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Vince Foster came to Washington in early 1993 eager to serve Bill and Hillary Clinton. A partner at the Rose Law Firm in Little Rock, he had worked closely with Hillary for nearly 15 years; between Clinton’s election and Inauguration, Foster had helped negotiate the end of the Clintons’ Whitewater partnership with Jim McDougal. As deputy White House counsel, Foster tended to see himself as representing Hillary’s interests, according to his boss, Bernard Nussbaum. In addition Foster remained the Clintons’ personal lawyer during his White House stint. In the Administration’s first few months, Foster seemed increasingly beaten down by controversies, especially the White House’s inept handling of the staff firings in the travel office. On the afternoon of July 20, 1993, Vince Foster was found in Fort Marcy Park, Virginia, dead from a gunshot wound.

IN MID-1993, VINCE FOSTER’S PHYSIcal appearance deteriorated. His weight had gone up as he’d responded to the pressures of the office by eating more junk food and exercising less, but now it dropped. He got a prescription for sleeping pills, but then refused to take them, saying he was afraid he’d become addicted.

His wife Lisa coped as best she could. In a New Yorker article by Peter Boyer, she recounts how she’d finally completed the move from Little Rock to Washington just as the travel-office controversy peaked, and Vince greeted her with the news that he thought he should resign. “You can’t quit,” she told him. “I just got here.” Lisa called Foster’s White House office frequently, asking his secretary, “How’s he doing?” Deborah Gorham always said, “Fine,” trying to maintain a professional distance, even though she too thought Foster was suffering from strain.

On July 11 Foster again complained to Lisa about the travel office, which he was convinced would lead to congressional hearings. He again said he intended to resign. Lisa suggested he write down what was bothering him. He should take the offensive, she said, and defend himself.

Foster went upstairs. Taking a pen and a piece of yellow legal paper, he wrote down a series of thoughts about the previous few months, including his belief that no one in the White House had violated any laws in the travel-office firings. (The piece of paper would later be found in his briefcase, ripped into scraps.) The last item said, “I was not meant for the job or the spotlight of public life in Washington. Here ruining people is considered sport.”

After the exercise, Foster’s mood seemed to brighten. He said to Lisa, “I haven’t resigned yet. I’ve just written my opening argument.” As an “opening argument” ultimately intended for public consumption, however, the writings didn’t mention all that was bothering Foster. Indeed, it seems plausible that what was most deeply troubling to Foster he couldn’t mention to his wife, let alone put in writing.

The following Wednesday, Susan Thomases was in the White House, and dropped by to see counsel to the President Bernard Nussbaum. She was worried about Foster. As someone who saw him less, she was more aware of the change in his appearance and demeanor. “How is he?” Thomases asked about Foster. “Has he relaxed?”

Nussbaum was feeling good about progress on the nominations of Ruth Ginsburg for the Supreme Court and Louis Freeh for the FBI. “We’re feeling good,” he said. “This is coming together.” Thomases wondered if the “we” really included Foster. “Help take the weight off his shoulders,” she said. “You’ve been focusing on Ginsburg, and Vince is carrying the load.”

Foster had turned to Thomases to express frustration over the travel-office report, and she had become something of a confidante. Now she tried to reassure Foster, but he said he needed to talk to her “off the campus,” somewhere they wouldn’t be seen. Thomases suggested 2020 O Street, a private rooming house where she sometimes stayed in Washington.

When Foster arrived that evening, Thomases thought he looked a little better. He mentioned that he and Lisa were going to get away for the weekend. But then he began to unburden himself.

He mentioned how overworked he was and how he lacked the time and the support staff he was used to in Little Rock. If he didn’t get more help, he said, he was afraid he’d “let the President and Hillary down.” Predictably, he brought up the travel-office affair, adding that he didn’t trust presidential aide David Watkins, whom he feared might fabricate or embellish the facts to cover himself, possibly at the expense of the First Lady.

But then the conversation took a curious turn. One thing he had not missed about his life in Little Rock was Lisa, his wife. The marriage had not been what he’d hoped for, and it hadn’t been for years. She was completely dependent on him, and this had become a burden. He found he couldn’t confide in her. Lisa’s recent arrival in Washington had brought this to the fore, just when Foster needed someone to lean on.

Thomases didn’t know what to say. Foster seemed calm, dignified–but infinitely sad.

It wasn’t only his marriage that was in trouble. Foster was already brooding about his relationship with Hillary, which was turning out to be much different from the close friendship they’d enjoyed at the Rose firm. The new dynamic had been made painfully clear to Foster in an incident that seemed trivial on the surface. Soon after arriving in Washington, Hillary had complained to Foster about the Secret Service agents. They were stationed inside the family living quarters on the second floor of the White House, within earshot of just about everything that happened. They were career officers, not political appointees, all holdovers from the Bush Administration. Hillary, in particular, had the sense that some of them didn’t like her and Bill, preferring the more staid Bushes. Hillary told Vince she wanted their own people installed in the White House detail.

Foster discussed the First Lady’s concern with Watkins, the Hope, Arkansas, native who had come to the White House with the Clintons. But Foster didn’t see any immediate cause for concern. Suddenly replacing the White House security detail could in itself have led to unfavorable press.

But then, on Feb. 19, the Chicago Sun-Times reported that Hillary, in a fierce argument with Bill, had smashed a lamp in the family living quarters. The story spread like wildfire, embellished with the claim that Hillary had actually thrown the lamp at Bill in a raging argument. Hillary assumed the story came from the White House security detail, confirming her fears about their loyalty, and was upset that no one from the Secret Service came forward to deny it. The story soon appeared in Newsweek, and Hillary and Bill vented some of their anger on Foster and Watkins for failing to act on her earlier concerns. They were “too naive and too nice, being from Arkansas,” Hillary said.

Watkins took the reprimand with aplomb, but Foster seemed stunned. In all their years together, years in which he had so often acted as Hillary’s mentor and protector, she had never spoken to him like this. The encounter drove home the fact that he was now working for her; he almost invariably referred to Hillary, but not Bill, as “the client.” He shouldered all the blame for the leaked incident involving the smashed lamp. His job was to protect the President and the First Lady, and in this instance he had failed them.

Foster’s relationship with Hillary suffered even more strain in the wake of the travel-office firings and never recovered. In response to a later question from the independent counsel, the First Lady testified that she hadn’t even spoken to Foster after mid-June 1993.

And then there was the ongoing strain of Whitewater.

At the Whitewater closing in December 1992, Foster had promised to complete the corporate tax returns and return the Whitewater records to McDougal within 90 days. Given the maelstrom Foster had been in since arriving in Washington, it wasn’t surprising that that deadline had come and gone. Late in June, McDougal finally received copies of the returns, along with a letter asking him to review them carefully for any inaccuracies. But how could he do that without the records?

McDougal was annoyed that the records hadn’t been sent, and he was growing suspicious. On June 21 McDougal finally called Foster at the White House.

“Does he know you?” Foster’s secretary asked. “What company are you with?”

“Vince has some records he’s supposed to return, and I need to speak to him,” McDougal explained. The secretary said she’d give him the message.

Foster evidently did get the message. The same day, he called Jim Blair in Arkansas. “I don’t want Jim McDougal calling me at the White House,” Foster told Blair. Blair told Foster not to worry. “I’ll take care of it,” he said.

That was easier said than done. The Whitewater documents McDougal wanted were among the files Webb Hubbell, a former Rose partner who now served as Deputy Attorney General, had taken out of the Rose firm. They’d since been moved from Hubbell’s home in Little Rock to his basement in Washington. Others were in Foster’s White House office. No one seems to have questioned the removal of documents that belonged to the Rose firm without so much as leaving copies behind. The First Lady had recently asked that one of those files, containing material about Bill Clinton’s natural father and whether Bill Clinton had an illegitimate half brother, be removed and returned to her. Foster was at Hubbell’s home the evening Hubbell looked for those files, and Foster helped Hubbell move some boxes in the basement to get to them. While the contents of those files have never been publicly identified, they appear to have contained many of the Whitewater papers, including correspondence with 1st Ozark about the loan renewals and the Clintons’ personal financial statements and loan applications, as well as billing records from the Rose firm. (Indeed, these appear to be the records discovered last January in the White House, suggesting that they got there either by way of Hubbell’s basement or Foster’s office.)

Despite McDougal’s call, none of these materials were returned to him. If Foster was worried about the potential of any of these documents to generate further controversy for the Clintons, he didn’t mention it to Hubbell. Yet it is clear that Foster had access to as full a set of records of the Whitewater affair as anyone. Given what the materials contained–the evidence of McDougal’s subsidies, the active role of Hillary, the questionable valuations on personal financial statements–he must have realized that in the hands of someone as unpredictable as McDougal, there was the potential for further great embarrassment, at the least.

During these weeks, Foster was acting as though anything could backfire and erupt into scandal. He seemed to be fearful that his phone calls might be tapped or recorded, telling Hubbell on various occasions that “I would like to talk to you, but I don’t want to talk to you over the phone,” or, “I’m not sure I can talk to you over the phone about this, but we will talk next time we get together in person.”

On July 20, an assistant brought Foster his lunch–a hamburger and some M&M’s–and he ate at his desk while reading the paper. When he finished, he left the office, mentioning to the aide, “There are lots of M&M’s left in there. I’ll be back.” He had his suit jacket slung over his shoulder but wasn’t carrying his briefcase. It was about 1 p.m.

At about 5 p.m., Lisa Foster called the office, asking for Vince. He’s “unavailable,” Deborah Gorham told her. Lisa didn’t give Vince’s unavailability much thought. They were going out that night, a “date,” as she thought of it, that she’d proposed the night before. Maybe he was on his way home. By 7 p.m. there was still no sign of Vince, so Lisa called his office again. He wasn’t there, but she learned that the President was about to appear on Larry King Live. She figured her husband must have gone to watch the show with people from the White House. She and her daughter Laura went upstairs and turned on the TV.

The doorbell rang, and Laura went to answer it. Some Greenpeace volunteers were asking for a contribution.

The Clinton interview ended, and the doorbell rang again. Laura ran downstairs. Lisa heard the door open, and there were some muffled voices.

“Mother,” Laura yelled. Then, screaming, “Mother!”

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