people tend to have one of two reactions.
Some react with instant fascination and intrigue, eager to consider the possibilities. Others react with instant suspicion and a roll of the eyes, which is pretty much what I did when I heard Hillary Rodham Clinton blame "a vast right-wing conspiracy" for the latest scandal to send her husband's approval ratings soaring. As if Monica Lewinsky is a Mata Hari secretly working for Sen. Jesse Helms.
But now it's obviously true that at least one kind of conspiracy took place--a small, tawdry tabloid conspiracy. Lewinsky, by all appearances, was an unwitting dupe, and although political motives may be mixed in too, this seems more about sleaze-for-money and sleaze-for-fame than anything else. It is even sleaze for sleaze's sake.
"I love dish! I live for dish!" Lucianne S. Goldberg is quoted as saying in a fascinating story by Jane Mayer in the New Yorker's Feb. 2 issue. Goldberg, you probably know by now, is the New York book agent and self-described Clinton hater who has boasted of how she spied for the Nixon White House by impersonating a reporter on George McGovern's press plane. She has also spoken proudly of how she encouraged client Linda Tripp to secretly audiotape her phone conversations with then-friend Monica Lewinsky.
If so, it would seem they conspired to violate Maryland law that forbids such taping without the consent of all parties. And while Tripp offers a contorted explanation of her betrayal of Lewinsky, Goldberg boasts of how she turned down the National Enquirer's offer of $750,000 for the tapes. Dish this sleazy is worth millions.
Goldberg knows sleaze. She knows Mark Fuhrman, for example. She's his agent and helped bring his best-seller, "Murder in Brentwood," into being.
Small world, isn't it? Only in Tabloid America would a double homicide in Brentwood and allegations of extramarital sex at the White House find the same broker. Only in Tabloid America would a thoroughly disgraced LAPD detective whose misdeeds may have allowed a double murderer to get off wind up cashing in with a best-seller, getting a talk radio show and be regarded by some people, including the likes of Goldberg and Tripp, as a terrific guy.
Goldberg told Mayer she learned about Linda Tripp through a mutual acquaintance, the conservative columnist and Fox News commentator Tony Snow.
Among the things they had in common was an admiration for Mark Fuhrman. As Mayer reported: "Tripp, it turned out, was a huge fan of Mark Fuhrman's--'a Moonie for him,' according to Goldberg."
And obviously the pair shared a passion for "dish." Goldberg had evidently encouraged Tripp's efforts at a book to be titled "Behind Closed Doors: What I Saw at the Clinton White House."
When Tripp told Goldberg about her young friend Monica's racy tales, Goldberg said nobody would believe the stories without audiotapes. The tapes provided the pair with the ingredients for a fabulous scandal souffle that may or may not yet collapse.
Again, it may be hard to understand why conversations between Goldberg and Tripp may tell us anything beyond their relationship and Tripp's betrayal of Lewinsky. But obviously Goldberg has learned the value of the tape recorder.
It was Nixon himself who authorized the taping that would ultimately bring him down and even now continues to reveal his paranoid hatreds. It was an aspiring screenwriter who made the tapes, with Mark Fuhrman's consent, that ultimately discredited Fuhrman, revealed his racist hatreds and led to his conviction on perjury charges. (It's worth remembering that an LAPD investigation of Fuhrman's tales of brutality concluded he was lavishly embellishing his war stories.)
And now we have the tapes of Linda Tripp and Monica Lewinsky.
Strange are the workings of Tabloid America, but maybe we're just keeping pace with the world. Tabloid culture was implicated, of course, in the death of Princess Diana. I blame the drunk chauffeur, but it's interesting that some observers even trace the paparazzis' treatment of the Royals to Rupert Murdoch's influence on Fleet Street, with its premium on dish. Now Tabloid America is hoping this alleged sex scandal might bring down President Clinton.
But Tabloid America is not America, just part of it. An America that has lost presidents to assassins, doesn't seem interested in losing a president over something like this. Clinton's credibility is down, but his approval rating is up. One reason: It's a backlash against tabloid culture.
The polls are fascinating. Some people believe Clinton's denials, some give him the benefit of the doubt, some think he and Hillary are both lying through their teeth. But many who think he's lying and committing perjury also seem for the moment to regard these as forgivable sins--that they are lies told about regrettable behavior, perhaps, but lies told for the good of his family, himself, Monica Lewinsky--lies that may spare the nation a lot of heartache.
To look at Clinton's approval ratings, it is impossible not to conclude that many, many Americans frankly approve of the lie.