Depressed and losing sleep after a few months in the White House, Vince Foster became convinced that the turmoil surrounding his work for President Clinton would never stop. He’d already been the subject of a scathing newspaper editorial that had raised questions about his long association with Bill and Hillary Clinton, and his name kept appearing in White House controversies.
Those early Clinton scandals didn’t have much to them. But that was no solace to Foster.
“In Washington you are assumed to have done something wrong even if you have not,” he told a friend in 1993, a few weeks before the deputy counsel left his office midday, went to a park and shot himself.
“He thought the matter would never end,” the friend later explained to federal investigators looking in to Foster’s death.
And it never did.
Not after the investigation concluded beyond any doubt that Foster killed himself. Not decades later — after multiple inquiries by police, FBI agents, Republicans, Democrats and two special prosecutors had all debunked the still-persistent falsehood that the Clintons had Foster killed to protect themselves from what he knew.
And even this week — a quarter century and three presidents later — conspiracy theories formed in an age of VHS and newsprint still ricochet through Twitter streams and instant news cycles.
The latest vessel for Vince Foster paranoia is the story of Seth Rich, a Democratic National Committee staffer who was found shot to death last year, while Hillary Clinton was campaigning for president.
As with Foster, local authorities have tried to dispel rumors that politics played a role in Rich’s death. In this case, D.C. police believe he died in a random robbery attempt.
Relatives have also begged rumormongers to lay off. On Tuesday, a family spokesman decried an erroneous Fox News report suggesting Rich was involved in leaking Democratic Party documents before his death. Fox’s story was later retracted.
But Foster’s family had tried that, too — both men became conspiracy victims anyway. The Fox News story continues to collect comments like “Seth Rich has joined Vince Foster in the pile of bodies that follow Hillary Clinton around.” The Twittersphere is full of the same.
A year ago, it was Donald Trump who had raised Foster’s specter in an interview with The Washington Post as he campaigned against Hillary Clinton. “Very fishy,” Trump said. “He knew everything that was going on, and then all of a sudden he committed suicide.”
And before Trump there was Infowars. And before Infowars, there was Sean Hannity.
The Washington Post’s Callum Borchers once likened Foster to a ghost — haunting conservative politics with politically convenient conspiracy theories ever since he put a gun in his mouth and pulled the trigger on July 20, 1993.
Sighting: 1994 — just before the first anniversary of Foster’s death, when Republican Rep. Dan Burton (Ind.) stood on the House floor and demanded a new investigation.
Police and an independent counsel had already ruled out the possibility of homicide, agreeing with Foster’s friends that he was suicidally distressed about his job. But in Burton’s speech, as reported by the Los Angeles Times, the congressman said police hadn’t explained how different colored hairs and carpet fibers ended up on the lawyer’s body.
Burton’s claim dovetailed with a host of conspiracy theories already swirling through tabloid newspapers and right-wing circles, as the New York Times noted in a rundown of the 1990s’ anti-Clinton rumors.
In a discrepancy between two accounts of when the White House learned of Foster’s death, for example, some saw a coverup. Or, they asked, why were his glasses found so far from his body?
But why even have Foster killed? He was just a deputy counsel — and the early Clinton scandals for which he’d blamed himself did not amount to much.
For this problem, the theorists had baseless rumors that Foster and Hillary Clinton, his former partner at an Arkansas law firm, had been having an affair. Or alternatively, that the Clintons’ longtime friend was simply privy to too many of their secrets.
The same year that Burton made his speech, the Rev. Jerry Falwell was selling VHS tapes of “The Clinton Chronicles” — a film that accused the Clintons of killing Foster (among others), smuggling drugs, committing treason with Russia and many bizarre crimes in between.
Foster’s family was pleading for peace. His widow, sister and children released statement in 1994 saying the calls to re-examine the death were “chiefly motivated by mean-spirited partisanship.”
In 1997, independent counsel Ken Starr concluded the last of them — after probes by the ranking Republican on the House Committee on Government Operations, a Senate committee and previous independent counsel all backed up the police conclusions.
Starr was no Clinton ally. He would go on to expose the president’s affair with Monica Lewinsky and to this day accuses the administration of many misdeeds.
But after a three-year forensic investigation that looked into nearly every conspiracy theory around Foster, Starr concluded the man simply killed himself.
No matter. Weeks after the report came out, a book called “The Strange Death of Vincent Foster” hit the shelves and rekindled every theory.
Written by a reporter who is now CEO of Newsmax, the book poked new holes in the police investigations, compiling examples of sloppiness and the accounts of a dissenting investigator to suggest “something dastardly happened,” as a New York Times book review put it.
And so the conspiracy theories outlived the Clinton presidency.
One of Starr’s investigators had been “threatened to short-circuit the probe,” Joseph Farah wrote in 2003 on his website, WorldNetDaily.com, which would become an incubator for birther conspiracy theories in the Obama era.
Vince Foster lived on in big media, too. “Did a close friend of Hillary Clinton commit suicide, or was it a massive coverup?” Fox News host Sean Hannity asked his viewers in 2007.
Then came the age of YouTube, when anyone could make the kind of speculative television Jerry Falwell once sold on VHS.
“Next week, you’re going to have the actual Secret Service memo … about Vince Foster,” the same man who hosted “The Clinton Chronicles” in 1994 told Alex Jones in a 2015 video. “They moved that body.”
“These outrageous suggestions have caused our family untold pain because this issue went on for so long and these reports were so painful to read,” Foster’s sister wrote in The Post last year. “For years, our family had to wage a court fight to prevent release of photographs of Vince’s dead body.”
She was specifically calling out Trump, who frequently peddled conspiracy theories during the 2016 campaign and had just incorporated Foster into his many attacks on Hillary Clinton.
“It’s the one thing with her, whether it’s Whitewater or whether it’s Vince or whether it’s Benghazi,” he told The Post that spring. “There are people who continue to bring it up because they think it was absolutely a murder. I don’t do that because I don’t think it’s fair.”
Some of Trump’s supporters brought the matter up for him this month — after he abruptly fired FBI director James B. Comey.
Clinton had done the same thing, they recalled — right before Vince Foster died.
Fox News never mentioned Foster in Tuesday’s big story about the Seth Rich’s supposed leaks — which was largely based on the claims of a self-described investigator, who later admitted he had no evidence for them.
But Fox’s commenters brought Foster up before the story was retracted and deleted — drawing parallels between whatever Foster might have known in 1993 and the thousands of emails Rich reportedly sent to WikiLeaks before his death last year.
Fox News updated its story in the evening, after Rich’s family and police pushed back, denying there was any evidence he leaked party documents.
But among the true believers, this is just more proof of a conspiracy.
“Damage control!” a commenter wrote below the story. “Don’t want the Rich family to be Vince Fostered.”
This post has been updated.
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