When an aide dies violently

William Safire

August 03, 1993|By William Safire

ALMOST three decades ago, the body of a talented artist was found along the Georgetown canal towpath, a bullet in her head. Because she had for years been an intimate friend of President Kennedy, counterspy James Jesus Angleton was immediately notified and searched her home before police arrived.

When her diary came into his hands, that Kennedy loyalist destroyed it, as he later indicated to me, "to protect the presidency." A suspect was tried and acquitted; the prosecutor was justifiably furious when it was revealed that the CIA destroyed the murder victim's diary. The crime was never solved.

That's one reason why Washingtonians with long memories recoiled at the numbness with which the Clinton White House responded to the report that the body of Deputy Counsel Vincent Foster Jr. had been found in a federal park near the Potomac.

The probe of the apparent suicide was at first contained within the U.S. Park Police, a unit adept at catching parkway speeders and removing cats from trees but ill-equipped for White House confrontation.

The office of the dead man, where sensitive Clinton records were kept, was not sealed until midmorning of the day after his body was found, and had been entered several times during the night.

When the keep-off-the-grass cops finally showed up at the White House, they were forbidden access to records protected by executive privilege. Mr. Foster's boss, White House Counsel Bernard Nussbaum, took charge of the search and told them what he thought was relevant. An FBI agent was present as a kind of observer; when he ventured to peek at a document, he was spoken to sharply by a White House aide who was in turn reproved by Mr. Nussbaum.

Unfound in this initial search were about 20 scraps of paper in the Foster briefcase, which turned out to be a torn-up sheet of notes bearing on Mr. Foster's unhappy mood.

I believe Mr. Nussbaum's assertion that he did not notice the note torn into bits at the bottom of the briefcase. I further believe his claim that his failure to report this discovery to police for 27 hours after it was brought to him was caused by a need to consult the Clintons, chief of staff Mack McLarty and counselor David Gergen. (I also believe that 18 and a half minutes were erased from the Nixon tapes by inadvertence.)

The irony is the FBI was called in too late to investigate a matter rooted in the calling of the FBI too soon. Nine days after the event, Park Police objections to the delay in reporting evidence finally forced Attorney General Janet Reno and her deputy, Philip Heymann, to permit FBI agents to begin interviewing White House aides about the apparent suicide.

That delay is the source of public concern. Not suspicion of murder, though the discoverer of the body remains unknown and no gun license has been found. Assuming no crime, the question remains: Was Vincent Foster irrationally morose because of criticism of his office's abuse of the FBI in "Travelgate" -- or was the president's closest legal confidant dreading the exposure of malfeasance yet unknown?

Someone who has read the reconstructed page of notes assures me that it reveals no fear of any new scandal. When the page is released -- preferably by special counsel looking into Travelgate and its sad aftermath -- it will merely show a careworn man listing reasons for quitting his job.

As we get that behind us, we will hear recriminations from the likes of Hollywood producer Harry Thomason, whose greed for patronage caused the mess that may have unhinged Mr. Foster, that only cruel "Washington" was to blame: "If he were in Arkansas, he'd be alive."

That knee in the media groin (encouraging the "they'll be sorry" delusion of potential suicides) is aimed at Wall Street Journal editorialists and the rest of us who vigorously protested an abuse of police power. I remember my dismay when William Casey, an old friend castigated in this space for paying off Iranian terrorists, turned out to have been addled by a brain tumor.

Journalists have a job to do, and cannot pull their punches at wrongdoing on the assumption that high officials may be mentally ill.

Presidents and their appointees have a job to do, too; it includes the swift protection of the public interest when a person entrusted with the nation's secrets is found with a bullet in the head.

William Safire is a columnist for the New York Times.

Baltimore Sun Articles
|
|
|
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.