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Story of Foster's Suicide Is a Casebook of Problems : Media: Withholding of information and other White House gaffes sparked a prolonged frenzy of speculation.

COVERING CLINTON. Did Media Rush to Judgement or Merely Reflect Reality? Second of three parts

September 16, 1993|DAVID SHAW | TIMES STAFF WRITER

"She just doesn't get it. She still doesn't get it."

Brit Hume was angry. It was midafternoon, July 22, and Dee Dee Myers, the White House press secretary, had just briefed the press again on the apparent suicide two days earlier of Vincent Foster, the deputy White House counsel. In response to questions about the investigation of Foster's death, she repeated the official White House position:

"The Park Police are simply trying to establish that this was, in fact, a suicide. It is a fairly limited investigation."

That wasn't good enough for Hume, White House correspondent for ABC News--or for most other members of the White House press corps.

"Doesn't she understand," Hume fumed, "that there are a lot more questions to be asked? She can't do her job if she doesn't even understand something that simple."

Hume and other reporters continued to push Myers for more information. At the press briefing a week later, they asked 139 questions about the Foster case.

In many ways, the Foster story offers a microcosm of why relations between the media and the Clinton Administration have been so acrimonious--and why media coverage of the Administration has often been so negative.

Shocked by the sudden death of a close friend and valued colleague, Clinton and his top aides initially said little. Suicide is almost always a mystery, and the President said, "There is really no way to know why these things happen. We'll just have to live with something else we can't understand."

When reporters asked if anyone in the White House had noticed that Foster had been depressed of late, administration aides said no.

But Foster had been involved in a minor way in the controversial dismissal of seven members of the White House travel office, and he seemed to have taken responsibility for other Administration difficulties.

It turned out that Foster had indeed been depressed. He'd been seeking the names of psychiatrists. He'd started taking an antidepressant drug. His wife had urged him to write down the reasons for his depression. Another White House aide and friend had gone away with Foster and their wives for a weekend to try to cheer him up. The President, in the presence of that aide, had called Foster the night before he killed himself, chatting for 20 minutes and inviting him to watch a movie.

It also turned out that the initial investigation of the suicide was badly mishandled by the Administration. Foster's office wasn't sealed until the day after his body was found. The list he'd written at his wife's suggestion wasn't found for six days and wasn't turned over to authorities for another 27 hours. A piece of the note--presumably where Foster would have signed it--was missing.

Clearly--on this story, as on many others--the Clinton Administration, understandably grief-stricken, withheld information, backpedaled, obfuscated and just plain screwed up.

"There has been a general lack of understanding (in the Clinton White House) of how things can take off when they aren't fully explained," says Thomas L. Friedman, White House correspondent for the New York Times.

"You could have taken everything we know about the Vince Foster case and had you laid it out the first day . . . you could have made a convincing case for a very troubled man, who was depressed, more depressed than some of his colleagues understood . . . and it probably would have been a two-day story."

Instead, it became a four-week story.

As a Washington Post story said: "White House credibility has been called into question by a series of sometimes contradictory statements about the investigation and knowledge on the part of the President and others about Foster's mental state."

Not surprisingly, these statements aroused the suspicion of the bloodhounds in the Fourth Estate. But in pursuit of that suspicion, the media didn't exactly cover themselves with glory either.

Sen. Dale Bumpers (D.-Ark), among others, criticized the media for their "positively ghoulish" reporting, their "unrelenting effort to uncover something nefarious or some kind of skulduggery."

Many in the media agreed.

"There being no facts," wrote columnist Mary McGrory in the Washington Post, "the press embarked on a white-water tour of scandalous speculation."

Reporters seemed determined to make sense of a senseless act--even if it meant seeming insensitive to the suffering of Foster's family and friends, implying all manner of unsubstantiated scandal, and even blaming Washington itself ("a killer city," "an alien culture") for his death.

"At first, the White House created a mystery, which inflames all of us," says Linda Douglass, a Washington correspondent for CBS News. "I was convinced at the beginning there was some big, dark secret they were hiding.

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