Why Vince Foster Died

THE JULY 20, 1993, SUICIDE OF WHITE House deputy counsel Vince Foster was fodder for conspiracy theorists. Clinton-bashers on the right spread rumors that Foster had actually been murdered, and hinted at foul play by the White House. Mainstream journalists searched for a link between Foster's death and the Whitewater scandal, looking for a sharp angle to an otherwise dull and complicated tale.

To the relief of the White House, independent counsel Robert Fiske interrupted these speculations last week with a dose of reality. Fiske found that Foster had taken his own life, and dismissed any link to Whitewater. Nonetheless, his 58-page report is a harrowing account of the crackup of one of the president's most trusted aides.

Much was written at the time of Foster's death about the emotional toll exacted by an unfair press. The Wall Street Journal editorial page, in particular, came under criticism for sneering at Foster as a member of a Rose Law Firm clique that was secretly running the government. Fiske's report makes clear, however, that Foster was depressed even before he arrived in Washington. For several years Foster had suffered what his wife described as "panic attacks," marked by heavy sweating and a strained voice. Just a few weeks before Clinton's Inauguration, Foster complained to his Little Rock doctor that he was feeling down and anxious.

Life in the White House depressed him further. One of Foster's jobs in the White House Counsel's Office was to vet new appointees. On the night that Clinton's first nominee for attorney general, Zoe Baird, was forced to withdraw for hiring illegal nannies, Foster was so full of self-reproach that he became physically sick. He began losing weight and he had difficulty sleeping. By the summer of 1993, he had virtually ceased to function at his job, according to the testimony of White House counsel Bernard Nussbaum. He spent his last days paying bills and dutifully wrapping up the details of his father's estate.

On July 16, four days before his death, Foster showed up at the White House doctor's office, complaining that his heart was "pounding." He phoned his sister, Justice Department official Sheila Anthony, and said he was depressed and didn't know what to do. Anthony recommended that he see a psychiatrist, but Foster at first resisted, fearing he would lose his White House security clearance. Later that day Foster did try to call a psychiatrist, charging the calls to his home telephone. But he hung up when he reached an answering machine.

At the time, Foster was embroiled in Travelgate. The controversy had erupted in May when Clinton aides abruptly fired seven longtime travel-office employees as part of an alleged plot to hand the lucrative White House travel business to Arkansas cronies. Foster had played a behind-the-scenes role, prodding one of his deputies to instigate an FBI investigation into purported improprieties by the employees. An internal White House review later found that Foster had two conversations with Hillary Rodham Clinton, who had asked him what was being done about "problems" in the travel office. Another White House aide later told congressional investigators that the First Lady wanted action taken to put "our people" into the travel office.

According to Fiske, Foster considered resigning over Travelgate. He was concerned that he might be summoned to testify before Congress. Foster had been Hillary's personal lawyer in Little Rock, and he worried that he faced a conflict of interest. Foster began shopping around for his own lawyer, and frantically phoned James Lyons, a Denver attorney who helped the Clintons fend off questions about Whitewater during the campaign. Foster asked Lyons to come to Washington as soon as possible. On the morning of July 20, Lyons called the White House to confirm plans for a meeting with Foster the next day. But it was too late. Rather than return the call, Foster left his office shortly after lunch and disappeared for several hours. His body was found at 5:45 p.m. in a park overlooking the Potomac River, lying not far from a Civil War cannon. His right thumb was trapped in the trigger of an antique revolver.

Before finishing his report, Fiske interviewed both the president and First Lady at the White House under oath. Little from these interviews is included in the Fiske report. Clinton confirmed to Fiske that he called Foster the night before his death and set up a meeting for later that week to discuss what the report opaquely refers to as "White House organizational changes." Fiske's report says nothing about Hillary Clinton, who had helped entangle Foster in the travel-office fiasco.

Fiske's report also found no criminal wrongdoing in contacts between White House officials and the Treasury Department over Whitewater. Nonetheless, Capitol Hill Republicans are likely to probe for ethics violations when congressional hearings on Whitewater begin at the end of the month. Fiske's report knocks out the most sensational piece of the Whitewater puzzle, but it is only a start in what will be a long and complex investigation.