Whenever Bill Clinton is pressed to talk straight, he skitters, winces, and finally hollers louder than any occupant of the White House since Nixon. Whether discussing his draft status, his smoking techniques, his relationship with Gennifer Flowers, or the fine points of his administration’s programs, Clinton has time and again demonstrated his unique relationship with the truth.
So when the grieving president met the press in the Rose Garden the July day after his lifelong friend Vincent Foster committed suicide and said, “There is really no way to know why these things happen,” the reporters should have dropped their notebooks and rushed to the U.S. Attorney’s Office to accuse Clinton of concealing evidence.
“What happened was a mystery about something inside of him,” Clinton said. Later in the week, the president repeated in serial-liar fashion his belief that no one will “ever know exactly why” Foster’s life “ended the way it did.” Of course, by stonewalling reporters’ questions and limiting the investigation of the death, Clinton was able to fulfill his prophecy.
Since funerals doth make gentlemen of us all, the press didn’t shout Clinton down Sam Donaldson-style. Instead, it did the polite thing, publishing only a few skeptical paragraphs about the Foster suicide (hats off to William Safire) while some overtalented writers, like the Washington Post‘s David Von Drehle, the New Yorker‘s Sidney Blumenthal, and the New York Times‘ Jason DeParle used the event to wax maudlin on death’s rich pageant instead of broadening the inquiry.
But because even a pathological liar can sometimes reveal the truth, reporters should have paid more attention to Clinton’s answers during suicide week when they asked him if the hazing of Foster by the Wall Street Journal editorial page’s quadrupeds had contributed to the lawyer’s demise. Clinton said, “I certainly don’t think that can explain it, and I certainly don’t think it’s accurate.”
Denying the possibility was surely Clinton’s way of saying that the paper defamed in Foster’s pre-suicide note (“The WSJ editors lie without consequence”) had killed him.
Foster’s distress at the Journal‘s editorials has been explained away as evidence of his naiveté by the Blumenthals and Von Drehles and DeParles. But what if this honorable, ethical man had good reason to fear Journal Editor Robert Bartley’s feral dogs because he thought they might be on their way to uncovering something shameful in his past?
What if Foster killed himself on July 20 because he knew that the FBI would that very afternoon be raiding the Little Rock office of David Hale, with whom Hillary and Bill Clinton had invested $70,000 in the Whitewater Development Corp. real-estate venture? What if Foster, who was the Clintons’ personal attorney in Arkansas, was not fretting about White House travel office improprieties or any other presidential difficulty when he wrote in his note, “I did not knowingly violate any law or standard of conduct”? What if he was instead thinking about his failure three years running to file corporate tax returns for Whitewater Development Corp. while the Clintons were half-owners? Or that he was suicidally anxious about the allegations of former Arkansas S&L owner James B. McDougal, who has accused Bill and Hillary (a partner with Foster in the Rose Law Firm) of ethical and perhaps criminal lapses. As the Clintons’ personal attorney, did he fear that the blame would fall on him?
Such was the subtext of Michael Isikoff and Howard Schneider’s Washington Post Page One story “Clintons’ Former Real Estate Firm Probed” (11/2), which in responsible daily journalism fashion didn’t fling any innuendo about Foster’s role in the festering Arkansas scandal until the final grafs.
Like a dog with chiggers, the press has been scratching at the Whitewater story, Clinton-linked financial scandals, Ozark S&L misconduct, and assorted Bill and Hillary Arkansas perfidy since the 1992 campaign. But where Isikoff and Schneider trod gently on the FBI raid/Foster suicide connection, reporter Mark Hosenball tromps as heavily as he can in Monday’s Newsweek. Cue the Twilight Zone theme:
“In an eerie coincidence, a federal magistrate in Little Rock signed the search warrant authorizing the raid on Hale’s office only hours before Foster’s mysterious suicide,” Hosenball writes. “Although there is no evidence to show that Foster found out about the pending FBI raid, or had anything to do with the matters under investigation, the timing fanned media interest.”
According to the IRS, failure to file corporate tax returns is a criminal offense punishable by a $100,000 penalty, not to mention possible disbarment. It’s not hard to imagine Foster airing his brain pan over three counts of failure-to-file. And having already flung myself down the chute of speculation, what if Foster knew that the Arkansas situation was unraveling and had caught wind of the FBI raid?
Foster may have been fingering himself in his pre-suicide note when he wrote these two sentences: “I made mistakes from ignorance, inexperience, and overwork” and “The public will never believe the innocence of the Clintons and their loyal staff.” What mistakes? And by “loyal staff,” was he referring to himself and Assistant Attorney General “Who Is?” Webster Hubbell, another Rose Law Firm partner who had been vilified by the Journal editorialists? For the record, the Clintons insist they’ve done nothing wrong in Arkansas.
Which brings us back to Foster’s tortured soul. Blumenthal, DeParle, and the other Foster memorialists predictably affirmed his sterling character by quoting the May 1993 commencement speech he gave before his Arkansas law school.
“The reputation you develop for intellectual and ethical integrity will be your greatest asset or your worst enemy,” he lectured the legal sprats. “Treat every pleading, every brief, every contract, every letter, every daily task as if your career will be judged on it.” (Notice that he said nothing about treating every tax return as if you would be judged on it.)
Instead of instructing the graduates on moral behavior, maybe Foster was confessing his own moral lapses.
“I was not meant for the job or the spotlight of public life in Washington,” Foster wrote in his pre-suicide note. “Hereruining people is considered sport.” In light of the federal investigations, Foster’s last utterances can be reinterpreted as expressions of self-disappointment and guilt, not madness.
Everybody concedes that Foster was depressed before he killed himself. On the evening before Foster’s death, the president of the United States placed a phone call to the Foster home and the two spent about “15 or 20 minutes,” said Chief of Staff Mack McLarty, in “a good visit.” One wonders if they talked about the impending FBI raid. According to Newsweek and other publications, the purpose of the president’s call was to cheer his deputy counsel up. A better president than a therapist, Mr. Hugs failed to elevate his friend’s mood, and the rest was suicide.
While most of the press took Clinton’s cue and peddled the idea that the nature of Foster’s depression and reason for his desperate act was unknowable, Clinton valets like Blumenthal blamed Washington and the Wall Street Journal. But one wonders if they would have played dumb if a Republican president’s aide had killed himself. Suppressed was the notion that Foster was depressed about something worldly, something that might cause a man of honor to snuff himself.
Our Italian friends don’t share this reticence to link political shame and suicide, as John Corry writes in the October American Spectator. “In Italy these matters are more straightforward. A dozen Italian politicians and business leaders have committed suicide in the last eighteen months, and the press never talks about clinical depression.”
So Vincent Foster is dead and the Arkansas scandal points back to Bill and Hillary. The press corps should dose themselves with Prozac and follow the money.