Vincent Foster is still with us

Vincent Foster's suicide is the Rosetta Stone of the right-wing conspiracy industry.

By Lori Leibovich
May 28, 1998 11:00PM (UTC)
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On July 20, 1993, Vincent Foster was found dead at Ft. Marcy Park in Northern Virginia with a .38-caliber revolver in his hand. An autopsy revealed that it was a straight-ahead suicide -- Foster had placed the gun in his mouth and fired one shot that blasted through his head. End of story? Not by a long shot. Nearly five years later, the Foster suicide lives on in the hearts and minds of right-wing Clintonphobes and conspiracy theorists who believe that Foster, a close friend and advisor of the president, was murdered because he knew too much.

A year ago, veteran crime reporter Dan Moldea was surprised by an offer from Al Regnery, the head of the conservative Regnery Publishing house, to write a book about the Foster case. Moldea, an unabashed liberal who had twice voted for Clinton, had also been scathingly critical of one of Regnery's authors, LAPD detective Mark Furhman. Regnery was so impressed with Moldea's exhaustive reporting in books such as "The Killing of Robert F. Kennedy: An Investigation of Motive, Means, and Opportunity" and "Evidence Dismissed: The Inside Story of the Police Investigation of O.J. Simpson," he wanted Moldea to write the definitive work on the Foster case. Regnery gave Moldea a $100,000 advance and seven months to complete his work.


In the resulting book, "A Washington Tragedy: How the Death of Vincent Foster Ignited a Political Firestorm," Moldea confirms -- again -- that Foster's death was indeed a suicide and that a cabal of right-wing groups -- financed by banking heir Richard Mellon Scaife -- is responsible for keeping the case alive for years in an effort to tarnish the Clinton White House. Moldea also blasts the media -- particularly the Wall Street Journal op-ed page and reporter Christopher Ruddy -- for stoking the conspiracy fires with specious facts and inflammatory rhetoric.

In an interview with Salon, Moldea also accused Independent Counsel Kenneth Starr's office of leaking confidential information to the press, a charge he made during a speech at a Washington, D.C., public library last Tuesday. Moldea says that while writing his book he spoke with Starr's chief deputy, Hickman Ewing, who said he routinely gave information to journalists sympathetic to the independent counsel's point of view.

Salon spoke with Moldea by phone from his Washington office about these charges, about Foster's death, his alleged affair with Hillary Rodham Clinton and why he believes Regnery is pushing his book under the rug.


How did you go about investigating Vincent Foster's death?

I did what no one else had done -- I went to every single cop involved in this case -- whether he was involved in the crime scene search or part of the official investigation. I saw all the crime scene photographs and I saw all the autopsy photographs. I don't think I was prevented from seeing any of the documents I wanted to see. I am a bona fide crime reporter with great -- and loyal -- sources in law enforcement. I've been doing this for 24 years and you get to know people.

And from those sources and documents it was clear to you that Foster committed suicide.


Yes. It was a no-brainer. But I also looked into the aftermath of the suicide: the search of Foster's office, which led to the discovery of the torn-up note, which led to the interviews that law enforcement conducted, which confirmed, finally, that Foster had, in fact, committed suicide.

What was the chief source of the doubts and the resulting conspiracy theories?


Some mouthy Park Police official, talking about things he knew nothing about, starts to serve as a source to some reporters who start publishing front-page stories saying things like "[former White House counsel] Bernie Nussbaum had removed documents from Foster's office on the night Foster killed himself," which is flat-out not true, even though it appeared on the front page of the New York Times. This teed up the ball for a lot of other things -- for instance, the next allegation, that during the official search of Foster's office three piles of documents were found, which is true, but that Foster's attorney Jim Hamilton wound up with the Whitewater documents, which is completely untrue. Again, the ball is teed up and everyone starts swinging away at it, and it eventually leads to Congress getting involved, saying the media is raising all these questions. And it all started with a Park Police source, Major Robert Hines. And what he said was false.

Why did he say all this?

I don't think there was anything nefarious here; I think he was being approached by reporters and he wanted something to say. I doubt that he realized that he was giving false information, but the fact is, he was. When he starts talking to Reed Irvine at Accuracy in Media, and Christopher Ruddy, who was then at the New York Post, he tells them that there is no exit wound in Foster's head, which was also untrue. This tees up the ball for the conspiracy people to come in. After this information starts to get printed, Hines starts to come back and say, "Hey, I made a mistake here." But by then these people are off and running.


Who were the major players perpetrating the conspiracy theories?

There were a couple of major people who were involved in this: Chris Ruddy of the New York Post, and later with the Pittsburgh Tribune Review, which is owned by Richard Mellon Scaife -- who is another player. There was also Joseph Farah, the executive director of the Western Journalism Center, which supposedly engages in nonprofit, pro-journalistic projects -- which of course just happen to be right-wing projects.

What specifically about Foster's death fueled the theories?


Foster had some blond hair and carpet fibers on his suit jacket, and he had semen in his underwear. So, the Jerry Falwells and the right-wing crowd get ahold of this information, and what do they do with it? They start making movies alleging that the Clintons were involved in this murder. They were also saying that Foster had been having sex with some blond, that he either committed suicide or was murdered at a location other than Ft. Marcy Park. That he was wrapped in a carpet and laid out to appear as though he committed suicide, and the gun was placed in his hand. Ruddy was involved with these videos.

But didn't Clinton supporters such as Nussbaum raise suspicions by their actions in the aftermath of the suicide?

Yes, there was this general feeling that something was being covered up, and that stemmed from the search of Foster's office when Bernie Nussbaum changed the rules of the game and refused to allow the Department of Justice and the Park Police to participate in the search. During the Senate Whitewater Committee it came out that Mrs. Clinton, her chief of staff Maggie Williams and Susan Thomases (the New York attorney who is close friends with both Ms. Williams and Mrs. Clinton), had talked 17 times in a 43-hour period after Foster killed himself. Then Mrs. Thomases calls Nussbaum on the morning of the search, after Nussbaum has agreed to allow the Department of Justice and the Park Police to participate in the search. But after this conversation, Nussbaum changes the rules. He decides to keep all the options and all rights to the search, and then forces the Department of Justice attorneys, David Margolis and Roger Adams, as well as the Park Police guys, Charlie Hume and Pete Markland, to stand there like cigar-store Indians. That is where the conspiracy people believe the coverup began.

What did you find out about Richard Mellon Scaife's connection to the conspiracy theories?


He told Tim Weiner of the New York Times that the Foster suicide was the "Rosetta Stone" of the entire Clinton administration. So, Scaife started to finance those people who would do these investigations: such as James Davison, from a group called Strategic Investments, who once headed the National Taxpayer's Union; Joseph Farah from the Western Journalism Center; and Reed Irvine from Accuracy in Media. What we found was that these people were cooperating with each other, they were sharing information and covering up each other's mistakes and they were all funded by the same person. Later on it became clear that if you strayed from the party line, you were punished by Scaife.

What is an example?

The American Spectator's John Corry had written a review that was
critical of Chris Ruddy's book on Vincent Foster's death. Scaife pulled his funding away from the American Spectator.

So Scaife is the big daddy and people need to do right by him?


That is one of the reasons that I defend Kenneth Starr. I am critical of the means by which Starr was appointed, which I think was just steeped in politics, but I will defend Starr on this: the accusation that he is part of the right-wing conspiracy on the basis of Scaife's financing that position for him at Pepperdine University. When you really look at it, the people who Scaife was funding were killing Starr. Chris Ruddy was calling him Barney Fife; somebody else wrote a story entitled "Kenneth Starr: Pontius Pilot of the Potomac." The Pepperdine job was Scaife's cynical attempt to get rid of Starr. One of the conditions of Starr's taking this job is that he would have to leave his job as independent counsel. Everyone knew that Starr was going to conclude that Foster had committed suicide. And Scaife and all of his fundees wanted somebody as independent counsel who was going to be more sensitive to their concerns.

How did the conspiracy theories make their way to Congress?

During the [previous independent counsel Robert] Fiske investigation, and after, there were several attempts by the mainstream media to dump all over the conspiracy theorists. They did bad jobs of it. For example, Mike Wallace does an interview with Ruddy, and Ruddy, who is very good at this and who knows about the minutiae of the case, which no one in the mainstream media understands, convinces Wallace that something else is going on. At the lunch break, before the afternoon session picked up with Ruddy, the producers at "60 Minutes" had to deprogram Wallace to believe that Ruddy was just feeding him a line, and that he doesn't know what he is talking about, that the issues are all red herrings.

Let's talk about the alleged affair between Hillary Rodham
Clinton and Foster.


I always just dismissed the whole thing. In my opinion, even if these people had touched body parts at some point, these were two good friends and as far as I was concerned, this was their business and the business of their spouses. These people were very close friends and I was willing to dismiss the rumors, which were coming from the same sources as the president's alleged affairs. You could go down to Little Rock, and 85 people are going to claim that Hillary Clinton and Vince Foster were having an affair, but coming up with something authoritative, you can't do it. I
must tell you that Starr's office believes that there was an affair.

How do you know?

Last time I talked to Starr's office was the week after the Lewinsky thing broke. I had essentially dismissed it, and
I said that in my conversations with one of my sources there, and I was just brushing it off. I was not asking a question; I was making a declaration of fact. His response was, "I can't comment on that." I said, "I didn't ask you a question." He said, "I would be violating a statutory responsibility if I said something about that." I said, "I didn't ask you a question. What are you telling me, here?" He said, "Let us just say that is in play."

They are investigating the alleged affair?

And that they believe it to be true.

Do you still believe it isn't true?

Unless it impacts somehow on his suicide, or on public policy, I
still don't believe it is any of my business. I can tell you that Hillary Clinton's relationship with Vince Foster did change considerably after the travel office scandal. She was pointing her finger at Vince Foster, being kind of dismissive toward him, because she'd asked him in February of 1993 to do something about these same Secret Service guys who were around her, after a story was leaked to the Chicago Sun-Times that she had thrown a lamp at her husband. She believed that somebody from the Secret Service had leaked this information. She told him to do something about it. Foster blew it off and said, "Hey, these guys are here to protect you. Their job is not to watch you kiss and tell." Then the White House travel office scandal breaks and here's Hillary on the spot again, because of two conversations she had had with Vince Foster. If there was an affair going on, it certainly wasn't going on when they were in Washington.

But his marriage was seriously on the rocks.

Yes. Fiske doesn't address it at all in his report, and neither does Starr. I think they decided, in good taste, not to address these issues. I didn't want to get into the guy's personal life, but there was no way to avoid it because Foster's wife was making statements to both the Park Police and the FBI that were just flat-out not true.

Such as?

They asked her if there was a gun in the house and she sort of denied it. There was a gun in the house, and she got it out of the house that night. She made a number of conflicting statements.

Vince Foster didn't have a history of depression, but he was going through a depressive period when he comitted suicide.

Right. His sister had given him the names of three
psychiatrists to contact before his death. There were a lot of
indications that this man was very troubled. I think he was concerned about a number of Whitewater-related activities, but he was a talented lawyer, and there wasn't anything that, as a lawyer, he couldn't forestall or maneuver around somehow. There wasn't anything pressing at that time. I believe that the triggering event that led to Foster's suicide had more to do with what was going on in his personal life than political things.

You take the Wall Street Journal editorial page to task in the Foster death.

They would take any charge and blow it up into an editorial or a review, an opinion piece that took charges and turned them into facts. They were totally irresponsible. For instance, when Falwell's video came out accusing Clinton of murder -- not just
murder of Vince Foster but murder of a whole bunch of people who had
died mysterious deaths down in Arkansas -- they tried to say, "Even we don't believe these stories, that the president would be involved in murder ..." But they just had to put in the 800 number where you could call to get the video!

You say you were leaked confidential information by Starr's chief deputy Hickman Ewing.

In a speech I gave last week in Washington I got into that. On May 1, in the Style section of the Washington Post, a reporter, Lloyd Grove, interviewed Steve Brill, the editor of the new magazine Content. In the body of this piece they were talking about the leaks coming from Starr's office. Among Brill's questions to Starr was, have you ever provided original information to a reporter? Starr said no, he hadn't. Did he ever confirm a story? No again. Had he ever leaked information? No again. Well, with these denials coming from the office of the independent counsel, I decided to come forward.

You claim that Hickman Ewing told you the office of the independent counsel, in fact, leaks stuff to the press all the time.

Ewing told me the process by which information is leaked out of the office of the independent counsel. He told me that yes, they do give information that is not on the public record on an off-the-record basis to selected reporters who are approved by
Ken Starr in advance. He told me Starr also approves specific leaks as long as the reporter's views are in sync with the office of the independent counsel's position. Our conversation took place on December 10, 1997, six weeks before the Lewinsky story broke.

Hickman Ewing declined to be interviewed by Cable News Network, which reported your charges on Tuesday. Starr spokesman Charles Bakaly says that Ewing's "recollection is different." "He [Ewing] did not say there was an approved list or that we favor different reporters," Bakaly told CNN. According to CNN, Bakaly acknowledged, "we do provide information," but said the information is not related to grand jury or sealed court proceedings.

Bakaly is saying that Ewing and I have different recollections
of our conversation. Starr and Ewing have refused comment. But
I'm going to war over this. I know what I heard. I'm 24 years in
this business, and I've got seven books under my belt. Trust me, I wouldn't say this unless I knew I was right. I'm right on the money on this thing. This is a fight I'm looking forward to right now. I'm a good reporter and I took good notes. I'm not an unarmed man here.

Lori Leibovich

Lori Leibovich is a contributing editor at Salon and the former editor of the Life section.

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