White House, friends puzzled by apparent suicide of aide

July 22, 1993|By Carl M. Cannon | Carl M. Cannon,Washington Bureau Staff writers Susan Baer and Jeff Leeds contributed to this article.

WASHINGTON -- Vincent W. Foster Jr., acclaimed Arkansas lawyer, deputy White House counsel and lifelong friend of Bill Clinton, went to the Rose Garden Tuesday to watch the president appoint a new FBI director. Afterward, he dropped by the office of his boss, Bernard Nussbaum, chatted for bit and then ate lunch at his own desk alone. Shortly after noon, he told his colleagues he'd see them later.

And then he drove off to die.

At 6 p.m., Mr. Foster's body was found 200 yards from his car at Fort Marcy, a scenic park on the Virginia side of the Potomac River. He was lying on his back in front of a Civil War-era cannon, a .38-caliber revolver in his hand. He had been shot once in the head.

U.S. Park Police have termed Mr. Foster's death a suicide.

He left no note, only questions about why a man at the height of his career, who seemed to have everything, would take his own life.

The shock waves from Mr. Foster's death extended from the White House to Little Rock, Ark.

The president called it "an immense personal loss to me and Hillary."

"As I tried to explain especially to the young people on the staff, there is really no way to know why these things happen, and it is very important that his life not be judged simply by how it ended, because Vince Foster was a wonderful man in every way," said Mr. Clinton, who described his friend as "normally the Rock of Gibraltar."

Although the White House counsel's office had been singled out for criticism in Mr. Clinton's first few months in office, neither the president nor Mr. Foster's other friends said they ever suspected that Mr. Foster was finding the pressure too much to handle.

The 48-year-old lawyer, who served as Mr. Clinton's second-ranking legal counsel, was described by some friends as "distracted" in recent days. But White House communications director Mark Gearan said the staff had questioned themselves in vain yesterday for clues, for any sign at all, that may have foreshadowed his death.

"There are good days when you work at the White House and bad days," said Mr. Gearan. "But no one saw any indication that there was anything out of the ordinary."

'City in shock'

Presidential friend and adviser Skip Rutherford, reached in Little Rock, said the "city is in shock." He said he had talked to Mr. Foster several times since the inauguration, and he sounded fine.

"We talked about the ups and downs, the peaks and valleys, the successes and disappointments, but nothing seemed out of the ordinary," Mr. Rutherford said.

"It's a complete shock to everybody," agreed Ernest Dumas, a longtime Little Rock editor and columnist. "Vince was always stable, cool, collected, even-tempered, soft-spoken."

And yet, if the preliminary report of the U.S. Park Police turns out to be correct, Mr. Foster had private despairs that his closest friends knew nothing about and that his storybook-sounding successes couldn't compensate for.

Like Mr. Clinton and White House chief of staff Thomas F. "Mack" McLarty, Mr. Foster was raised in Hope, Ark.

The three attended kindergarten together -- and all went on to great professional successes. Mr. Foster was a star athlete and president of the student body at Hope High School. He graduated first in his class from the University of Arkansas Law School in 1971 and went on to get the highest score on the Arkansas bar exam that year.

He became a partner in the Rose Law Firm, Little Rock's most prestigious blue-chip firm, only two years after joining it. It was there that Mr. Foster began a friendship with another partner, Hillary Rodham Clinton.

Mr. Foster was married to Lisa Braden Foster for 25 years and had three children -- two in college and one in high school -- whom he openly doted on.

Longtime friends spent yesterday replaying in their minds scenes from their last glimpses of Mr. Foster, or trying to recall the nuances of seemingly trivial conversations and actions that might shed light on what happened Tuesday.

At about noon Tuesday, Mr. Foster walked to Mr. Nussbaum's office to find the White House counsel watching the television coverage of Supreme Court nominee Ruth Bader Ginsburg's confirmation hearings.

In the months Mr. Foster and Mr. Nussbaum had known each other, they had taken their share of licks. The White House counsel's office was blamed for assorted missteps, including the botched nominations of Zoe Baird and Lani Guinier -- and for taking so long to nominate Judge Ginsburg.

In addition, the role of the counsel's office -- and of Mr. Foster in particular -- was questioned in the controversial firing of the White House travel office staff.

But on Tuesday, Mr. Nussbaum, at least, thought things were coming up roses. Judge Ginsburg was an obvious smash hit with the Senate Judiciary Committee. And in federal judge Louis J. Freeh, introduced by Mr. Clinton yesterday, the White House counsel's office believed it had found the ideal man to lead the FBI.

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