Foster, Vincent William, Jr.
Foster, Vincent William, Jr.
(b. 15 January 1945 in Hope, Arkansas; d. 20 July 1993 in Fort Marcy Park near McLean, Virginia), lawyer and President Bill Clinton’s deputy White House counsel, whose death sparked political controversy and gave rise to a number of conspiracy theories questioning the official verdict of suicide.
One of three children born to Vincent William Foster, Sr., a well-to-do real-estate broker and developer, and Alice Mae Waddle, a homemaker, Foster knew the future president Bill Clinton from childhood, and the two remained lifelong friends.
Foster attended Hope High School, where he was president
of the student body and, like Clinton, a delegate to Boys State. After graduating in June 1963, Foster attended Davidson College, a small liberal-arts school in North Carolina, and earned a degree in psychology in June 1967. While at Davidson, Foster met Elizabeth (“Lisa”) Braden, a student at Sweet Briar College in Virginia. On 20 April 1968, during Foster’s first year at Vanderbilt University Law School, in Nashville, Tennessee, the couple married. They had three children.
As the Vietnam War escalated, Foster joined the Arkansas National Guard and transferred to the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville School of Law. In 1971 he graduated first in his class and earned the highest score in the state on his bar examination. He immediately joined Little Rock’s prestigious Rose Law Firm, where his specialty was commercial litigation, and within two years he was made a partner. Among his colleagues at Rose was the future First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton.
Respected in legal circles, Foster served a term as the president of the Pulaski County Bar Association and worked with the Arkansas Legal Services Corporation. He also took an interest in the Arkansas Repertory Theatre, serving on its board and raising funds for it.
When Clinton became the President in January 1993, Foster surprised many by giving up his lucrative practice (he reported his income as $295,000 for 1992) to assume the post of deputy White House counsel. Foster apparently believed that public service was important and worth the financial sacrifice. In Washington, D.C., Foster almost immediately found himself in the midst of controversy as first Zoë Baird, then Kimba Wood, Clinton’s first two nominees for attorney general—each of whom Foster had vetted— were forced to withdraw after each admitted she had hired illegal aliens as domestics. Foster, who was supposed to be Clinton’s “integrity cop,” apparently felt he had failed his boss.
On 8 May 1993 Foster delivered the commencement address at the University of Arkansas School of Law. He told the graduates that following their bar exams their most difficult test would be “not what you know but what is your character,” and he warned that “no victory, no advantage, no fee, no favor … is worth even a blemish on your reputation.”
But Foster’s reputation would soon be tarnished. During confirmation hearings of former Rose partner Webster Hubbell as the associate attorney general, Hubbell’s membership in the formerly all-white Country Club of Little Rock became an issue. On 19 May Hubbell told the Senate Judiciary Committee he would resign from the club. Foster, who was also a member, had little choice but to do the same.
On the same day, a new storm broke. A week earlier David Watkins, the head of White House administration, had approached Foster with the suspicion that “mismanagement and corruption” had occurred in the White House travel office. Foster assigned the associate White House counsel William H. Kennedy III (formerly of Rose), to investigate. On 19 May, Watkins fired all seven members of the travel-office staff, precipitating what came to be called “Travelgate.” When a Little Rock travel agency run by friends of the Clintons was put in charge of White House travel, it was seen, as the Washington Post put it, as a case of “White House cronies sacking longtime employees” in order to give lucrative business to friends. Charges also arose over alleged misuse of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) in connection with the probe. Kennedy, but not Foster, was eventually reprimanded for mishandling the investigation. Foster apparently felt Kennedy had been unfairly treated and that he (Foster) had failed to protect his friend Bill Clinton from the political consequences of Travelgate.
Between 17 June and 19 July the Wall Street Journal published a series of articles and editorials critical of Foster and other former members of the Rose Law Firm in the Clinton administration. It accused the “Rose clique” of engineering the firing of the FBI director William Sessions and it sarcastically complimented Foster for his successful arguments in defense of Hillary Clinton’s role as the chair of a task force on healthcare reform.
On 20 July 1993 after participating in a 9:00 A.M. staff meeting, Foster attended a Rose Garden ceremony at which President Clinton announced the nomination of Louis Freeh as the director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation. Afterward Foster talked to Chief Counsel Bernard Nussbaum, who complimented him on his work in vetting Freeh and Judge Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who appeared certain of confirmation by the Senate as a Supreme Court justice. After eating lunch at his desk, Foster left his office at about 1:00 P.M. and was never seen alive again. Shortly after 6:00 P.M. a body, later identified by the U.S. Park Police as that of Foster, was discovered in Fort Marcy Park, Virginia.
On 23 July President Clinton delivered a eulogy at Foster’s funeral in Little Rock. Later in the day Foster was buried at the Memory Gardens Cemetery in Hope.
Almost immediately questions about Foster’s death were raised. Initially no suicide note was found, but six days after Foster’s death a note, torn into twenty-seven pieces with a twenty-eighth piece missing, was found in a briefcase that had been searched by Nussbaum four days earlier. In the note Foster acknowledged mistakes made from “ignorance, inexperience, and overwork,” but contended he had “not knowingly violate [d] any law or standard of conduct.” He accused the FBI and the editors of the Wall Street Journal of lying about Travelgate and closed with the statement that “I was not meant for the job or the spotlight of public life in Washington. Here ruining people is considered sport.”
By 5 August 1993 the Park Police officially ruled Foster’s death a suicide. However, press reports that documents had been removed surreptitiously from Foster’s office by White House staffers led the attorney general Janet Reno in January 1994 to appoint Robert Fiske as special counsel to reopen the investigation. On 30 June 1994 Fiske released a report affirming that Foster had committed suicide in Fort Marcy Park. Nonetheless on 29 July 1994 the Republican-controlled Senate Banking Committee held a one-day hearing on Foster’s death, but eventually released a report agreeing with Fiske’s conclusions. Meanwhile, Congress renewed the independent-counsel law (which had been allowed to expire) and in August 1994 Kenneth Starr was appointed as independent counsel to investigate the so-called Whitewater affair and other matters. Although Starr eventually endorsed the conclusions of the Park Police, Special Counsel Fiske, and the Senate Banking Committee that Foster died by his own hand in Fort Marcy Park on 20 July 1993, conspiracy theorists, led by the journalist Christopher Ruddy, refused to accept these findings. While most of these critics stop short of openly charging that Foster was murdered, all suggest that a “cover-up” occurred to obscure the “fact” that he did not die a suicide in Fort Marcy Park.
There is extensive coverage of the Foster affair in James B. Stewart, Blood Sport: The President and His Adversaries (1996). Christopher Ruddy, The Strange Death of Vincent Foster: An Investigation (1997), and Ambrose Evans-Pritchard, The Secret Life of Bill Clinton: The Unreported Stories (1997), both contain some biographical information on Foster, but their major focus is on Foster’s death and both question the official version of his suicide. Dan E. Moldea, A Washington Tragedy: How the Death of Vincent Foster Ignited a Political Firestorm (1998) is a painstaking effort to debunk the theories of Ruddy and Evans-Pritchard but contains little on Foster’s life. David Von Dreble, “The Crumbling of a Pillar in Washington: Only Clinton Aide Foster Knew What Drove Him to Fort Marcy,” Washington Post (15 Aug. 1993), provides a brief biographical sketch. Peter J. Boyer, “Life After Vince,” New Yorker (11 Sept. 1995), is based on the author’s interview with Foster’s widow. Initial reports of Foster’s death, sketches of his career, and obituaries are in the New York Times, Washington Post, and Arkansas Democrat Gazette (all 21-24 July 1993).