Special Prosecutor's Report May Shed Light on Foster Suicide

May 01, 1994|By CARL M. CANNON

WASHINGTON — Washington. -- Vince Foster still comes to his friends in the shadows as they walk to their cars, or at night on the drive home after work, or unexpectedly, in the morning after they rise.

They hear his distinctive chuckle or see his handsome, distracted face. But before they can ask, "Why, Vince?" he disappears, just as he did in life, into a fog of political intrigue and personal tragedy.

To the police who found the body, the death July 20, 1993, of 48-year-old Vincent W. Foster Jr. was all too familiar. A troubled man sought a secluded place and took his life with a handgun.

To the Arkansans who came north to staff the Clinton administration, it was tragedy felt personally. Vince Foster was the best Arkansas had to offer, a husband with three children, a friend to Bill and Hillary Clinton.

But to millions of Americans, Foster's death came to be associated with something vague and troubling -- the murky Whitewater affair.

Soon, Whitewater special prosecutor Robert B. Fiske Jr., who has been probing the death as part of his investigation, is expected to release an interim report.

The questions Mr. Fiske is addressing range from whether Mr. Foster did, indeed, take his own life to whether White House officials acted improperly when they took a Whitewater file from Mr. Foster's office two days after his death.

White House officials are confident that Mr. Fiske will conclude there was no foul play and exonerate them from any questionable behavior. They also hope that closing the official investigation will be another turning point -- like Hillary Clinton's news conference -- that will help get the administration off Whitewater and back on track.

But the degree of light that can be shed by Mr. Fiske may prove finite. There are some things Vince Foster just left unsaid.

"There is no refuge from confession but suicide," Daniel Webster once wrote. "And suicide itself is confession."

But what, if anything, was Mr. Foster afraid to confess on that July afternoon? What events in his life precipitated such a fearful depression in a man so widely admired for his cool, problem-solving abilities? Just who, to paraphrase a critical Wall Street Journal editorial, was Vince Foster?

Webster L. Hubbell, Mr. Foster's former partner at the Rose Law Firm in Little Rock, was among those who knew Mr. Foster best, though after it happened many Arkansans found themselves wondering if they really knew him at all.

The Hubbells and the Fosters spent a weekend on the Eastern Shore, where Mr. Foster jogged and cracked crabs for the first time and talked football. Two nights later, when Mr. Hubbell was called by George Stephanopoulos, a 31-year-old senior presidential aide, the younger man had to repeat the searing news -- Vince has killed himself -- five times before Mr. Hubbell could absorb it.

It still hasn't fully sunk in for White House Chief of Staff Thomas F. "Mack" McLarty III, the third of the "boys from Hope." Mr. Foster kept a picture of the three -- Bill Clinton, Mack McLarty and Vince Foster -- taken when they were kids. Young Clinton moved away, but Mack McLarty and Vince Foster attended the local Presbyterian church and served with each other in the Hope High School student council.

Mr. McLarty was at the White House that summer night, passing time with communications director Mark Gearan while watching President Clinton on "Larry King Live."

Just after 9 p.m., the call came from the U.S. Park Police to Bill Burton, Mr. McLarty's assistant. Mr. Burton was told about the body being found in Fort Marcy, a grassy Civil War memorial in Northern Virginia -- and about the identification left behind in Vince Foster's Honda Accord.

White House security officer Craig Livingstone and associate White House counsel William H. Kennedy III, a colleague of Mr. Foster in both Washington and at the Rose law firm in Little Rock, were dispatched to Fairfax Hospital to view the body and identify it.

In the meantime, Mr. McLarty paced the floor, thinking about the fourth Rose Law Firm partner who came to Washington: Hillary Rodham Clinton. She was in Little Rock, where her father was ill. Although they were the same age, Mr. Foster had been something of a mentor to Mrs. Clinton at the Rose firm, and the two were exceptionally close friends.

The minutes ticked by slowly for Mr. McLarty; at 9:40 p.m., he decided he could wait no longer and phoned Mrs. Clinton.

"Hillary, it appears Vince has taken his life," Mr. McLarty said he told the first lady.

"I can't believe this!" she told him. "I just can't believe it!"

At about 9:55 p.m. the confirmation came from the hospital.

On the set with CNN talk show host Larry King, President Clinton had just agreed to do another half-hour. At a station break, Mr. McLarty told the president that this wasn't a good idea. Mr. Clinton looked searchingly at his chief of staff's anguished face.

"What is it?" he asked in alarm.

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