Vincent Foster's Legacy

August 12, 1993

Once again the troubled mind of Vincent W. Foster Jr., the deputy White House counsel who committed suicide, has been exposed without shedding much additional light on his death. The jottings found in his briefcase reveal a man unable to deal with the buffeting that comes with public life in Washington. This is partly traceable to what appears to have been clinical depression. But in large measure the events leading to his death illustrate the extraordinary stresses imposed on prominent officials in the capital.

Mr. Foster's notes contain some statements that are palpably inaccurate but others that deserve further investigation. He denies that proper standards were violated in the trumped-up investigation of the White House travel office. There was no intent to benefit any individual, he said.

Plainly there were violations of standards in unjustifiably firing at least five career employees and in the way the FBI was manipulated to provide a veneer of credibility. The prime movers behind the purge were cronies or relatives of President Clinton who were seeking to take over the office's business affairs themselves. Mr. Foster's inability to perceive the misconduct there is baffling.

It is not clear what Mr. Foster meant in accusing the FBI of lying in describing its role in the incident, or in the accusation of shoddy behavior by another staff office in the White House. White House officials have denied the implications of both of these statements, but they are the same officials whose credibility is already tattered. Independent investigation is the only acceptable response by the Clinton administration. The same goes for Mr. Foster's charge that members of the press received unspecified illegal benefits from the travel office.

Of more lasting public interest is Mr. Foster's complaint that "ruining people is considered sport" in Washington. He has a point, though it is seriously overstated. There is a very fine line between legitimate probing into the lives of public officials -- even their private lives, when they impinge on public responsibilities -- and keyhole peeping or vicious scandal-mongering. Sometimes that line is crossed, by journalists as well as political foes.

In the worst cases the faintest whiff of blood in the water touches off a feeding frenzy by the media that is eagerly, and sometimes unscrupulously, fed by other officials. Blameless and seasoned officials usually survive, but the process detracts from the fruitful conduct of public business. And it sometimes claims innocent victims. Shaming the sharks into more circumspect behavior would be Vince Foster's finest legacy.

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