Vince Foster, Richard Cory, and Abe Lincoln
We really didn’t need any better signs that something was seriously amiss in the case of the mysterious violent death of Deputy White House Counsel, Vincent W. Foster, Jr., on July 20, 1992 than was provided by the curious early behavior of the press. From the very first day they called it an “apparent suicide,” when to anyone capable of thinking for himself it was not the least bit apparent. Rather than exhibiting any of the natural curiosity that even the ordinary person possesses, they showed what can only be described as an aggressive lack of curiosity, which is particularly odd for people whose job it is to be curious.
Nobody reporting on the death seemed even to have gone out to the old Civil War relic, Fort Marcy Park, to look at the very unlikely place where the body was found. The suicide conclusion had been reached, apparently, by the presence of a gun in Foster’s hand, but no evidence had yet been presented that the gun even belonged to Foster. We had not been told if anyone in a position to know, particularly his two sons, had been asked about the gun. Neither had there even been any speculation about how Foster, newly moved to Washington with the Clinton administration, might have found his way to such an obscure place. I had been living in the Virginia suburbs of DC for ten years and I had never heard of Fort Marcy Park.
To me, the early clincher was the rare opinion piece by the Washington Post’s young national political reporter, David Von Drehle. It contains no useful information. Rather, it is an attempt to sell the public on the notion that Foster committed suicide in the complete absence of any supporting evidence. It is a cry that we should take it on faith. That is to say, it is an obvious piece of propaganda.
That article might have told me that foul play was involved—the press treatment in itself represented foul play of a sort—but at that point, like most of the country, I was not yet online. Where could I share my suspicions? My place of work in DC was only a few blocks from the office of The Post, so I took out my frustration by writing a letter to Von Drehle, saving a copy for the drawer like a Soviet dissident. Later, in 1995, I would include it in a self-published book of essays and poems entitled The New Moral Order. Finally, when I got online with a web site, I would publish it for a larger audience:
Excerpt from The Washington Post, Sunday August 1, 1993, p. C5, editorial section, twelve days after the discovery of the body of Vincent Foster, Jr. in Fort Marcy Park, Virginia. The author is national political reporter (now Style Section editor) David Von Drehle.
I Confess--T. S. Eliot Matters More to Me Than the Thomasons
When I was a college student majoring in English literature, it was customary to ask English majors: "Well. And what do you intend to do with that?"
The customary answer was law school. The idea, see, was that a lawyer might benefit in a fiduciary (sic. He probably means “pecuniary.”) way, from having a way with words. Studying poetry was tolerable if you were bent on making words your weapon.
Me, I liked the sound of the poetry, and more than that, the truth in it. Good poems seemed to say important things, memorably, briefly, precisely. "Emotion recollected in tranquility," in Wordsworth's famous phrase, and by emotion I think he meant life, distilled; and by tranquility I think he meant reflection. Life distilled upon reflection. "All our knowledge is, ourselves to know," as Alexander Pope put it, in a poem.
Poetry--at least the way it was studied in backwater colleges a dozen years ago--is rather out of fashion now. I suppose it always has been.
Still, the odd, antique notion that poets deliver large and universal truths in small and disciplined containers has never really left me. In fact, it has been refreshed recently as I realized that certain awful, perplexing events of the front pages had already been experienced, and understood; reflected on and precisely expressed; by long-dead poets.
Vincent Foster, Jr. was a handsome, slender, prosperous lawyer; a friend of the president of the United States. He was a high-ranking official in the White House; smart, accomplished--near perfect, it seemed. His apparent suicide flummoxed and unsettled us more ordinary folks. How could someone so marvelous kill himself? I was turning this mystery over in my head when, quite suddenly, I realized that I knew Foster's story already.
The poet was Edward (sic, Edwin) Arlington Robinson:
Thousands of lines of newspaper type have been spent on Vincent Foster's tragic death. I don't think any one of us put it any clearer.
And this was one of the Washington Post reporters who was supposed to be looking into what happened, one of the sets of eyes and ears of the public, as it were. Instead, he gave us this. So I was immediately moved to write him a letter, which I hand-delivered to The Post the next day.
Dear Mr. Von Drehle:
I share with you your lament over the decline of the study of poetry in our nation's institutions of higher learning, even in the "backwater colleges" such as the one you attended a short while ago. I recently penned a little four liner which, for want of a better title I called, generically, "Literary Allusion," and then I tried it out on a wide sampling of friends and acquaintances. Graduates of Harvard, Princeton, California at Berkeley, and Georgetown, all holders of advanced degrees, failed to recognize the reference. The one thing they have in common is that they are under forty years of age. Virtually every educated person over forty recognized it instantly. It goes as follows:
As an English major, albeit obviously one under forty, you no doubt recognize the reference to "Ode on a Grecian Urn" by John Keats, and from your article I gather that you would appreciate the mode of expression. Poetry does have a power and a seductiveness that goes far beyond the best prose. When "Country Joe" McDonald wrote, "Well it's one, two, three what are we fighting for? Don't ask me I don't give a damn, next stop is Vietnam," he probably did more to undermine the U.S. war effort than all the learned essays in all the nation's newspapers and magazines. Poetry, however, should not be used as a substitute for rational thought, and it is not, by virtue of its supposed closer affinity to truth, admissible as evidence in a court of law, and I think we should be grateful for that.
Actually, you didn't have to inform your readers that you are a college graduate of the 80s. Your defensiveness about your "impractical" major had already given you away. When Vince Foster and I were students at the "backwater college" of Davidson, we simply didn't think that way. The idealism of the era had been very well captured in the inaugural address of our young president. But then, not quite three months into Vince's freshman year, John Kennedy was shot to death, and this country has not been quite the same since.
Because I am a product of the same era, and the same education, and, dare we say it, the same moral and religious guidance as Vince Foster, I think I might have somewhat better insight into his mysterious demise than the poet, Edward [sic] Arlington Robinson, whom you quote so approvingly. A Davidson man (many years would pass before it went coed), we were told, was special. We had the strictest honor code in the country. Two years of English, two years of ROTC, and TWO YEARS OF RELIGION were required. We were also required to attend church on Sunday and three college-wide assemblies a week. The assemblies often had a moral or religious theme. An old-fashioned sense of honor, of responsibility, and of probity was inculcated into us. One was not to cope with adversity by feeling sorry for oneself. Vince, I believe, majored in psychology, but the department was very small, and the creed of feel-good self-actualization was yet as foreign to us as were the jungles of Southeast Asia.
If I may telescope time a little bit, I can see Vince Foster departing Davidson for Washington like A. E. Housman's Shropshire lad leaving home for London:
Vince Foster had a wife and three children. He was just getting started in a job in which he could do a great deal of good for his country. He was advising the president on personal and legal (that is to say LAW ENFORCEMENT) matters. To conclude without any persuasive evidence that he quailed before these responsibilities to the point of dying by his own hand seriously dishonors his memory according to the code that was impressed upon me and my cohorts.
Even the psychologists would agree, I believe, that the natural and normal reaction of a true friend to the mysterious death of a stalwart comrade would be to suspect that he was the victim of foul play. One hardly shows proper concern for the feelings of the widow and other survivors by leaping, with unseemly haste, to the conclusion that Vince Foster did himself in over things that, from all we have been told, look like trivia.
Until at least one bit of evidence has been revealed that is clearly and persuasively inconsistent with murder—as opposed to the bushels that seem inconsistent with suicide—you may forgive me if I prefer to believe that Vince Foster died heroically, not ignominiously. Is it not entirely conceivable, even likely, from the evidence that is before us and from what we know of his character, as opposed to his state of mind, that he was killed over an issue of principle or over a law enforcement matter? As far as the state of mind is concerned, just as with the pivotal question of the ownership of the gun, there is no witness who compares to the wife, and we are told that no one from the police was able to talk with her FOR EIGHT DAYS! (sic, it was nine. We interject here in 2013 that the story changed almost a year later when the Park Police report was at last released showing that the police had not been turned away from the Foster house on the night of July 20, as The Post had originally reported. The Post never noted the contradiction. Officially, the Park Police never interviewed the sons, who, as I thought of after writing my letter to Von Drehle, are really better sources than the wife as to the identification of the gun in Foster’s hand. It is almost certain, though, that the Park Police did talk to the sons at the Foster house on July 20, as I reveal in Part 6 of “America’s Dreyfus Affair, the Case of the Death of Vincent Foster.”)
But you have told one and all that you know Vince Foster's story already because of a poem that impressed you. Might I suggest that you replace it with one that, at this point, seems more apropos and one that keeps Vince Foster's sterling reputation intact:
Since I wrote that letter we have learned a lot more about the Foster case, and I have learned a lot more about what's going on around us, prompting two more related poems:
Now, let us sing of the smooth Richard
This quaint little tale has been put
to ill use
The message the public is supposed to
You know what bothers me most of all
I have not shared these last two poems with Mr. Von Drehle. Should I?
David Martin, March 9, 1998
Since Von Drehle had quoted Alexander Pope, I wished I had known at that time the Pope quote that the renowned manuscript authenticator and Oxford English professor, the late Reginald Alton, gave me upon reading The New Moral Order, “Ask you what provocation I have had? The strong antipathy of good to bad.” I would have thrown it back at Von Drehle. Instead, I had to settle for using it to lead off Part 2 of “America’s Dreyfus Affair.” (Alton was one of three handwriting experts who declared the torn-up “suicide note” a forgery.)
Readers might forgive me now if I express my skepticism that Von Drehle is really so credulous as to believe what he wrote. If he volunteered the piece, he no doubt did it to curry favor with his employers by writing what he knew they wanted to hear. More likely, though is that he was assigned to write a suicide-selling story, and this was the best he could come up with. Later he would have a much bigger assignment along those lines, and I would later sum up his efforts in “The Press and the Death of Vincent Foster.”
Accompanying the [Michael] Isikoff article on that crucial first Sunday after the authorities had, they hoped, laid the Foster death controversy to rest, was a massive, front-page 159-column-inch article by David Von Drehle, syndicated to newspapers around the country, whose purpose is indicated by its title: "The Crumbling of a Pillar in Washington, Only Clinton Aide Foster Knew What Drove Him to Fort Marcy." The article set the tone for virtually all that would follow in the American press. Dropping all pretense to objectivity, Von Drehle gives us nothing more than a serious sales effort for the tenuous thesis that Vince Foster killed himself because he was depressed. It is the prosecutor's case for the murder of Vince Foster by Vince Foster. The case for the defense is completely absent. Nowhere in the lengthy article, for instance, are we told about the withheld official report or that the authorities are not even allowing release of photocopies of the torn-up note attributed to Foster that belatedly turned up mysteriously. Freely drawing conclusions about Foster's state of mind as reflected in the uncharacteristically sophomoric and disjointed note, a note that had been supposedly found in a briefcase that had previously been thoroughly searched, Von Drehle also avoids any mention of authentication of the note's handwriting.
Thanks to good organization men like Von Drehle, the cover-up of Foster’s murder has succeeded with the general public. But thanks to two people more than any other, the witness Patrick Knowlton and Kenneth Starr’s erstwhile lead investigator, Miguel Rodriguez, it has failed utterly with anyone who actually wishes to be informed. For Rodriguez’s very telling resignation letter, never published in any newspaper, either on paper or online, go here.
We have described Von Drehle as an organization man. But what is his organization? If you gave the obvious answer, The Washington Post, I believe your scope is too narrow. The following quote from the British journalist, Ambrose Evans-Pritchard more likely gets us closer to the right answer:
The Washington Post ceased to be a newspaper of liberal activism a long time ago, if it ever really was. "Its anti- establishment image is one of the most absurd myths in journalism today," said Jeff Cohen, from Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting in New York, a liberal group that monitors the Post closely and accuses it of an incestuous relationship with the governing elite. "It has been an instrument of state power for many years."
From his Wikipedia page we find that Von Drehle left The Post some time ago to become editor-at-large at another longstanding “instrument of state power,” Time magazine. Explaining his job history, Von Drehle says, "I like to change gears every four or five years." But has he really been changing gears…or organizations? The following is from the 1987 book, Cloak and Gown, Scholars in the Secret War, 1939-1961, by Yale history professor, Robin Winks:
In the fall of 1942 R&A (Research and Analysis of the CIA precursor OSS) began to contract out research projects to specialized institutes, first at Stanford and the University of California at Berkeley, and soon after to the University of Denver, Columbia, Princeton, and Yale. No one at the universities appears to have protested these ties, and university presidents and professors courted contractors and consultantships, at times going well beyond the supplying of analysis and information, as when Cal Tech manufactured rockets for the army. (p. 79)
Of the universities listed, there is one that stands out for its lack of prominence. It is the one place where the OSS and later the CIA would be a very big fish in a small pond. It also happens to be the alma mater of David Von Drehle. We are talking about the University of Denver. Condoleezza Rice also received her Ph.D. there, where she studied under Madeleine Albright’s father, Josef Korbel.
High Priest for the Lincoln God
What could be more fitting for a man with “a way with words” who has also shown himself to be more than willing to serve “instruments of state power” than Von Drehle’s latest gear-changing? Now he’s playing the historian, having written a tribute to the president most beloved by the neocons for his willingness to make war on his own people in the name of consolidated state power. It is called Rise to Greatness: Abraham Lincoln and America's Most Perilous Year.
From reading the reviews of the book, which I have not read, I gather that the “greatness” label, according to Von Drehle, deserves to be pinned upon Lincoln because organizing and motivating those on his side to pursue the war on their fellow Americans was a much bigger feat than is generally appreciated. But here is how Thomas DiLorenzo describes what Lincoln accomplished:
How odd that anyone would equate the killing of some 850,000 Americans (the latest estimate of "Civil War" deaths), the bombing, burning, and destruction of entire cities, the mass killing of tens of thousands of civilians, the rape, pillage and plunder of thousands more, the suspension of Habeas Corpus and imprisonment of tens of thousands of Northern civilians, the shutting down of hundreds of opposition newspapers in the North, military conscription, the daily execution of deserters (by the Lincoln regime), and the rigging of Northern elections as "civilization." And how odd that anyone would think that the secession of a state (or states), under the correct belief that the union of the founding fathers was a voluntary union, would somehow "destroy" the government in Washington. In fact, the government in Washington grew exponentially after the Southern states seceded, fielding the largest and best-equipped army in world history up to that point.
As the latest Lincoln hagiographer, organization man Von Drehle might just be in his perfect gear.
January 3, 2013