Vince Foster was an accomplished man. He was president of his high school class in Hope, Arkansas, where he spent part of his childhood living across the street from Bill Clinton. He was the manager of the law review at the University of Arkansas where he graduated first in his class. He received the highest score in his class on the bar exam. Later on, the “Arkansas Bar Association gave him a number of awards, and in June 1993 would name him as its Outstanding Lawyer of the Year.” In 1971, Foster joined the Rose Law Firm in Little Rock, Arkansas. After becoming a partner, he fought to hire Hillary Rodham, who became the firm’s first female lawyer and eventual partner. Foster and Rodham worked on many cases together and came to be close friends.
When Bill Clinton was elected president, he brought several people from the Rose Law Firm to Washington DC, including Foster who became the White House Deputy Counsel. In that role, he took on the responsibility of vetting people for the new administration. When several nominees (Zoë Baird, Kimba Wood, and Lani Guinier) faltered in the confirmation process, Foster blamed himself. Soon after, there was a controversy surrounding the firing of people who were working in the White House Travel Office, and there was discussion about Foster having to testify in front of Congress.
Foster was a private man who took his reputation for integrity very seriously. Shortly before he died, he delivered a commencement address at the University of Arkansas Law School, where he said:
“The reputation you develop for intellectual and ethical integrity will be your greatest asset or your worst enemy. You will be judged by your judgment. … There is no victory, no advantage, no fee, no favor, which is worth even a blemish on your reputation for intellect and integrity. … Dents to [your] reputation are irreparable.”
Yet, back in Washington, his integrity was being questioned. In particular, the right-wingers on the Wall Street Journal editorial board started going after him. Foster wasn’t comfortable in Washington anyway, having left his wife and youngest son back in Arkansas so that he could complete the school year. According to reports, he began suffering from anxiety, insomnia, and depression. The day before he committed suicide, his Arkansas doctor prescribed him an anti-depressant over the phone.
After his death, a resignation letter was found in his briefcase.
What became interpreted as a suicide note of sorts, in actuality a draft resignation letter, was found torn into 27 pieces in his briefcase. The letter contained a list of complaints, specifically including, “The WSJ editors lie without consequence” and lamenting, “I was not meant for the job or the spotlight of public life in Washington. Here ruining people is considered sport.”
He also wrote that he “made mistakes from ignorance, inexperience and overwork” and “I did not knowingly violate any law or standard of conduct.”
He died on July 20th, 1993, exactly six months into the Clinton administration.
You can imagine the personal devastation of the Clintons. Bill had lost a childhood friend, and Hillary had lost a mentor and one of her closest and most trusted confidantes. What had begun with so much celebration and excitement had suddenly turned into unspeakable tragedy. And then there was Foster’s wife and kids to think about.
That’s the setting for the so-called Vince Foster suicide/murder controversy.
There was never any reason to doubt that Foster had killed himself. Obviously, his death warranted an investigation, but what actually occurred was astounding. Eventually, his death would be ruled a suicide by “inquiries/investigations conducted by the United States Park Police, the Department of Justice, the FBI, the United States Congress, Independent Counsel Robert B. Fiske, and Independent Counsel Kenneth Starr.”
Why so much investigation over what should have been a cut and dry case considering the conclusions of the coroner?
To begin with, it was because the Clintons’ political enemies had no sense of decency and not even an iota of empathy for what they must have been suffering after the loss of their friend.
But, more specifically, it was a controversy ginned up by the Vast Right-Wing Conspiracy known as the Arkansas Project.
According to R. Emmett Tyrrell Jr., editor-in-chief of the [American] Spectator, the idea for the Arkansas Project was hatched on a fishing trip on the Chesapeake Bay in the fall of 1993. The “Arkansas Project” name that later became famous was conceived as a joke; the actual name used within the Spectator and the Scaife foundation was the “Editorial Improvement Project.”
Project reporter/investigators were hired, including David Brock, who later (after reversing his political stance) described himself as a Republican “hitman”, and Rex Armistead, a former police officer who was reportedly paid $350,000 for his efforts. Also assisting the project was Parker Dozhier, a bait shop owner who was reportedly obsessed with bringing down Bill Clinton. They were tasked with investigating the Clintons and uncovering stories tying the Clintons to murders and drug smuggling as well as adultery.
According to Brock, Armistead and Brock met at an airport hotel in Miami, Florida, in late 1993. There, Armistead laid out an elaborate “Vince Foster murder scenario”, a scenario that Brock later claimed was implausible.” Regardless, by the end of 1993, Brock was writing stories for the Spectator that made him “a lead figure in the drive to” expose Clinton.
David Brock isn’t the most reliable reporter of fact, but the basics are not now in dispute. We may never know if future Solicitor General Ted Olsen told “Brock that the American Spectator should publish speculation about Vince Foster’s death, even though he himself believed that speculation was false, because doing so would turn up the heat on the administration until another scandal came along.” But we know that the Spectator and many other shadowy right-wing outlets did exactly that.
Whatever you think of him, the fact remains that the Vince Foster murder conspiracy story was concocted by conscienceless and cruel opponents of the Clintons, almost none of whom have apologized precisely because they have no conscience.
This is the legacy that Donald Trump is reviving.
When asked in an interview last week about the Foster case, Trump dealt with it as he has with many edgy topics — raising doubts about the official version of events even as he says he does not plan to talk about it on the campaign trail.
He called theories of possible foul play “very serious” and the circumstances of Foster’s death “very fishy.”
“He had intimate knowledge of what was going on,” Trump said, speaking of Foster’s relationship with the Clintons at the time. “He knew everything that was going on, and then all of a sudden he committed suicide.”
He added, “I don’t bring [Foster’s death] up because I don’t know enough to really discuss it. I will say there are people who continue to bring it up because they think it was absolutely a murder. I don’t do that because I don’t think it’s fair.”
With Trump, it’s hard to say if he was taken in by the right-wing smear job or if he’s just using it cynically the way the conspiracy was originally intended to be used. What’s clear is that he doesn’t care what is true, or what is cruel, so long as he thinks it can advance his interests. In that, he’s a fitting nominee for the GOP.