How Washington killed Clinton aide: David Usborne reports on the acrimony of a troubled death in the 'cruel' capital

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The Independent Online
IT WAS like a voice from the grave. Three weeks after President Clinton's deputy legal counsel, Vincent Foster, was found dead from apparent suicide in a suburban Washington park, a note he had written days before has been released to the press. Found torn into 28 pieces in the bottom of a briefcase, the note is an anguished lament on the mercilessness of America's capital.

Its final line still echoes across the city: 'Here ruining people is considered sport.' In the preceding few paragraphs, Foster hints obliquely at wrongdoing or dishonesty on the part of the FBI, the Republican Party and even the Ushers Office in the White House. He saves his harshest words, however, for a different kind of political institution - the Wall Street Journal. 'The WSJ editors lie without consequence,' he wrote.

While all the other allegations have prompted calls - notably from the New York Times - for renewed investigation by an independent prosecutor, Foster's reference to the Journal needs no explaining. Beginning in mid-June, the newspaper ran a series of sharp editorial columns probing into Foster's role in the Clinton administration. Some now accuse the authors if not of actually pulling the trigger on Vincent Foster, at least of pushing him towards the act.

'Did the Journal cause the suicide? I think not. But did it contribute to Vincent Foster's depression? I think certainly yes,' concludes Norman Ornstein, of the American Enterprise Institute, a think tank which would normally share the Journal's starkly conservative views. 'Would I go to bed at night feeling pretty awful and a little guilty? I would, but whoever wrote those editorials probably does not. In the back of my mind there would have to be something that said I had gone too far.'

The paper's focus on Foster formed part of a virtual editorial vendetta against what it called the 'Rose clique' inside the White House legal office. The central complaint was that the new administration had imported to Washington no less than four partners from the Rose law firm, of Little Rock, Arkansas: the First Lady, Hillary Rodham Clinton; William Kennedy, the number three White House counsel; Webster Hubbell, associate Attorney- General; and Foster himself.

Typical of the assaults on the 'Rose firm's four-partner implant in the administration' was the conclusion to a 7 July editorial that focused principally on Kennedy's role in the White House's botched attempts to sack the staff of its travel office. The editorial suggested 'the early indications of the Rose view of the law are certainly disconcerting, displaying a lot of corner-cutting and casual abuse of power'.

Foster, who disappeared and was found dead in a road- side park on 20 July, killed by a single gunshot wound, comes close in his note to conceding that legal short-cuts may have been taken, particularly in the Travelgate affair. But he denies violating the law or any standards of conduct.

The first editorial to target him - 'Who is Vincent Foster?', dated 17 June - contained several questions about the White House's legal conduct, but actually accused Foster of nothing in particular, apart from refusing a request from the paper for his photograph. The subsequent editorials, while piling up doubts about his competence and integrity, offered little evidence of wrongdoing.

Taking the lead in denouncing the Journal is Washington columnist and noted defender of the Democratic Party, Michael Kinsley. 'These editorials stand as a case study in editorial dishonesty,' he railed on the pages of the New Republic, a political weekly. Accusing the newspaper of 'innuendo and demagogy', Kinsley insists that when 'its editorial writers sink so low - as they have sunk repeatedly in their hysterical response to the election of a Democratic president - it is worthy of note'.

Ornstein concurs. 'The Journal must be the meanest, most mean-spirited and vindictive newspaper in the country. It should be called to account,' he said. 'In the past, it has been the most eloquent proponent of executive power and the right of the President to pick his own people and to give them leeway to do things - but that was when Reagan was in charge. All those editorials were as hypocritical as could be. They have all been within the range of what the First Amendment allows for editorials, but they could not exactly be held up as examples of high journalism.'

The Rose Firm campaign was not unusual for the Journal, well-known for taking its editorial battering-ram to a few select targets and pummeling them, with little regard for usual standards of politeness or mercy. 'I don't think there was anything different on this occasion from what they have done to a lot of other people,' says William Greider, former national editor of the Washington Post. 'There's something 19th century about the Journal. It doesn't worry about the Marquis of Queensberry rules or any other rules.'

Still unforgivingly austere in its appearance - it almost never prints photographs, offering pen-drawn portraits of public figures instead - the Journal has been published since 1889 by Dow Jones in New York. Until the early 1950s, it was essentially, as the name indicates, a newsheet for the financial district of Manhattan; then it began to expand under the editorship of the late Barney Kilgore. Today, though still very much a newspaper of business and the East Coast elite, it has a formidable daily US circulation of nearly 1.8 million and, Monday to Friday, is America's largest selling newspaper.

The paper's editorial section, it should be noted, has always stood strictly alone from its news pages, widely respected for their objectivity and quality.

'In effect, it is two newspapers,' says Jude Wanniski, a member of the editorial team through most of the Seventies. He defends his former colleagues, arguing that they have to 'work especially hard in challenging the administration while Democrats are in power in both the White House and in Congress'. Foster was driven to suicide, he suggests, because of the extent of the corruption he was starting to discover. The Journal 'is calling them to account because what you see in this is the tip of the iceberg'.

The Journal itself is unrepentant. In a final - so far - editorial on the subject, entitled 'Re Vincent Foster' on 6 August, it contended that 'there is no way to cover national government on the assumption that a high official and steeled litigator secretly suffers from depression, and may commit suicide if criticised'. Its veteran editor, Robert Bartley, whose office did not respond to an interview request from this newspaper, issued one further statement following the release of the note. 'The text of Mr Foster's note suggests that he was deeply distraught over a variety of issues. At this time we have nothing to add to our last editorial of August 6; if we find reason to comment in the future, we will do so in our own editorial columns.'

The call on Thursday from the New York Times for a fresh investigation into the affair has, meanwhile, offered some cover to the Journal. While making no claims about Foster's conduct, the Times believes that his note alone suggests wrongdoing may have occurred and requires exposure. The paper also called for the immediate resignation of the chief White House counsel, and Foster's immediate superior, Bernard Nussbaum. It added: 'The Journal's editorials on Mr Foster, while sharply partisan and sometimes petty to the point of being sophomoric, cannot fairly be blamed for his death.'

So the Wall Street Journal may escape further censure. But the reverberations of the affair are not over. On one thing all of Washington seems agreed: this is a cruel town that, for the unseasoned, can mean personal disaster.

When President Clinton addressed members of his staff at a White House party on Wednesday, the last scribblings of his former colleague and boyhood friend were doubtless firmly in his mind. 'Remember,' said the President, 'if you're rested and happy and upbeat, you'll also do a good job for the United States.'

(Photograph omitted)