The Mystery Of The White House Suicide

In the airy greenery of The Garden Terrace Restaurant of The Four Seasons Hotel in Georgetown, two attractive middle-aged women, old friends, were having coffee. The two were wives of powerful men. Donna McLarty's husband, Mack, was White House chief of staff. Lisa Foster's husband, Vincent, was deputy White House counsel. Talking, as they often did, about surviving the rigors of Washington, Lisa Foster confided that she was worried about her husband. A corporate lawyer from little Rock, Ark., Vince Foster was having trouble handling the pressure. He couldn't sleep, and he was losing weight. He seemed down. He couldn't let go.

The two women had much in common. Both were married to men who had been boyhood friends of Bill Clinton. They had come to Washington with high expectations and some trepidation, and they were both a little overwhelmed by the intensity and relentlessness of the place. Donna McLarty did her best to cheer up her friend.

Neither of them knew that, at about the same time, Vincent Foster was driving out of the White House gates in his Honda Accord, onto the streets of downtown Washington. No one claims to know where he went, or what he did, between I p.m. and 6:15 p.m. The police say that he ended up in a little-visited national park, Fort Marcy, on a bluff overlooking the Potomac River. He walked through an open field to the ramparts of an old fort and stood near a bronze cannon pointed into the woods.

There, coatless in the late-afternoon heat, he put the muzzle of an ancient Colt .38 revolver into his mouth and pulled the trigger. Though the U.S. Park Police are not "100 percent certain" of the facts, a spokesman said, their preliminary investigation and the autopsy of the local medical examiner pointed to suicide.

By the time the body of his friend had been moved to a Virginia hospital, President Clinton was chatting on "Larry King Live. " He had just agreed to stay on the air for an extra half hour when Mack McLarty, who was in the White House library with the president, watching the interview, took a whispered message from an aide. McLarty approached the president during a commercial break and suggested that they forgo the extra half hour. Clinton looked at the anguished expression on the face of his old friend. "What is it?" he asked, as soon as they were alone. "It's not Hillary or Chelsea," McLarty answered. The two men went upstairs to the private quarters, where McLarty told Clinton of Foster's death. "Oh no!" the president cried out.

Clinton and McLarty climbed into an unmarked van with two Secret Service agents and drove to Foster's modest town house in Georgetown. The Arkansas tribe had gathered to mourn: Lisa Foster and Donna McLarty, Sen. David Pryor and his wife, and Webster Hubbell, a senior Justice Department official who had been a close friend and law partner of Foster's and Hillary Clinton's. Hillary was in Little Rock visiting her mother. There was much "remembering and crying and laughing and talking" about Foster, Clinton later recalled. The president stayed until nearly 2 a.m. before heading back to the White House.

The next day, White House officials told reporters that there was no suicide note. ]'here was no evidence of a motive, and the authorities at that point weren't even searching for one. The reporters looked at each other with practiced disbelief. There had to be something more. Some private horror, some scandal that Foster could not afford to face. Foster's time in the counsel's office had been controversial. There were the bungled nominations of Zoe Baird and Kimba Wood and Lani Guinier and the petty intrigue of Travelgate. Washington thrives on conspiracy theories, and the public, fed by John Grisham novels and talkshow rituals of public humiliation, would demand to know more. News organizations deployed teams of reporters, who began to look into ties between Foster and his partners in the Rose Law Firm, Hillary Clinton and Webster Hubbell, and big Arkansas corporations, particularly the holdings of the Stephens investment-banking family. With a mournfully knowing air, veterans of past administrations announced that Foster's death was another reminder of what a "tough town" they inhabited--"the toughest in the world," proclaimed one survivor of the Carter years, now a high-priced lobbyist. No one was quite willing to believe that Foster had killed himself for reasons that were personal and private.

Foster, said Clinton in a moving eulogy last week, was "a complicated person." He demanded perfection in himself, and he took on the failings of others as his own. He had achieved near perfection as a civic-minded lawyer in a small city. If he had had fears and angers, he did not express them openly. A fastidious man, he came late to public life, with all its messy compromises. Somehow, on the way from Little Rock to Washington, he got lost. But in a real sense, he may have been driving himself toward Fort Marcy for a long, long time.

Foster was the most powerful Washington official to kill himself since Secretary of Defense James Forrestal, haunted by the cold war and his private demons, jumped out a window in 1949. Foster was far more than his official title suggests. When he was buried in his boyhood home of Hope, Ark., last Friday, he took with him an unmatched knowledge of the First Family's legal and political secrets. McLarty called him Hillary Clinton's "best friend," her counselor not just on legal matters but also throughout her sometimes rocky marriage. He was one of her husband's most intimate confidants. He was personal lawyer and confessor to both.

"We could never remember a time when he ever asked us to protect him; it was always the other way around," said President Clinton last week. The First Couple looked stoic at Foster's funeral in the sweltering heat, but dumbstruck as well. "I don't think that any of us will ever know why his life ended the way it did," Clinton had said earlier to reporters. Privately, he speculated to aides that Foster might have brought some burden with him from childhood.

But if Foster lived a life of desperation, he did it very quietly. Clinton's own childhood memories of Foster are happy ones. Growing up in Hope, Foster was the boy across the backyard fence, playing a pocketknife game called mumbletypeg with his pal. "The knives didn't stick, but the friendship did," said Clinton. Another playmate from the neighborhood was Mack McLarty. Foster kept a talisman of those days in his office: a picture of three eager, scrubbed faces starting together their many years of schoolboy achievements.

If anything, Foster outdid Clinton. The son of a well-to-do real-estate man who was respected in the town and revered by his family, young Foster was always the star: the best athlete and senior-class president, first in his class at Arkansas Law School, highest marks in the state on his bar exams for his year, made a partner in the top law firm in Little Rock after only two years.

As a lawyer, Foster relished control. He was the firm's craftsman, a stickler for detail who always outprepared the opposition. "He had the highest standards," said a partner, "and it seemed like only he could meet them." In Little Rock it is possible to be the top lawyer in the top firm and still get home to have supper with the family most nights. He had time to be civic-minded. He was a convinced and earnest patron of the local theater, the Arkansas Repertory Company. When a drama about the danger of white supremacists bombed at the box office, Foster wrote a letter to the local papers imploring theater-goers to attend the worthy play.

Foster moved easily in crowds, but he didn't favor small talk. He often ate alone in a restaurant in a downtown mall: one of the best-paid ($295,000 a year) lawyers in town, engrossed in his reading while hunched over a sandwich. A few years ago a reporter asked him if there was a regretted road not taken. Foster mused that he might have liked to live on top of a mountain in Colorado, writing novels. There were also reports, still unconfirmed, that Foster had considered medical help for occasional depression.

Foster watched with amused detachment the political whirl that caught up his old friend, now the governor of the state, Bill Clinton. He was an early contributor and adviser, but he never expressed any wish to go into politics himself. When Clinton asked him to help with a political campaign in 1976, Foster dryly replied, "All right, all right, I'm all fired up."

Foster was enthusiastic about following Clinton to Washington when he won the presidency. He talked of a renewed sense of community in the country, even if it meant a pay cut for him. His wife was less enthusiastic. Their youngest child was still in high school; she had heard how expensive it was to live in Washington.

For his first few months in Washington, Foster lived a bachelor's life in his sister's apartment downtown, working 14 hours a day, taking all his meals in the White House. His job was overwhelming from the start. He couldn't deal with everything on his desk or make all of the calls, no matter how many hours he put in. He couldn't seem to get control of all the controversies that seemed to be spilling out of and over the counsel's office. "He would come to the door of his office and chat for a minute," said one periodic Arkansas visitor. "But that's all he seemed to have time for."

As a corporate lawyer who was careful to keep his clients out of the papers in Little Rock, he winced at seeing the Clintons' travails make the front page every day. The worst was Travelgate. Foster had asked one of his partners in the Rose Law Firm, William Kennedy III, who now worked with him in the White House counsel's office, to look into possible problems in the White House travel office. Kennedy perhaps over-interpreted Foster's orders and pressured the FBI to provide prompt guidance-within 15 minutes-on how to handle the matter. When the scandal broke, Foster thought that he had hurt his friend. Worse, he felt compelled to drag in the First Lady. An old Washington hand advised Foster to make fill disclosure: the cover-up, he warned, is always worse than the crime. Foster, over the objections of other White House aides, pushed for a report showing, among other things, that Hillary Clinton had knowledge of the misbegotten purge of the travel office. The press seized on this fact, and Foster grimaced at another headline.

Editorial writers, especially the acerbically conservative crew at The Wall Street Journal, began to go after the Rosefirm alumni in the White House. When Foster refused to provide a photo of himself to the paper, a mocking editorial ran a profile with a question mark instead of his picture and demanded, "Who Is Vincent Foster?" In the counsel's office, Foster joined in the macho laughter at the grilling he was getting. But privately, he was beginning to wither under self-doubt. "I tried to tell him, 'It's just politics'," said one friend who shared a long lunch with him a few weeks ago. "But he seemed absolutely inconsolable." When he saw Arkansas friends at parties in the capital, the talk turned to the frightening and unforgiving pace. "Are you having fun?" asked a friend, federal Judge Richard Arnold. "Not yet," Foster replied.

He was never able to dress himself in the standard Washington skin of dismissive cynicism. At a party not long ago, one of these leathery denizens--an Arkansas native, as it happened--asked him half in jest to defend the counsel's office. He earned her disdain by launching into a heartfelt explanation of the problems there. "He should have just waved me off with a laugh," she said.

His wife, Lisa, and his family moved up in the late spring, to a town house on a less-than-fashionable street, a place with a coffee-brown facade and a small brick patio where a patch of grass may once have existed. His neighbors never saw him, at least during daylight.

The weekend before his death, Foster and his wife finally took a break. They visited the Eastern Shore of Maryland with the Hubbells, swimming and playing tennis. Foster's old pals were worried: on Sunday night, the president himself called and tried to buck up his friend with 20 minutes of chatter. On Monday night, Bruce Lindsey, the White House personnel director and another close friend and lawyer from Little Rock, dropped by and asked Foster if he wanted to catch a movie. Too busy, replied Foster. At a staff meeting earlier that day, Foster seemed preoccupied. His mind was elsewhere. It was too late.

The investigators are still looking, and some forensic questions remain. Where did he get an 80-year-old revolver? Friends say he never owned guns. Where did he go between the time he left the White House and the time he arrived at Fort Marcy? The police were sent to the scene by an anonymous call to 911. Who was it? And what had the caller seen?

The Park Police and the Justice Department now insist that they want to know not just the "if" of suicide, but the "why" as well. If they really want to know the reason why, says Edwin Shneidman, professor emeritus of thanatology at the University of California, Los Angeles, they will have to perform what he calls a "psychological autopsy"--a search, not for an underlying illness, but for the triggering events that opened Foster's despair like a trapdoor. But that, in turn, would mean looking for more than a still-unfound suicide note. They would have to learn what Foster knew, what his personal and office files held. That could make for some uncomfortable reading, perhaps, for anyone in the Clinton administration.

And the investigators would have to do one more thing, says Shneidman. They'd have to conduct long interviews with hi close friends, including Clinton and McLarty, two men at the center of power who were once innocent boys playing mumbletypeg.