Vince: We Hardly Knew Ye
Part 7

Being a recap of the death, and various ongoing investigations into same, of White House aide Vincent Foster, jr.

(With apologies to his family, who prefer to "let sleeping Fosters lie.")

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With the U.S. about to invade Bosnia in order to promote peace ("War is peace"); with things getting a little hot in Washington (and not just the weather) for that big, lovable clown from Arkansas; with investigations heating up; with the "special people" beginning to panic -- how convenient for the comfortable classes that the situation in Bosnia should heat up just about now.

So that the commissar class doesn't get too comfortable, I thought I'd offer a bit of a history lesson on the death, as well as the on-and-off investigations into same, of Vincent Foster, jr.

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MARCH 21, 1994

By Erich Eichman
[Wall Street Journal, 03/21/94]

The producers of "The Paper" couldn't have timed it better. Just as their movie about a scrappy big-city tabloid was opening last week, two rival tabs in New York City went to war. The subject? The mysterious circumstances surrounding the death last July of Deputy White House Counsel Vincent Foster. "Doubts Raised Over Foster's 'Suicide,'" the New York Post had proclaimed in its opening salvo two months ago, inaugurating a series of incisive reports. "Case Closed," countered the Daily News last week.

Who's right? We may never know. But we certainly won't be able to grapple with certain crucial facts until the Justice Department deigns to release the police report of his death, something this newspaper has been calling for since last summer, when we filed our first Freedom of Information Act request. In the meantime, the war of the tabs proves that the old-fashioned art of enterprise journalism isn't dead.

As in the early stages of the Whitewater scandal -- a matter that touches on Mr. Foster -- the tabloids, unlike most of the establishment press, have shown a willingness to push hard on troublesome questions and odd details. By asking tough and important questions about Mr. Foster's apparent suicide, they may eventually force out the truth.

For the benefit of readers outside New York, here's what the two papers have been reporting:

Christopher Ruddy of the Post led the way, showing the enterprise to interview the emergency personnel who viewed Mr. Foster's body. In late January, Mr. Ruddy was told by paramedic George Gonzalez that there was something "strange" about the Foster death scene. Mr. Foster's body was neatly laid out, with gun in hand, and there was surprisingly little blood ("a thin trickle" near his mouth). One expert told Mr. Ruddy that in 30 years he had "never seen someone shoot themselves in the mouth and still hold the gun perfectly at his side." According to Mr. Gonzalez and a law-enforcement official, the gun showed no traces of blood.

The park maintenance worker who found Mr. Foster's body had described a heavy-set man in a van who had pulled over and alerted him to the "dead body" in the park. Mr. Ruddy wondered, understandably, "Who was the man in the white utility van?"

All this prompted him to ask why the FBI had been kept out of the investigation. He was told by former FBI head William Sessions (who admittedly has his own ax to grind with the Clinton White House) that a "power struggle" with Justice had left the investigation in the hands of the less experienced Park Police.

Who handled (or bungled) the investigation became important when Mr. Ruddy discovered, the day after his first article appeared, that the Park Police had ruled the Foster death a suicide without running a ballistics test on the gun. The police asked the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms to do a test only two days after the official police ruling was handed down, on Aug. 10.

But nothing was yet conclusive: Even the Park Police had questions, as it turned out. A Feb. 4 Washington Post report -- perhaps inspired by Mr. Ruddy's hard-hitting articles the week before -- confirmed the ballistics-test delay, and revealed that the ATF had been asked by the Park Police to look for powder residue on Mr. Foster's clothes as well, and to comment on the possible position of the gun at the time it was fired.

As it turned out, the ATF's conclusions were consistent with suicide, but the procedural confusion left Mr. Ruddy wondering about the integrity of the entire investigation. He was not alone in such musings. Special Counsel Robert Fiske has announced his intention to re-examine the entire Foster episode. In short: What else was there to know? And why has the official report -- including photographs, autopsy results, and pieces of a suicide note -- not been made public, to clear up the mystery and end the speculation?

The answer to that question is still incomplete, and the legal complexity surrounding Mr. Fiske's efforts may even add to the delay. But in last Monday's Daily News, Mike McAlary managed to push the story further toward openness.

Mr. McAlary got a chance to "review" the Park Police report "once" (it was made available, we may presume, to counter the Post's stories), and talked to unnamed investigators. His conclusion: Vincent Foster's death was "a simple story from a police blotter" -- decidedly not something that would confirm the "ranting of some conspiracy theorist," whoever that might be.

The chief forensic investigator at the death scene found little blood on the front of Mr. Foster's body, but there was plenty in the back, where the bullet had exited his skull. Mr. Foster's right thumb was stuck in the trigger guard, Mr. McAlary reported, accounting for the gun's still resting in his hand when the body was discovered. Powder burns were found on Mr. Foster's palate and tongue, and on his right hand. The lack of disturbance to the dead man's "blood pools" suggested, as one investigator said, that Mr. Foster "died right on the hill where he was sitting."

All in all, Mr. McAlary concluded, there was no mystery left to this part of the story. Even the man in the white van turned out to lead nowhere: He was the invention of the park worker, who apparently embroidered his account to cover up a midday respite. Mr. McAlary triumphantly announced that Mr. Fiske and his chief Foster investigator had "accepted" the conclusions of the Park Police about Vincent Foster's death.

The Post fired back on Wednesday in an article by Thomas Ferraro. He cited mistakes that Mr. McAlary had made: the date of the suicide and the first name of Mr. Fiske's deputy, Roderick Lankler. More important, Mr. Lankler denied to the Post that he or Mr. Fiske had reached any conclusions about the Foster death. "Foster Suicide Probe Still Wide Open" the Post trumpeted. That lasted 24 hours -- until the News's next salvo. "The Real News on Post Mortem," quipped the paper's headline writers on Thursday. On page two, they dropped the news that the Park Police confirmed that "the case is closed."

But it isn't, really. Despite Mr. McAlary's heroic effort to refute Mr. Ruddy, and despite the persuasiveness of his account, too much remains hidden about the entire Foster affair. After all, the Park Police report is still locked away -- as are the Foster office papers. Mr. McAlary presents a vivid account of the scene in Mr. Foster's office the day after the suicide. Furious FBI agents and Park Police officials were forced by Mr. Nussbaum to sit 15 feet away from Mr. Foster's desk as he rummaged through papers, saying repeatedly "We can't show you this, this is personal."

That scene, of course, suggests the possibility that secret, politically sensitive, truths lie behind Mr. Foster's actions. Such a suggestion also emanates -- rightly or wrongly -- from the "overlooked" suicide note that a White House aide found in Mr. Foster's briefcase five days after the Park Police had not seen it there. Mr. McAlary interestingly reports that, because Mr. Foster called the FBI liars in his note, the Park Police had one of their own sergeants do the handwriting analysis.

Obviously, until everything is made public and properly explained, a cloud of doubt will hover over the Foster affair. In the meantime, we owe a debt of gratitude to the aggressive and consequential fact-finding missions of tough tabloid reporters.

Brian Francis Redman "The Big C"

Coming to you from Illinois -- "The Land of Skolnick"