Where Hope Ends

Aug. 02, 1993

The apparent suicide of a close friend and adviser leaves the Clintons in mourning and Washington with a painful question: Why did he do it?

By MARGARET CARLSON/WASHINGTON--With reporting by Michael Duffy/Washington

"Before we came here, we thought of ourselves as good people." This was one of the few observations Vincent Foster Jr., the 48-year-old deputy White House counsel, allowed himself to make about how Washington had chipped away at his psyche after he joined the Clinton Administration. Last Tuesday afternoon, six months to the day since his boyhood friend had taken the oath of office and everything seemed possible for the men from Hope, Foster passed through the iron gate of the White House in his gray Nissan, crossed the Potomac River to a Civil War fort preserved as a national park in Virginia, and apparently put his father's antique .38-cal. Colt revolver in his mouth and ended his life, leaving those who knew him in stunned and uncomprehending grief.

The President, whose friendship with Foster began four decades earlier in Hope, Arkansas, learned of his death at about 10 p.m. After cutting short a live interview with Larry King in the library of the residence, he immediately called Hillary, who was in Little Rock. He then ordered an unmarked van to take him to Georgetown to visit Foster's wife Lisa. He stayed there for several hours, then returned for a vigil with friends at the White House, where he said "we did a lot of crying and a little bit of laughing" remembering the man Clinton called his Rock of Gibraltar. "When I was told what happened," he recalled, "I just kept thinking in my mind of when we were so young, sitting on the ground in the backyard, throwing knives into the ground and seeing if we were adroit enough to make them stick."

The knives hardly ever stuck, Clinton said, but the friendship did. The President brought his oldest friend, who was also his wife's colleague at the Rose law firm, to Washington with him. One of Little Rock's most brilliant litigators, Foster was trusted by the Clintons, says Arkansas lawyer Joe Purvis, "not just for one or two projects, but leaned on in almost every facet" of their lives. As deputy in the counsel's office, he was among those who attracted much of the criticism in the early days of the Administration over insufficiently vetting nominees and the abrupt firing of seven members of the travel office. He had become a target of Wall Street Journal editorials about the "legal cronies from Little Rock," but he had laughed it off, calling it, says a colleague, "b.s. stuff." He was the one, Clinton recalled, who bucked up others, always the protector who never seemed in need of protection himself.

The death left the White House staff wandering around glassy-eyed in disbelief, with those who knew him best searching their memories for the offhand remark, the telling anecdote that would illuminate what Foster kept hidden. Skip Rutherford, an aide to chief of staff Mack McLarty, recalls a conversation a week earlier when Foster said, "No one back in Little Rock could know how hard this is." Purvis remembers Foster's description of his days. "You try to be at work by 7 in the morning and sometimes it's 10 at night when you walk out just dog-tired. About the time you're thinking `What a load,' you turn around and see the White House lit up, and the awe of where you are and what you're doing hits you. It makes you realize it's worth it."

The official account of Foster's death has done nothing to answer the questions about a man charmed in his life and so devoted to his wife and three children that he once admitted that "two days alone in the house" without them drove him crazy. There was no note near the cannon where his body was slumped, or in the car parked 200 yards away.

Foster's morning had been spent in routine meetings and at a Rose Garden ceremony to announce the nomination of a new FBI director. Foster returned to his second-floor office with his boss, Bernard Nussbaum, and had a sandwich at his desk. Nussbaum recalls an upbeat conversation when his assistant poked his head into the office a little after noon. That afternoon Foster's wife was at her new house with her friend Donna McLarty, telling her that Vince's distraction--no one called it a depression--had lifted during a getaway weekend on Maryland's Eastern Shore.

It is unknown what Foster did between about 1 p.m. and 6:04 p.m., when the U.S. Park Police, tipped off by an anonymous caller, found his body. And despite the President's acceptance of Foster's death as an inexplicable suicide, the Justice Department is coordinating an investigation to consider foul play, blackmail or any other possibility.

As Foster's life was drawing to a close, lawmakers were on their feet cheering the President's only public speech at the Capitol since his February economic address. While it had been a rough six months for Clinton, the sustained applause rang in his ears, and the President and his aides felt optimistic. But Vince Foster, on that peaceful bluff overlooking the Potomac, could not hear the cheers or feel the optimism. He had already crossed to the other shore.

Copyright (c) TIME Magazine, 1995 TIME Inc. Magazine Company; (c) 1995 Compact Publishing, Inc.

Go Back to Shy David's Depression Page.