US eavesdrops on Linda and Monica's soap opera

IF MELODRAMA is your addiction, then run to get hold of the Lewinsky- Tripp tapes. The young White House intern poured out her heart to her "friend" Linda Tripp, seeking advice on her disintegrating relationship with a boyfriend - the President of the United States.

Yesterday the tapes were released and replayed on every television channel. CNN, which had been bringing military analysis of Iraq for the past week, switched to discussions of dry-cleaning and adultery. All this is already available as a transcript, so the content does not matter. In any case, Bill Clinton has emerged the political victor, and Congress will struggle with impeachment hearings beginning tomorrow.

White House reaction was described as "somewhere between none and indifference". All that is left is the human drama, for want of a better word. The near- impeachment of Richard Nixon relied heavily on secret White House tapes that formed the centrepiece of the Watergate hearings.

The only thing the Lewinsky-Tripp tapes have in common with them is deletion of expletives from both sides but most often from Ms Tripp. "(Expletive) him and the little motorcade he rode in on," she says of the President. Chunks disappear, apparently scattered with words too offensive for broadcast. Films and baseball games chatter away in the background as they talk. "Get down, get down," says Ms Tripp at one point but it is an admonition to her dog, not the lusty Ms Lewinsky.

The conversations are not pleasant listening. Ms Tripp is also heard scrunching sweetie wrappers as she lectures her "friend." "I came home and ate a huge truffle, trifle, whatever, so you can tell how upset I am. I haven't done that in months. Made myself sick. (Deleted)"

Ms Lewinsky comes over as naive, foolish, over-trusting and somewhat self-absorbed, but basically understandable. Ms Tripp, by contrast, is relentless. She hectors, demands, wheedles and often fails to sympathise. She is sarcastic and sometimes just plain mean.

But the temptation to judge must be tempered by knowing where each is now. Ms Tripp recorded the conversations in secret and is the subject of a grand-jury investigation. She has been pilloried for her looks, her voice and her hairstyle.

Ms Lewinsky, by contrast, has signed a contract that will make her a millionaire. Ms Tripp's taping habit has its origins in the suggestion of a friend, the literary agent Lucianne Goldberg, that she obtain firm evidence before writing a book. The result was a set of 37 tapes that will doubtless be the ideal Christmas present for younger relatives, supplemented in February by Monica's Story, by Andrew Morton. The publishing industry, it is clear, has a lot to answer for.