Vincent Foster and public scrutiny

August 16, 1993

There are times when the nation's capital takes on some of the attributes of a shark tank at feeding time. That is one of the complaints left behind in some notes by Vincent W. Foster Jr., the deputy White House counsel who committed suicide. Reviewing the brouhaha in the White House travel office, Mr. Foster makes some vague accusations and offers a flimsy defense of White House staff behavior. These are deserving of some attention, but Mr. Foster's remarks about life in Washington raise a more substantial issue.

In Washington, Mr. Foster wrote, "ruining people is considered sport." There is a good deal of exaggeration in this assertion, but there is truth in it too. Since Mr. Foster plainly regarded himself as a victim of this "sport," the charge needs to be examined apart from the incident that spawned it.

Mr. Foster issues a general denial of White House staff misconduct in handling the phony scandal that was used as a pretext for firing career employees of the travel office. He offers no new evidence and leaves unshaken the reasonable conclusion that cronies of President Clinton plotted to take over the lucrative travel bookings handled by that office for officials and journalists.

Moreover, he accuses the FBI, which was improperly summoned on his orders to provide a facade for the purge, of having lied in describing its own role. He charges there was some shoddy conduct by another White House staff office and accused journalists of covering up unspecified illegal benefits they received from the travel staff. All of this deserves independent investigation, not more of the whitewash the Clinton administration has applied to previous allegations in this affair.

That leaves Mr. Foster's plaintive cry about the corrosive aspect of public scrutiny of officials in Washington. He admits candidly he was not cut out for the "spotlight of public life." Part of his problem, it appears, was clinical depression that distorted his perceptions. That, combined with Mr. Foster's lack of experience in public life, explains his shock at the singeing effect of public scrutiny. Still, Mr. Foster's dark thoughts are worth pondering for the light they shed on the way the capital's politicians and journalists sometimes behave. Reports of high level misconduct -- personal as well as professional -- sometimes drive Washington's permanent insiders into a feeding frenzy. If Mr. Foster's death can stimulate some second thoughts in the capital, he will have made a lasting contribution to our political system.

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