Paying grimmest price of White House work ON POLITICS

JACK GERMOND & JULES WITCOVER

July 26, 1993|By JACK GERMOND & JULES WITCOVER

WASHINGTON — WASHINGTON--The tragic death of White House Deputy Counsel Vincent Foster, Bill Clinton's boyhood friend in Hope, Ark., adds a sorrowful personal dimension to the president's considerable political woes after six months in office.

The nature of that death, an apparent suicide, brings into grim focus the pressures of the job not only on the man in the Oval Office but also on those around him given major responsibilities. While the reasons for the tragedy can only be speculated about at this point, many at the White House believe Foster simply took upon himself the blame for the many problems with presidential appointments that wounded his friend's first months of incumbency.

Importantly involved in the vetting of job candidates and in the investigation of the White House travel office, Foster never was singled out for blame when things went wrong. But White House insiders say he was the sort to look critically at his own performance and see shortcomings where others did not. Still, if he did commit suicide, nothing he did would justify such a drastic resolution.

One White House official involved in the rough and tumble of politics for several years notes that Foster never went through the peaks and valleys of political life that teach those who have made the journey to ride with the punches. Such experience, this official says, enables most politicians to absorb defeat and move on to the next challenge, rather than to brood and carry the weight of disappointing outcomes on their own backs.

The episode underscores the fact that while working at the White House smacks of glamour and power, it is a pressure cooker that exacts a high price for the glory. Although many qualified people decline to suffer the public disclosure of their most personal matters, many willingly accept the burden in order to serve a president.

Aside from those who run afoul of the law in the course of their official duties -- Bob Haldeman, John Ehrlichman, Ollie North and John Poindexter, to name some of the most prominent -- others experience burnout or acts of fate that shake their lives.

For example, Edwin Meese was enjoying a prosperous and respected life in California when he came East with Ronald Reagan to sniff the politically rarefied air of the nation's capital. Before he left he not only was subjected to allegations of wrongdoing but lost a teen-age son in a car accident here. While the latter could have happened anywhere, it was a sad byproduct of Meese's decision to uproot his family and move across the country.

On another level, marriages are dissolved and lifelong friendships ruptured at the altar of demanding service to a president. Until Foster's death, the burning of midnight oil at the Clinton White House was a subject of general amusement, especially because of the youth of many of the newcomers. Comparisons were made with "pulling all-nighters" -- cramming for final exams at Clinton U. Now questions will be asked about whether working at the White House is not just demanding but destructively so.

The president himself in paying tribute to Foster said he told White House staffers to "try to remember that work can never be the only thing in life." And even before Foster's death, amid the stories of workplace candles being burned at both ends, they were urged not to drive themselves so hard, and to make a greater effort to spend time with their families.

But working in the White House can be a political aphrodisiac, especially in a new administration of a party that has been out of power for more than a decade. Along with the criticism that Clinton has been trying to do too much all at one time is the reality of a hard-pressed staff still getting settled in and laboring to implement the initiatives of a president who himself is a restless workaholic.

Presidents seldom anticipate before they move into the Oval Office the scope of demands on their time and energies, and those of their staffs. Every once in a while, though, something happens to remind them that perspective is just as critical to success, and survival, as grinding away. The death of Vincent Foster is, unhappily, one of those reminders.

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