Vince Foster's Suicide: The Rumor Mill Churns

YOU CAN'T BELIEVE EVERYTHING you read about Vince Foster. In some cases, you can't believe any of it. Last week rumors swirled from Washington to Wall Street and back again about the 1993 suicide of Bill and Hillary Clinton's White House lawyer. The tabloid New York Post claimed that after Foster's death, administration officials "frantically scrambled" to remove from his office safe a previously unreported set of files, some of them related to the Whitewater affair. A financial newsletter published an even more sensational-and equally unsubstantiated-report that Foster's body had been moved from an apartment in Virginia to the suburban park where it was found. On his radio show, conservative blunderbuss Rush Limbaugh embellished that report just a bit; he said the newsletter "claims that Vince Foster was murdered in an apartment owned by Hillary Clinton."

Foster's friends swatted down the rumors as fast as they could. One of his in-laws begged reporters to "back off. Get out of the zoo." But that didn't stop a flow of lip-smacking stories that left the White House on edge, and even unsettled the financial markets. Last Thursday, after Limbaugh's broadcast, stock and bond prices tumbled-the Dow dropped nearly 23 points-largely because of worries about Whitewater. Elaine Garzarelli, the highly regarded Lehman Brothers market analyst who predicted the 1987 crash, said that European traders were particularly spooked by the Foster case. "They were afraid Hillary Clinton was involved in a murder," she said. "They hate that."

No, Hillary Clinton was not involved in a murder. In fact, there's still no credible evidence that Foster's death was anything but the depression-induced suicide that his family believes it to have been. Then why all the garish speculation? Partly because of the clumsy behavior of Foster's boss, former presidential counsel Bernard Nussbaum, and other White House staffers immediately after the suicide: leaving his office unsealed and spiriting documents away. Partly because of the enigmatic note that Foster left behind-unsigned, addressed to no one, tom into pieces-lamenting his own "mistakes" and the poisonous atmosphere of Washington, where "ruining people is considered sport." Partly because the Whitewater affair, one of the items on his desk, has resurged so dramatically. And partly because many people in the news media simply won't let Foster rest.

Some of the stories are nothing more than the cut and thrust of responsible news coverage. But all along, others have seemed determinedly partisan. There is continued grumbling from The Wall Street Journal editorial page, whose stinging criticism apparently contributed to Foster's depression ("WSJ editors lie without consequence," he complained in his note). There's a steady stream of innuendo from conservative New York Times columnist William Safire, who implied at one point that "intelligence matters" might have had something to do with the suicide. And on another level entirely, there is the florid hype and fantasy of the tabloids, designed more to entertain than inform. Some of the most raucous of those excesses have come from overseas. In Britain, Rupert Murdoch's Sun claimed, three days after the suicide, that Foster bad a "deep personal friendship" with Hillary Clinton.

Last week one of the more overwrought American tabloids, the New York Post, charged that investigators "never took a crucial crime-scene photo of Vincent Foster's body before it was moved" out of the park where it had been discovered. The tabloid, which has begun to put quotation marks around the word "suicide" in stories about Foster, also asserted that "little blood loss" was evident at the scene-which could be taken as a sign that the fatal shot was fired into Foster's head somewhere else.

Partisan, if not downright malicious, speculation that the death might not have been suicide spread like a bad odor. Roger Ailes, the former Republican campaign consultant who is now president of the CNBC cable TV network, suggested in a radio interview with Don Imus that Foster's death could have been murder. Right-wing televangelist Pat Robertson devoted a segment of his "700 Club" show to the subject. "Suicide or murder? That's the ominous question surfacing in the Whitewater swell of controversy concerning Vincent Foster's mysterious death," he intoned.

Another major source of the rumors was conservative activist Floyd Brown and his Citizens United group, which feeds information to the news media and some Republicans. Brown employs a full-time investigator named David Bossie to dig up dirt on Clinton. Last week Brown claimed to have "new clues that suggest Foster did not commit suicide."

But the foul-play stories didn't stand up. Last Friday, ABC News, which apparently had been fed by the administration, said it had inspected a gruesome set of crime-scene photographs taken by investigators. It said the "grim and graphic" pictures-most of which were not shown on the air-dispelled speculation that there was little blood around the body. A close-up of Foster's hand showed his thumb still resting on the trigger of the revolver that had fired into his mouth. with what ABC said were powder burns visible on the hand. The network said it had seen a medical examiner's report in which "the burns and other gunpowder residue are listed as primary evidence that Foster shot himself"

The stories that Foster had a "safe house" in Virginia seemed even thinner. On Wednesday, the Johnson-Smick report, an obscure financial newsletter with ties to the Republican Party, said the office of Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan was "putting the word out that Foster in fact committed suicide in a private apartment in Virginia." Moynihan's office labeled the report "breathtakingly untrue." Then the New York Post claimed that Foster had shared a "secret apartment hideaway" in Virginia with other Clinton insiders. But a rival tabloid, the New York Daily News, which appears to be receiving leaks bearing out the administration's version of events, said Foster only considered renting a Virginia apartment when he first came to Washington; instead, he stayed with relatives until his family arrived.

Still, legitimate questions about Foster's death remain unanswered. Assuming he did kill himself, why did he do it? It wasn't clear that the note he left behind was meant to be an explanation. If his suicide was an act of private despair, why did the White House urgently remove documents from his office-and then accept the scrutiny of an independent counsel, rather than make the papers public? Exactly what personal business was Vince Foster doing for the Clintons at the time of his death? Why weren't police and medical reports on his death made public long ago? The administration isn't answering any of those questions in public. And as long as it hunkers down behind its stone wall, the rumormongers are free to exercise and exploit their lurid imaginations.

_B_NEWSWEEK POLL_b_ Regarding the death of White House aide Vincent Foster, do you think: 11% It was a suicide for reasons that have been pretty well explained 47% It was a suicide for reasons still not fully explained 15% It was not a suicide