Before he committed suicide last month, deputy White House counsel Vincent Foster Jr. wrote an apparent note to himself, reading in part: "Here ruining people is considered sport."

"Yeah, I think that's the most accurate description of Washington city for its whole history as our capital," said Stephen Ambrose, a professor of history at the University of New Orleans and a biographer of presidents Dwight D. Eisenhower and Richard M. Nixon.

Almost from the founding of the republic, destructive rumors and insidious innuendos have been fired like grapeshot at even the most esteemed of public figures. "They even did it to {George} Washington," said Ambrose, who noted that enemies of the first president hinted he harbored royal ambitions.

Part of the Washington equation is the constant tension between the powerful and those who would destroy them or those around them. "Why are people going after Rostenkowski so hard?" Ambrose said, referring to the embattled chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, Rep. Dan Rostenkowski (D-Ill.), who is under investigation for allegedly exchanging postage stamps and vouchers for cash at the House Post Office. "Well, he's a very powerful man and what he does affects us all. . . ."

Another answer, of course, is the possibility that Rostenkowski's problems are more substantive than just political back-stabbing. "Very often, those who Washington turns on brought it on themselves," Ambrose said, "{but} not always."

In Foster's case, there had been no substantive allegation of wrongdoing -- criminal or otherwise. Although he and other administration officials had been harshly criticized for a series of incidents from ill-planned presidential appointments to the White House travel office firings, no personal scandal was attached to Foster's name.

But some believe that the political climate in the capital has grown harsher in recent years, a change that would be especially difficult for persons unused to the place.

Political debate has undergone a "hardening," increasingly descending to the level of a "conflict between people," said the Rev. Everett Goodwin, pastor of First Baptist Church of Washington, whose congregation includes a number of members of Congress and Capitol Hill staffers.

This, he said, is taking place amid a broader cultural current, felt in churches and government offices alike, in which the common view is that "anyone in a leadership position is up to no good."

That view would be particularly directed at the White House, where the public's sense of investment is strongest. "The pressures at the center . . . really just get to be very, very formidable," said the Rev. John P. Langan, professor of Christian ethics at Georgetown University.

And, in the U.S. system of politics, those pressures can fall on persons who were largely unknown to the public only a few years previously and are very unused to having their professional and personal lives examined -- sometimes unfairly or inaccurately -- by complete strangers.

"We're not nearly so centralized a country as say, Britain or France . . . {where} reputations are built much more gradually," Langan said.

In the case of Clinton's presidency, he added, some of the pressures have been self-imposed, given that Clinton came into office promising major changes in the way government does business.

"I have to tell you the people who have come into this administration are among the most idealistic and committed to public service of any I've worked with in Washington. And I've been here 20 years," said Rabbi David Saperstein, director of the Religious Action Center of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations, which represents the Reform Jewish movement in Washington.

Langan cautioned against interpreting Foster's despair over his job too broadly. "Words like {those in Foster's note} have a power and a poignancy. But we have to keep our critical faculties about ourselves," he said.

Even if the possibility of being publicly disgraced is a fact of life at the city's highest levels, he added, "it doesn't cause most the folks to do what he did. You've only got half the puzzle here."