Casualty of the fast track


THEY'RE SUPERACHIEVERS, shining stars in their hometowns, all-everything in college, rockets on the fast track. They come to Washington riding high, ready to flex their stardom for a new president.

They don't know the Imperial City, beneath the pomp and glitz, has brutal claws.

Once in the White House, they throw themselves into 7 a.m.-to-9 p.m. work, lunch at the desk, often Saturdays, too. No marathon is too tough, especially if the new president is a boyhood pal.

But things go wrong: Foul-ups, media firestorms, broadsides at the president's staff.

For someone accustomed to straight-A success, there can be a sour nightmare of guilt, disloyalty and failure -- an elevator in free fall. Maybe that's what happened to Vince Foster, a lanky, quiet, graying man who was the No. 2 lawyer in Bill Clinton's White House.

Nobody knows.

Or may ever know.

For Mr. Clinton, who grew up playing jackknives with Mr. Foster in the back yards of Hope, Ark., there was baffled anguish.

All that's certain is that Mr. Foster, 48, got into his 1989 Honda around 1 p.m. Tuesday and drove out the White House gates.

He'd stood in the background at the Rose Garden ceremony for a new FBI director, then watched televised hearings for Supreme Court nominee Ruth Ginsburg. After bitter flops of other presidential appointments he'd handled, Mr. Foster's mood should have been soaring.

"Hey, Vince, we hit two home runs today," exulted White House counsel Bernard Nussbaum. "Maybe we're getting the hang of this job."

That was the last conversation.

Mr. Foster drove six miles north on the George Washington Parkway to Fort Marcy Park. From the wooded, hilly glade he could look down at the Potomac River's gleam.

He could have been in another, peaceful country, far from the Imperial City's mean, noisy friction.

Maybe it felt like the right place.

Vince Foster leaned against a Civil-War-era cannon and, according to park police, shot himself with a .38 revolver.

Ironically for a man who'd blazed his career with words, briefs, paperwork, he didn't leave a note.

Because he was the president's lawyer and childhood buddy, Mr. Foster's death made network news. It was compared with Ronald Reagan aide Robert McFarlane's attempted suicide during Iran-contra and Defense Secretary James Forrestal's 1949 leap to death.

But in truth, whether it jolts the White House glamour or a backwoods village, every suicide leaves the same terrible riddle. Friends shuffle clues: "Why?" There's a blank wall.

They all speak of Vince Foster as a solid, super-bright workaholic. He was an arrow destined for this pinnacle: high-school athlete, Arkansas Law School star, Hillary Clinton's partner in the prestigious Rose Law Firm, voted the state's outstanding lawyer.

But not a man to flash emotions.

"He was the Rock of Gibraltar while others were having trouble," said a pale, sorrowful Mr. Clinton. "I can't remember the reverse ever being true. What happened was a mystery inside him."

Mr. Clinton and White House aides circled the wagons around Mr. Foster's death: No, he hadn't seemed "unduly burdened" or "under stress." Their denials don't ring true.

Mr. Foster had been a player in Mr. Clinton's early fiascos: Withdrawals of Kimba Wood and Zoe Baird for attorney general; the disappointment of Judge Stephen Breyer for Supreme Court; the seamy shake-up of the White House travel office.

He was startled out of semi-anonymity a month ago by stinging Wall Street Journal editorials "Who is Vincent Foster?" and "Vincent Foster's Victory" that ridiculed him for hiding White House records and that compared him to Ollie North.

Asked if Mr. Foster might have felt guilt for letting down the presidency, Mr. Clinton flared, "I certainly don't think that's accurate."

But White House comrades said Mr. Foster had been depressed by the media focus on his job problems.

"He'd never been criticized in his life," said one. "He was uncomfortable under the Washington microscope."

Mr. Clinton, leaving a CNN-TV studio when he heard the news, rushed to the home of Mr. Foster's wife and three children. Mr. Clinton's memory rewound 42 years to Hope, Ark., when his grandparents' house adjoined Vince Foster's back yard.

"I just kept thinking of when we were young, sitting in the back yard, throwing knives in the ground, seeing if we were adroit enough to make them stick," mused Mr. Clinton.

Their game in the Imperial City would be for deadly stakes.

Mr. Clinton played therapist to his grief-shattered staff. He told them to slow down, smell the roses.

"Pay attention to friends and co-workers," advised Mr. Clinton. "Work can't be the only thing in life."

Too late for Vince Foster, his turmoil halted by a .38 bullet.

But the Washington game, with its bullying pressures and petty infamies, never stops.

Sandy Grady is Washington columnist for the Philadelphia Daily News.

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