Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Vince Foster and Travelgate - 18 Years Later and Nothing Has Changed

In his autobiography My Life, Bill Clinton wrote of his childhood friend Vince Foster:
And I used to play in the backyard with a boy whose yard adjoined mine. He lived with two beautiful sisters in a bigger, nicer house than ours. We used to sit on the grass for hours, throwing his knife in the ground and learning to make it stick. His name was Vince Foster. He was kind to me and never lorded it over me the way so many older boys did with younger ones. He grew up to be a tall, handsome, wise, good man. He became a great lawyer, a strong supporter early in my career, and Hillary's best friend at the Rose Law Firm. Our families socialized in Little Rock, mostly at his house, where his wife, Lisa, taught Chelsea to swim. He came to the White House with us, and was a voice of calm and reason in those crazy early months.
Hillary Clinton recalls him as well in her autobiography, Living History:
Vince was one of the best lawyers I've ever known and one of the best friends I've ever had. If you remember Gregory Peck’s performance as Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird, you can picture Vince. He actually looked the part, and his manner was similar: steady, courtly,. sharp but understated, the sort of person you would want around in times of trouble.
“Those crazy early months” is a bit of an understatement. Back in 1993, David Shaw of the Los Angeles Times wrote "but perhaps never in our nation's history--certainly not in its recent history--has a President so early in his term been subjected to a greater barrage of negative media coverage than Bill Clinton endured in his first 239 days in office" and quotes an earlier Washington Post story: "The pundits have stuck a fork in this Administration and decided it's very nearly done." In this time of permanent Republican obstructionism and the Teabagger Days of Rage, it’s easy to forget how relentless and unprecedented the assaults on the Clinton administration were, and how they created the template for what’s happening to the Obama administration.

One of the opening salvos was the Travelgate scandal, which seems pretty small potatoes, and in retrospect astonishing in how much coverage this story, which affected a whopping seven federal employees, received in the press.

The White House Travel Office is responsible for making travel arrangements for the members of the media who follow the President around, then bills the media organizations accordingly. For years, it had been in a state of disarray; as far back as the Reagan administration financial misdeeds were alleged but nothing had been done. Vince Foster ordered an audit by the firm KPMG Peat Marwick. The firm investigated but was unable to actually do an audit since the Travel Office barely had anything that you would recognize as bookkeeping and piled a decade’s worth of records in the closet. A KPMG representative called it an “ungodly mess”. There was no competitive bidding and the Office’s director, Billy Dale, relied on a single charter company. Office money was going in and out of his personal bank account and some five figures were unaccounted for. The Clinton administration asked the FBI to investigate.

What happened next seems perfectly obvious and reasonable. New presidential administrations typically clean house (the Obama administration is still trying to get positions filled!) and any organization or business in any field would also typically clean house when confronted with such mismanagement. So the seven employees of the White House Travel Office were all fired.

Unfortunately, what should have been clear cut was muddied by the involvement of two Clinton supporters in the travel business who agitated for reorganization of the travel office: Catherine Cornelius, a distant cousin of Bill Clinton whose World Wide Travel briefly took over the Travel Office, and Harry Thomason, a Clinton friend and supporter who was a partner in the air charter company TRM. This gave the GOP the opportunity to create a scandal out of this, which they took with relish. But for this to be a scandal you have to first insist that no person or business ever lobby the government for personal gain. You might think that’s a positive goal, but that goal certainly isn't what motivated the GOP, who expertly and constantly indulge that practice. (One of many examples: John Boehner handing out checks from tobacco lobbyists on the floor of the House of Representatives.) The GOP generally claims to be in favor of eliminating government waste and financial impropriety and for opening up government operations to competitive bidding. All of which was achieved by the Clinton administration in this case. Nothing was rigged as the winning bidder was American Express Travel Services. So what was an outcome that should have been pleasing to the GOP instead prompted them to move in for the kill.

This was aided and abetted by the press, who narcissistically over-covers any story having to do with themselves. Some members of the press also had a personal fondness for some of the fired employees (prominent ABC anchor Sam Donaldson and other journalists even testified as character witnesses at Billy Dale’s trial) and enjoyed perks provided by the Travel Office like primo accommodations and how easy they made it to bring back stuff through customs. David Shaw highlighted an example illustrating how obsessed the press became with this story:
At one briefing, they asked 169 questions about the travel office firings. Neither Bosnia nor the President's deficit-reduction package, both major news stories at the time, received a fraction of that attention that day.
Out in front with knives drawn was the Wall Street Journal’s editorial page. Even before Rupert Murdoch bought the paper, the editorial pages of the WSJ served as a prototype for Fox News-style character assassination. They personally targeted Foster in a series of editorials in the summer of 1993, starting with “Who is Vincent Foster?”, a two column whine, long on text but short on substance, which consisted of mostly sinister insinuations and snide complaints that he didn't jump to attention every time the newspaper called him on the phone.

Targeting lone individuals for character assassination is one of the most distasteful aspects of what we call today, thanks to former right-wing character assassin David Brock, the right-wing noise machine. There’s plenty of examples: pro-lifers stalking and harassing (and occasionally quite literally assassinating) doctors who provide abortions, twelve year old Graeme Frost and the obsession with his parents’ counter tops, Bernard Goldberg singling out some obscure teacher for an obscure book about teaching children she wrote and holding her up as one of the 100 People Who Are Screwing Up America in a bestselling polemic. These people don’t have large media platforms and can’t fight back effectively. Even supposedly powerful presidential appointees like Van Jones, hamstringed in what they can say by their positions and lacking access to a 24-hour news channel, are relatively powerless in the face of this.

Vince Foster was a powerful corporate lawyer with decades of experience, but even he was unprepared for this relentless hate machine. He was also suffering from depression and anxiety; he started taking Trazadone, but too late for it to be effective. He wrote a letter, which was later found torn into 27 pieces in his briefcase:
I made mistakes from ignorance, inexperience and overwork

I did not knowingly violate any law or standard of conduct

No one in The White House, to my knowledge, violated any law or standard of conduct, including any action in the travel office. There was no intent to benefit any individual or specific group

The FBI lied in their report to the AG

The press is covering up the illegal benefits they received from the travel staff

The GOP has lied and misrepresented its knowledge and role and covered up a prior investigation

The Ushers Office plotted to have excessive costs incurred, taking advantage of Kaki and HRC

The public will never believe the innocence of the Clintons and their loyal staff

The WSJ editors lie without consequence

I was not meant for the job or the spotlight of public life in Washington. Here ruining people is considered sport.
On July 20, 1993, Vince Foster shot himself in Fort Marcy Park.

Even after his deaths the attacks continued, and hacks like Al D'Amato (once called "The Worst Senator in America" by Playboy) and Dan Burton, who had no concern for Foster as a person, claimed that his suicide was "suspicious" and used it as a pretext to conduct bizarre investigations into the Clinton administration. Burton even shot a pumpkin or watermelon in his backyard to prove some kind of point about Foster's death. ("It was nutty," Bill Clinton later wrote. "I could never figure out what Burton was trying to prove.") Investigations 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 (who obviously was not inclined to be friendly to the Clinton administration) all concluded that Foster committed suicide, but that didn't shut up anyone on the right. Even today, conspiracy theorists who couldn't care less about Foster are manipulating his tragic death for their own ends.

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