I don't really believe that deputy White House Counsel Vincent Foster was driven to suicide by a series of viciously unfair editorials in the Wall Street Journal. But it would be easy enough to make the case, if one were willing to use the same dishonest techniques that the Journal used against Mr. Foster in recent weeks.
The Journal's basic theme was that Mr. Foster and three other alumni of Arkansas's Rose law firm, including Hillary Clinton, formed a sinister cabal within the Clinton administration. A sub-theme was that this cabal is engaged in a secret plot to abuse the powers of the White House.
Keep in mind a couple of things. First, it is hardly surprising that a president from Arkansas would hire four people from the
state's leading law firm. In 1981 Ronald Reagan, with a far larger California legal establishment to choose from, gave four top administration jobs to partners in the Los Angeles firm of Gibson Dunn & Crutcher. The Wall Street Journal raised no alarums.
Second, throughout the 1980s the Journal editorial page was the nation's loudest troubadour of executive power. Most memorably, it defended with righteous thunderbolts the Reagan administration's alleged constitutional privilege to conduct a secret war in Nicaragua and lie about it, even in violation of explicit laws passed by Congress and signed by the president.
Yet there was the Journal -- in an editorial June 17 entitled "Who Is Vincent Foster?" -- declaring that what is "most disturbing" about the Clinton administration is "its carelessness about following the law." Two examples were offered. The first involved a federal judge's accusation that the administration had "dillydallied" about preserving White House computer tapes.
This from the newspaper that applauded Ollie North for his famous "shredding party" of Iran-contra documents. In the present case, there was no question of a cover-up: the tapes were from previous administrations. And the editorialists even conceded that they found the judge's order "more than a little presumptuous." But that didn't stop them from suggesting skulduggery.
Their second alleged concern was whether private meetings of Hillary Clinton's health care task force violated something called the Federal Advisory Committee Act. The editors expressed in passing their characteristically overheated view that this law is an unconstitutional intrusion on executive power. But, far from .. inviting Mrs. Clinton therefore to flout it, they declared that "a basic test of [an administration's] character and mores" is "how scrupulously it follows the law" and went on to sneer that "Constitutional law may not have been the big part of the Rose firm's practice."
The editorial's title referred to the White House's hesitation to supply a photograph of Mr. Foster to illustrate the predictable vilification. An ungracious note the next day conceded that a White House fax reporting a photo on the way had arrived before deadline time but "didn't promptly come to the attention of the responsible editors."
"Vincent Foster's Victory" (June 24) dealt with the troubling development that a federal appeals court had upheld Mrs. Clinton's right to hold her task force meetings in private. Far from apologizing for the earlier accusation that the Rose crowd had done something improper, the editorial ironically congratulated Mr. Foster as a "movement conservative" for successfully defending executive power.
With barely a pause for breath, though, it then went on to accuse "the Clintonites, as is their wont" of allowing "hubris to smother mere principle" because "they went secret over changing the entire American health care system" -- as if reforming the health care system (like, say, funding the contras) could actually be done in secret.
Over the next month, the Journal published several similarly thoughtful editorials about the nefarious doings of the Rose "cronies." Much effort went into misrepresenting the White House Travel Office farce as a dark effort "to investigate some political enemy."
The last time Vince Foster had the opportunity to read his name in the Wall Street Journal was July 19. "What's The Rush?" complained that the Rose "gang . . . is now hell-bent on firing the head of the FBI" and asked why the "hurry." Given that the exposure of abuses by William Sessions had come from the Bush administration, and that the Clinton people had been sitting on the case for six months, it might seem a little hard to argue ulterior motives and unseemly haste. But the Wall Street Journal was up to the job. The editorial offered no evidence -- or even a theory -- of why the Rose clique should be out to get Mr. Sessions unfairly.
In "A Washington Death" (July 22), the Journal called for an independent "special counsel" -- exactly the institution it had howled against so often during the Reagan-Bush years -- to investigate Mr. Foster's demise. And then this: "We had our disagreements with Mr. Foster during his short term in Washington, but we do not think that in death he deserves to disappear into a cloud of mystery that we are somehow ordained never to understand. . . . If he was driven to take his life by purely personal despair, a serious investigation should share this conclusion so that he can be appropriately mourned."
So the Journal's vendetta is actually a favor to Vince Foster! Mr. Foster left no suicide note. If he wanted to dissipate the mystery surrounding his death, he could easily have done so. It's safe to assume he did not die counting on the Wall Street Journal to safeguard his memory. As for the phrase "appropriately mourned" -- it defies comment.
TRB is a column of the New Republic, written by Michael Kinsley.