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Whitewater: The Foster Report
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In a death investigation, state-of-mind evidence can buttress the forensic and other evidence and, in that respect, is an issue within the scope of the investigation. For that reason, the OIC intensively examined Mr. Foster's state of mind and activities before his death. The OIC reconstructed and examined previously unreviewed documents from Mr. Foster's White House office. The OIC sought relevant documents from other sources. The OIC interviewed Mr. Foster's wife, sisters, mother, children, and other relatives; numerous friends in Arkansas and Washington; many colleagues who worked closely with him at the Rose Law Firm or the White House; and various other persons with potentially important information. During this effort, the OIC gathered extensive evidence relating to Mr. Foster's state of mind and activities.

The OIC is grateful to the Foster family members – including Alice Mae Foster, Lisa Foster, Sharon Bowman, Sheila Anthony, Beryl Anthony, and the Foster children, among others – for cooperating with this and prior investigations under painful and difficult circumstances. Lisa Foster and Mr. Foster's mother, Alice Mae Foster, not only spoke with OIC investigators at some length, but also provided additional information and assistance at their homes in Arkansas.

A. Dr. Berman's Analysis

Suicide, perhaps contrary to popular understanding, is a common manner of death in the United States. According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), suicide was the ninth leading cause of death among Americans in the period from 1980 through 1992. The CDC's statistics reveal that more individuals in the United States died by suicide than by homicide in every year since 1981. In the United States in 1993, 31,102 individuals committed suicide, and 18,940 of them committed suicide with a firearm. During 1993, therefore, there were approximately 85 suicides per day, and 52 suicides by firearm per day, in the United States.

The OIC retained Dr. Alan Berman to review and analyze state-of-mind evidence gathered by the OIC in the course of its investigation. Dr. Berman, as noted above, has extensive experience and expertise in the study of suicide. He examined the evidence and reported his findings to the OIC.

In his report, Dr. Berman first noted that "[d]escriptors used by interviewees with regard to Vincent Foster's basic personality were extraordinarily consistent in describing a controlled, private, perfectionistic character whose public persona as a man of integrity, honesty, and unimpeachable reputation was of utmost importance."

Mr. Foster's life, after "arriving in Washington, was filled with long, intense and demanding hours of work." Dr. Berman noted that Mr. Foster's May 8 commencement address to the University of Arkansas School of Law was "replete with reflections upon and regret regarding the changes wrought by his experiences in Washington." Mr. Foster had "uncharacteristically . . . talked of quitting," but considered a return to Little Rock to be a "humiliation."

Dr. Berman reported that "[m]istakes, real or perceived, posed a profound threat to his self-esteem/self-worth and represented evidence for a lack of control over his environment. Feelings of unworthiness, inferiority, and guilt followed and were difficult for him to tolerate. There are signs of an intense and profound anguish, harsh self-evaluation, shame, and chronic fear. All these on top of an evident clinical depression and his separation from the comforts and security of Little Rock. He, furthermore, faced a feared humiliation should he resign and return to Little Rock." The torn note "highlights his preoccupation with themes of guilt, anger, and his need to protect others."

Dr. Berman noted that Mr. Foster's admission to his sister on the Friday before his death that he was depressed was a "profound expression of his depression." Dr. Berman also noted Mr. Foster's July 19 call to Dr. Larry Watkins in Little Rock, during which Mr. Foster referred to symptoms of a mild depression and to stress, criticism, and long hours.

Dr. Berman stated that Mr. Foster was "not a helpseeker" and was "reluctant to seek help" although he was "[a]ware he was in trouble psychologically." Dr. Berman stated that "[t]his difficulty accepting the vulnerable position is common to successful executives." Dr. Berman stated that "[b]y the Friday before his death he was desperate; calling for names of psychiatrists was a clear . . . admission of his failure. He was ambivalent and fearful about this helpseeking." He ultimately "preferred the safety of his family physician . . . to the immediacy and presence of other, unknown professionals in the DC area."

Dr. Berman said that Mr. Foster's "last 96 hours show clear signs of crisis and uncharacteristic vulnerability." Dr. Berman concluded, furthermore, that "[t]here is little doubt that Foster was clinically depressed . . . in early 1993, and, perhaps, sub-clinically even before this." Dr. Berman noted that there was some history of depression in the family.

Dr. Berman explained that for certain executives facing difficult circumstances, "[i]n essence, death is preferred to preserve one's identity. The suicide has an inability to tolerate an altered view of himself; suicide maintains a selfview and escapes having to incorporate discordant implications about the self. These types of suicides are typically complete surprises to others in the available support system."

As to why Mr. Foster was overwhelmed at that particular time, Dr Berman explained that Mr. Foster was "under an increasing burden of intense external stress, a loss of security, a painful scanning of his environment for negative judgments regarding his performance, a rigid hold of perfectionistic self-demands, a breakdown in and the absence of his usual ability to handle that stress primarily due to the impact of a mental disorder which was undertreated."

Mr. Foster apparently did not leave a note that specifically refers to or contemplates suicide. Dr. Berman indicated that the great majority of persons committing suicide do not leave a note. Dr. Berman also stated, with respect to the lack of a note in this case, that Mr. Foster was "intensely self-focused at this point; overwhelmed and out of control."

As to the Fort Marcy Park location, Dr. Berman stated that Mr. Foster "was ambivalent to the end" and may have driven for a while before going to Fort Marcy Park. He may have "simply and inadvertently happened upon the park or he may have purposely picked it off the area map found in his car." Dr. Berman stated that Mr. Foster's suicide in Fort Marcy Park is "[s]imilar to the typical male physician who suicides by seeking the guaranteed privacy of a hotel room, and a 'do not disturb' sign"

In sum, Dr. Berman, based on his evaluation of the evidence, concluded: "In my opinion and to a 100% degree of medical certainty, the death of Vincent Foster was a suicide. No plausible evidence has been presented to support any other conclusion"

B. Evidence

The OIC, like other investigations before, is not aware of a single, obvious triggering event that might have motivated Mr. Foster to commit suicide. Therefore, the following is simply a brief outline of some of the evidence relevant to the ultimate determination that Mr. Foster's state of mind was consistent with suicide. This outline is not designed to set forth or to suggest some particular reason or set of reasons why Mr. Foster committed suicide. Rather, the issue for purposes of the death investigation is whether Mr. Foster committed suicide, and this outline is designed to show that, as Dr. Berman concluded, compelling evidence exists that Mr. Foster was distressed or depressed in a manner consistent with suicide.

To begin with, in his six months in the White House, Mr. Foster was involved in work related to a number of important and difficult issues. The issues included, for example, the appointments and vetting of an Attorney General, a Supreme Court Justice, as well as many others (some of which developed into difficult situations abounding with unfavorable public comment); legal issues related to health care, such as medical malpractice reform; litigation related to the Health Care Task Force; the dismissal of White House Travel Office employees and the ensuing fallout from that incident; the Clintons' tax returns (which involved an issue regarding treatment of the Clintons' 1992 sale of their interest in Whitewater); the Clintons' blind trust; liaison with the White House Usher's Office over issues related to the White House Residence; and issues related to the Freedom of Information Act.

The work proved to be difficult and stressful. In a letter to a friend in Arkansas on March 4, 1993, for example, Mr. Foster wrote: "I have never worked so hard for so long in my life. The legal issues are mind boggling and the time pressures are immense. . . . The pressure, financial sacrifice and family disruption are the price of public service at this level. As they say, 'The wind blows hardest at the top of the mountain.'"

During that six-month period, certain other aspects of Mr. Foster's life also came under some scrutiny. For example, in May 1993, a controversy arose over membership of Administration officials in the Country Club of Little Rock, which had had no black members. Mr. Foster was a member of that club and resigned from it that month. On a copy of a May 11, 1993, newspaper article in Mr. Foster's office that mentioned the controversy, Mr. Foster wrote, "I wish I had done more."

At the same time, the White House staff generally was subject to media criticism during the first six months of the Administration. Some public criticism suggested incompetence, if not malfeasance, by staff members. Mr. Foster himself was mentioned in some of the critical editorial commentary. Numerous witnesses said that Mr. Foster was concerned and/or upset over the press criticism. According to Mr. Foster's brother-in- law, former Congressman Beryl Anthony, Mr. Foster said words to the effect that he had "spent a lifetime building [his] reputation" and was "in the process of having it tarnished."

As Dr. Berman noted, reputation was clearly important to Mr. Foster. Indeed, in the May 8, 1993, commencement address, Mr. Foster said that "[d]ents to the reputation in the legal profession are irreparable" and that "no victory, no advantage, no fee, no favor . . . is worth even a blemish on your reputation for intellect and integrity." He emphasized that the "reputation you develop for intellectual and ethical integrity will be your greatest asset or your worst enemy."

In that commencement address, Mr. Foster also noted that there will be "failures, and criticisms and bad press and lies, stormy days and cloudy days." He advised to "[t]ake time out for yourself. Have some fun, go fishing, every once in a while take a walk in the woods by yourself."' He suggested that "[i]f you find yourself getting burned out or unfulfilled, unappreciated[,] . . . have the courage to make a change."

The Travel Office matter, in particular, was the subject of public controversy beginning in May 1993 and continuing through Mr. Foster's death. Criticism focused on the White House's handling of the matter before and after the May 19 firings. Legislation enacted on July 2, 1993, required the General Accounting Office (GAO) to investigate the Travel Office firings. There was a possibility of some form of congressional review, or perhaps special counsel investigation, as well as the GAO investigation. During the week of July 12, Mr. Foster contacted private attorneys seeking advice in connection with the Travel Office incident.

At some point in the last weeks of his life, Mr. Foster wrote a note that he had "made mistakes from ignorance, inexperience and overwork" and that he "was not meant for the job or the spotlight of public life in Washington. Here ruining people is considered sport."

During that same period, according to Mr. Foster's immediate superior, Counsel Bernard Nussbaum, Mr. Foster's work effort decreased noticeably. According to William Kennedy, Sheila Anthony, and Lisa Foster, Mr. Foster said he was considering resigning.

Mr. Foster's sister Sheila Anthony said that Mr. Foster told her on Friday, July 16 that he was depressed. She furnished him the names of three psychiatrists. Mr. Foster did not speak to any of the three psychiatrists, although phone records show that Mr. Foster attempted to contact one of them on July 16. When Mr. Foster was found at Fort Marcy Park, a list of the three psychiatrists was in his wallet.

Lisa Foster said that her husband cried while talking to her on Friday night, July 16 and that Mr. Foster mentioned resigning during the weekend of July 16-18.

Meanwhile, Mr. Foster's mother, Alice Mae Foster, said that she talked to her son a day or two before his death and that he said he was unhappy because of his job and that it was "such a grind."

On Monday, July 19, Mr. Foster contacted Dr. Larry Watkins, his physician in Little Rock, and was prescribed an antidepressant. Watkins' typed notes of July 21 say the following:

I talked to Vince on 7/19/93, at which time he complained of anorexia and insomnia. He had no GI [gastrointestinal] symptoms. We discussed the possibility of taking Axid or Zantac to help with any ulcer symptoms as he was under a lot of stress. He was concerned about the criticism they were getting and the long hours he was working at the White House. He did feel that he had some mild depression. I started him on Desyrel, 50 mg. He was to start with one at bedtime and move up to three. . . . I received word at 10:20 p.m. on 7/20/93 that he had committed suicide. Dr. Watkins said that it was unusual, even unprecedented, for Mr. Foster to call him directly. Lisa Foster said that Mr. Foster took one tablet of the antidepressant medication on the night of the 19th.

In short, the OIC cannot set forth a particular reason or set of reasons why Mr. Foster committed suicide. The important issue, from the standpoint of the death investigation, is whether Mr. Foster committed suicide. On that issue, the state-of-mind evidence is compelling, and it demonstrates that Mr. Foster was, in fact, distressed or depressed in a manner consistent with suicide. Indeed, the evidence was sufficient for Dr. Berman to conclude that "to a 100% degree of medical certainty, the death of Vincent Foster was a suicide."

Foster Report Table of Contents

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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