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Penny-pinching Tragedy


I am struck by two things as I read the stories of the death of Deputy White House Counsel Vincent Foster Jr., the friend and confidant of the president and of Hillary Rodham Clinton.

First, the press accounts note that Mr. Foster "apparently" shot himself in the head with one of two 1913-vintage Colt .38s recovered at the death scene -- revolvers too old for ownership to be traced by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms.

Second, I am jarred by the fact that this key White House official who had dealt with sensitive issues and controversial nominations, and had many delicate conversations with President Clinton, was driving himself. So Virginia policemen could only surmise, initially, that he had voluntarily parked his car and gone to an old Civil War-era cannon where he shot himself to death.

I don't have one iota of evidence that the suicide assumption is incorrect -- no reason whatsoever to suspect foul play. I do feel, contrary to the anti-perks mania that grips much of America, that White House people in key, sensitive jobs ought not have to drive themselves to work and back. I don't suggest that if Mr. Foster had had a driver he would never have committed suicide. If that was his destiny, he'd have found another place. But we'd not have to guess, to speculate, about what happened alongside that cannon in Fort Marcy Park.

I know that the self-styled egalitarians will call it heresy for me to write this, but I must deplore the fact that our leaders have let the perks abuses of Bush aide John Sununu and others drive them into gestures of phony frugality that disserve this nation in dangerous ways. The gullible American people are forever being suckered by leaders who bankrupt us while pretending to be models of fiscal restraint.

I remember the ludicrous symbolism of Lyndon B. Johnson personally turning out the White House lights, hoping to deflect criticism that he was buying too many guns and spending too much on butter at the same time as he grappled with the Vietnam War. I recall Johnson ordering agency heads to ride in Mercurys instead of Lincolns even though the Ford Motor Co. charged Uncle Sam more for a Mercury than a Lincoln.

Then there was Jimmy Carter toting his own garment bag as a way of saying that perks and privileges meant nothing to him.

And it was the most ostentatious brigade of fat cats ever to come to Washington, the Reaganites, who pushed through a 1986 law spelling out which officials could get a car and driver for "portal to portal" service. Under that law, Mr. Clinton could have given home-to-White House transportation to six Executive Office employees, plus 10 other agency executives. But in a silly show of penny wisdom and dollar absurdity he allowed only his chief of staff Mack McLarty, his national security adviser Anthony Lake, and his national security deputy Sandy Berger to get chauffeured home-to-work transportation.

No matter the truth about whether Mr. Foster killed himself, it bothers me profoundly that in this time of domestic violence, international intrigue and pervasive terrorism dozens of vulnerable officials have to hail taxicabs, or drive themselves everywhere, because presidents and congressional leaders feel compelled to try to con the people into believing that they aren't wasting a taxpayer's dollar.

The cost of transporting safely the top 500 officials in the federal government wouldn't even be a blip on the chart of money wasted in this town. This country blows on Secret Service protection for former presidents and their wives -- people no one is out to harm -- many times what it would cost to allow the Vincent Fosters to serve their country in safety and reasonable tranquility.

We Americans are so caught up in class jealousies, press "exposes" and blind anger that we can't get this "perks" thing right. Sad to say, the demagogy over the most legitimate of privileges has become so fevered that no president, no leader of Congress, is soon likely to speak out for common sense.

Carl Rowan is a syndicated columnist.

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