Foster's Death a Suicide
By David Von Drehle and Howard Schneider
As depression consumed him, Vince Foster found it hard to eat, to sleep. He could not concentrate at work. His sense of humor dried up. His heart pounded and his stomach boiled.
But the White House deputy counsel was dependable to the last. Despite his illness Foster wrapped up stray details of his late father's estate and paid the family bills, as he had promised his wife he would.
Only then did he kill himself.
Special counsel Robert B. Fiske Jr. concluded that Foster's death in Fort Marcy Park last July was a suicide. The Fiske investigation involved four lawyers, five physicians, seven FBI agents, approximately 125 witnesses; also DNA tests, microscopes and lasers. All that effort resolved many of the lingering mysteries surrounding Foster's death. But the largest mystery remained:
Why did the stings of Washington life, endured by so many, prove fatal for Vincent W. Foster Jr.?
Fiske's report tells the story of a man stretched until he broke. As simple and as mysterious as that. In the months since Foster's body was found resting on a slope beside a Civil War cannon, the airwaves and printing presses have been filled with theories of conspiracy and intrigue. Rumors about his death shook the stock market and dogged the president. Foster came to be seen by many as the key to a vault of dark secrets about some of the most powerful people in the world.
According to Fiske, the truth belied all the ugly glamour. Foster's death was a personal collapse, not a White House scandal.
From the pinnacle of the Arkansas legal establishment, Foster leaped into the service of his boyhood friend, Bill Clinton, after Clinton was elected president. According to Fiske, the toll on Foster was intense from the beginning. During the transition period when he vetted a number of top appointees Foster complained to his Little Rock physician of depression and anxiety.
His symptoms grew worse when he got to Washington. In January 1993, Zoe E. Baird was forced to withdraw her nomination as attorney general because she had failed to pay taxes for a nanny; fresh from his inauguration, President Clinton was hit with charges of elitism and corner-cutting and incompetent screening. Foster blamed himself the Fiske report shows him constantly shouldering blame for mistakes made in the chaotic White House and the night of the Baird debacle Foster was literally sick from a panic attack.
The embarrassment was even greater when seven employees of the White House travel office were summarily fired amid hints of financial shenanigans, because it turned out the investigation had been slapdash, the firings hasty, and the odor of cronyism hung over the whole affair. The "Travelgate" fallout singed Foster and burned his friend and protege, William Kennedy, also of the counsel's office. Kennedy drew an official reprimand.
Foster's colleagues at the White House advised him to shake off the episode, but for him Travelgate apparently became an obsession. He felt guilty because he had assigned Kennedy to the travel office investigation. He begged his boss, then-White House counsel Bernard W. Nussbaum, to let him take the heat and the reprimand in Kennedy's place.
When Nussbaum refused, Foster began shouting. And he never shouted.
During the last six to eight weeks of his life, the Fiske report said, Foster was "increasingly obsessed" with Travelgate and the possibility of a congressional hearing. Though he was confident he and the White House had done nothing wrong, he told his friend Webster L. Hubbell that "in Washington you are assumed to have done something wrong even if you have not... . He thought the matter would never end."
Foster considered resigning but could not face the "personal humiliation he would have felt" returning to Arkansas in defeat, Fiske found. Instead, he "appeared exhausted ... drawn and gray," according to the report; his weight plummeted, and he went whole nights without sleeping. He would not take sleeping pills because he feared becoming addicted.
A string of highly critical editorials in the Wall Street Journal in June and July 1993 left Foster even more "distraught," according to the report. He told his brother-in-law, former congressman Beryl Anthony Jr. (D-Ark.), that the reputation he had spent a lifetime building was being tarnished.
His friends had always known him as a rock, a pillar, sturdy and self-sufficient, but in his last days Foster was just a shell. Normally a workhorse, now he was just going through the motions at work. His anxiety over congressional hearings deepened. He contacted a Denver lawyer, James Lyons who had looked into the Clinton's Whitewater dealings during the 1992 campaign and begged him to come to Washington to help him prepare.
Nussbaum thought Foster was "overreacting," Fiske reported. Foster's wife Lisa asked him to make a list of all the things that were bothering him. This list was found six days after his death, torn and dumped in the bottom of a briefcase. He spent time outlining the "opening argument" he would give in his defense if Congress went ahead with hearings.
On Friday, July 16, Foster confided to his sister, Sheila Anthony, that he was fighting depression and did not know what to do. His voice was tense and strained, Anthony recognized the tone; it was the sound of their father's distraught speeches as he neared his death.
Sheila Anthony hastily arranged for her brother to speak to a psychiatrist "off-the-record," because Foster was worried he would damage his security clearance. She gave him two more doctors' names for good measure. Foster dialed the first name twice, but apparently hung up when he got an answering machine.
That evening, he and Lisa went to the Maryland shore for a weekend of rest. To the friends they encountered, Foster seemed to be doing all right, but Lisa saw the strain, Fiske found. When he got home Sunday night, Foster went to the phone and called Lyons again for another half-hour of fretting over Travelgate.
Monday, July 19, brought another Journal editorial. Foster told his sister he was not ready to see a psychiatrist; instead, he called his doctor in Little Rock, who prescribed anti-depressant medication. Foster apparently took one tablet later that night. He spent the day in his office, mostly with the door closed, wrapping up odds and ends: thank-you notes, his father's estate, the family bills.
He could no longer see the bright side. Tuesday morning, July 20, Ruth Bader Ginsburg was breezing through her confirmation to the Supreme Court and Louis J. Freeh was nominated to head the FBI. "Two home runs," Nussbaum exulted, but according to Fiske, Foster's response was "markedly understated."
He ate lunch on the couch of his office. Then, about 1 p.m., Vince Foster picked up his suit coat but not his briefcase and breezed from the office saying, "I'll be back." His car was seen in the Fort Marcy parking lot about three hours later, his suit jacket neatly folded on the passenger seat. At about 5:30 p.m. his body was discovered.
Foster had shot himself once in the mouth with an old revolver.
Phil Carroll, a partner at Foster's old law firm and godfather to one of Foster's three children, said it would almost be easier for Foster's friends to cope if Fiske had determined that foul play was involved. Then Foster's death might make sense.
"I guess I would be delighted to learn he was murdered because it would put a whole new angle on it. But that is not going to happen. It was suicide and I just hope now that people will accept the conclusion and let's get on with it."
The conspiracy theories and talk show fantasies caused a lot of pain to Foster's family and his friends hoped it was finally over. Fiske's report "is what people anticipated" in Little Rock, according to Cliff Baker, artistic director of the Arkansas Repertory Theater, where Foster once served as board chairman. "It is not something new to discover that Washington can dash a lot of vision and hope."
© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company