Pollyanna on Vince Foster and our Presidents
Ale, man, ale’s the stuff to drink,
For fellows whom it hurts to think:
Look into the pewter pot
To see the world as the world’s not.
- A. E. Housman
For the same effect, on the other hand, you could read The American President: From Teddy Roosevelt to Bill Clinton by noted American historian, William E. Leuchtenburg. Leuchtenburg, as amply demonstrated by his latest book, is the very personification of what is wrong with the American history profession.
Here is how his publisher, Oxford University Press, describes him: “The author is a renowned historian who, among other achievements, was elected president of all three major national historical associations and has served as a presidential election night analyst for NBC.” He is the William Rand Kenan Jr. professor emeritus of history at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and he has won the coveted Bancroft Prize and the North Carolina Award for Literature.
I became aware that The American President was in the works almost a year ago—with a December 2015 publication date—when Professor Leuchtenburg appeared on North Carolina Bookwatch on North Carolina Public Television and the host of the program, D.G. Martin, wrote a column about it. If Martin was accurate in his column, Leuchtenburg had said some things on the program about the death of Bill Clinton’s Deputy White House Vincent Foster that are demonstrably not true, and I feared that he had written the same thing or worse in his book. Since the actual publication date of the book was still more than half a year away I felt that it was my obligation to inform the good professor of his error while there was still time to correct it. The statement I particularly objected to was the following, “The Whitewater investigation never yielded anything. The suicide of Vince Foster was clearly the result of depression in a man who had been tried beyond his capabilities in Washington, who himself said that he should never have left a successful career in Little Rock. That did not stop accusations that Clinton had deliberately concocted his murder” More detail is in my article, “Letter to a Historian over Foster and the Clintons.”
Book Worse than Anticipated
Neither Martin nor Leuchtenburg paid me any heed, and, as it turned out, my worst fears about his book, and then some, were realized. Had I done a little more research on the man I suppose I could have saved my time. This is clearly a person who isn’t interested in the truth. If he were, he would not have left statements standing which I had demonstrated to him were not true. My later Net research also showed me that he is the consulting editor for the James V. Forrestal page at the University of Virginia’s Miller Center. That page concludes with the nonsense statement, “On May 22, 1949, he committed suicide when he allegedly climbed out of a window to hang himself and fell to his death from the sixteenth floor of the Bethesda Naval Hospital in Maryland.”
How can the Center say with such confidence that Forrestal committed suicide, while leaving at the level of nothing more than an allegation the assertion that he climbed out of the window of his own volition? That leaves open the possibility that his exit from the 16th floor window could have had some other cause, such as his having been pushed or thrown, and therefore did not commit suicide. I believe that I have demonstrated to any fair-minded person that the latter is the case. I have long since made sure that the Miller Center knows better than what it has written—and Professor Leuchtenburg has apparently approved—with a series of emails documented in my 2008 article, “Lies about the Kennedy and Forrestal Deaths.”
Now let’s see what the forewarned Leuchtenburg says about Vince Foster’s death in his book:
Few other Arkansans enjoyed such an intimate association with the Clintons as Vince Foster. He had grown up in Hope a neighbor of Bill Clinton, and as a partner in the Rose Law Firm in Little Rock, he had been the one who had overcome prejudice against women to make possible the hiring of Hillary Clinton. As partners, they were so close that there were even rumors that they were having an affair. Foster, who had long been the personal lawyer for both Clintons, was a man of sterling reputation. He brought to mind, Hillary Clinton said, Gregory Peck playing the noble attorney Atticus Finch.
Let’s stop right there. Leuchtenburg apparently does not know that Bill and Vince did not grow up together as neighbors in Hope. How can this be? He is writing as an authority on the presidents from Teddy Roosevelt to Clinton and yet he seems not to have read any simple Clinton biography or he would know that Bill moved away with his mother and stepfather to Hot Springs when he was seven years old, where he spent the rest of his formative years. In short, Bill and Vince did not grow up together, and, furthermore, it makes a big difference where Bill did grow up. This is from my recent review of The Money and the Power: The Making of Las Vegas and Its Hold on America:
“President Clinton—raised in Hot Springs, his family deeply involved in the backroom gambling there in the fifties when it rivaled Las Vegas, his own political career launched by the backing of his uncle Raymond, who ran slot machines in the town for the Marcello family—seemed to understand [Las Vegas’s] bipartisan politics as clearly as any politician of the century,” write [Sally] Denton and [Roger] Morris.
Concerning Foster’s “sterling reputation” in Arkansas, we can certainly say that the Clintons’ security chief, Jerry Parks, thought highly of him, but, as we shall see, that might not be the best of recommendations. This is from Sam Smith’s Progressive Review, as he quotes from the British reporter Ambrose Evans-Pritchard:
widow Jane Parks] revealed that Jerry Parks had carried out sensitive
assignments for the Clinton circle for almost a decade, and the person who gave
him his instructions was Vince Foster. It did not come as a total shock. I
already knew that there was some kind of tie between the two men. Foster's
brother-in-law, Lee Bowman, told me long ago that Vince had recommended Jerry
Parks for security work in the mid-1980s. "I was struck by how insistent
he was that Parks was a 'man who could be trusted,'" said Bowman, a
wealthy Little Rock stockbroker. . .
Jerry, in turn, "respected Vince Foster more than anybody else in the world." It was a strange, clandestine relationship. Foster called the Parks home more than a hundred times, identifying himself with the code name, "The Congressman." . . .
By the late 1980s Vince trusted Parks enough to ask him to perform discreet surveillance on the Governor. "Jerry asked him why he needed this stuff on Clinton. He said he needed it for Hillary," recalled Jane. . .
Later, during the early stages of the presidential campaign, Parks made at least two trips to the town of Mena, in the Ouachita Mountains of western Arkansas. Mena had come up in conversations before. Jane told me that Parks had been a friend of Barry Seal, a legendary cocaine smuggler and undercover U.S. operative who had established a base of operations at Mena airport. Parks had even attended Seal's funeral in Baton Rouge after Seal was assassinated by Colombian pistoleros in February 1986.
One of the trips was in 1991, she thought, although it could have been 1992. The morning after Jerry got back from Mena she borrowed his Lincoln to go to the grocery store and discovered what must have been hundreds of thousands of dollars in the trunk. "It was all in $100 bills, wrapped in string, layer after layer. It was so full I had to sit on the trunk to get it shut again," she said.
"I took a handful of money and threw it in his lap and said, 'Are you running drugs?' Jerry said Vince had paid him $1000 cash for each trip. He didn't know what they were doing, and he didn't want to know either, and nor should I. He told me to forget what I'd seen.". . .
One can be certain that Evans-Pritchard’s The Secret Life of Bill Clinton: The Untold Stories was not among the books that Leuchtenburg consulted for his work, no more than he consulted Morris’s Partners in Power: The Clintons and Their America or R. Emmett Tyrrell’s very revealing Boy Clinton. In fact, all three are missing from his extensive bibliography, which includes only books.
“I’m a dead man,” Parks had told his wife when he heard of Foster’s death. Some two months later his prophecy proved to be true. He was gunned down gangland style while driving his car just outside Little Rock, and his murder has never been solved.
The story that Vince and Hillary were having an affair is more substantial than mere “rumor” as well. As I note in my review of Arkansas state trooper L.D. Brown’s book, it is based upon the direct observations in published accounts of Brown and troopers Larry Patterson and Roger Perry. By suggesting that what we have here is nothing more than a rumor, Leuchtenburg is shamelessly engaging, like our press is so want to do, in #3 of the Seventeen Techniques for Truth Suppression.
Now let us return to Leuchtenburg’s narrative, picking up exactly where we left off:
Foster found Washington a jolting change from Arkansas, where he was so esteemed. Everything he was assigned—from botched nominations to Travelgate—seemed to go wrong, and, a sensitive man who suffered bouts of depression, he took the blame upon himself. Still worse, the Wall Street Journal ran mean pieces on its editorial page depicting him as a figure of evil who was masterminding a cover-up of Bill Clinton’s nefarious deeds in Arkansas. The conservative Republican senator from Wyoming Alan Simpson later said of these attacks: “They just hounded him. It was ghastly to watch. Ghastly. … The Wall Street Journal was after him more than anyone else. But everyone was after him.”
We must stop again. There’s hardly a word of truth in that paragraph. There’s absolutely no hard evidence that Foster had any sort of history of depression. This passage is from my “America’s Dreyfus Affair: The Case of the Death of Vincent Foster” as I trace the evolution of the press coverage of the death:
In slow and awkward stages the story of the mysterious, motiveless suicide began to change. The first attempt at changing the story amounted to something of a false start. The little-read Washington Times of Saturday, July 24, four days after Foster's death, carried an inside article about depression in which [White House spokesperson Dee Dee] Myers was quoted as saying of Foster, "His family says with certainty that he'd never been treated [for depression]." But on the front page was a story based upon information from an anonymous "source close to the Foster family" who said that Foster was, indeed, experiencing emotional problems and had turned to other family members for psychiatric recommendations. Among the family members mentioned to the reporter was brother-in-law, former Arkansas Congressman Beryl Anthony. The reporter had telephoned Anthony and asked him about the allegation and Anthony had responded, "That's a bunch of crap. There's not a damn thing to it," and angrily hung up the phone.
Later the story would be put together and sold to the public that Foster had been prescribed an anti-depressant by telephone by his family physician in Little Rock through the Morgan Pharmacy in Georgetown near Vince’s home and that Vince had taken one of the pills the night before his death. However, no actual pills were ever entered into evidence nor were any long distance telephone records showing any call by Vince to the doctor in Little Rock. When I called the Morgan Pharmacy and asked who filled the prescription, the person on the other end of the line abruptly hung up on me. For those first few days when the prevailing story was that Foster had seemed completely normal, the good doctor in Arkansas had curiously held his tongue. Furthermore, the toxicology report on Foster’s body reported no drugs in his system, and they were specifically looking for anti-depressants. There’s more, but you get the picture.
The Wall Street Journal was one of several newspapers that the office where I worked in Washington, DC, received and I read it regularly. There was one editorial entitled “Who Is Vince Foster?” that connected him to the travel office firing mess, as I recall, but that was the first and last time I saw his name there before his untimely death.* To the public at large he remained a virtually anonymous character, and the notion that the press was hounding him is the purest fiction. The attention he got from the press was negligible; hardly anything to lose a night of sleep over, much less a cause to kill oneself.
Now back to Leuchtenburg, again picking up exactly where we left off:
On July 20, 1993, the half-year anniversary of Clinton’s inauguration, Foster drove to a park in McLean, Virginia, overlooking the Potomac and shot himself. Police came upon his body—a bullet in his head, an ancient Colt revolver at his side, powder burns on his hand. Foster left a torn-up note that, pieced together, read: “I made mistakes from ignorance, inexperience and overwork. … 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.” Every subsequent investigation reached the self-evident conclusion that Foster, depressed, had taken his life, but the right-wing syndicated broadcaster Rush Limbaugh informed his twenty million listeners that Foster had been “murdered in an apartment owned by Hillary Clinton,” and rumormongers circulated the story that Foster “knew so much bad stuff about the Clintons that they had him killed.”
Foster researcher Hugh Turley has shown that Leuchtenburg has a lot of company with the false statements he makes in the first sentence of that paragraph with his December 2015 article, “Professors Can’t Explain Vince Foster’s Last Ride.” Fort Marcy Park, where Foster’s body was found, does not overlook the Potomac River. Chain Bridge Road and some luxury houses, including that of the Saudi Arabian ambassador, separate the park from the river, and you can’t even come close to seeing the river from there. But the key falsehood in that sentence is that Foster drove his car to the park. In spite of what the FBI agents who interviewed him reported, witness Patrick Knowlton who saw the car in the parking lot there when Foster lay dead in the back of the park, is absolutely certain that the Honda he saw with Arkansas tags was reddish brown and of an older model than Foster’s silver-gray Honda. Listen to him describe his experience in the video on the home page of fbicover-up.com. That information is freely available in the appendix to the official report on Foster’s death that the three-judge panel who appointed him ordered Kenneth Starr to include in the report.
Leuchtenburg pontificates on the subject only from what he has learned from badly flawed and biased secondary and tertiary sources. Even then he doesn’t do a very good job of reporting. Look at that embarrassment of a second sentence. “Police came upon his body,” he says. Hardly. That’s not the official story. Officially a guy who first came forward on G. Gordon Liddy’s radio program who is identified in the government reports only as “CW,” for “confidential witness,” discovered him. The man was actually the late Kermit Dale Kyle, and there’s almost no chance that his story is true, either, because there’s no more chance that a person looking for a safe place to urinate would have found Foster’s body in the back of the park than police making their rounds would have, but that’s another story. Leuchtenburg’s blunders don’t end there. He says there was a bullet in Foster’s head. I think there probably was one—the assassin’s bullet—but officially the bullet went out the gaping hole in the back of Foster’s head that Dr. James Beyer showed in his autopsy sketch. In that autopsy report Beyer checked the box saying that he took X-rays, but then he said that he taken no X-rays because the machine was not functioning. Had Leuchtenburg read the appendix to Starr’s report he would have found there a signed affidavit from the installer of the relatively new X-ray machine saying that it was in perfect working order and the first service call they had from the hospital came some months later. My guess is that X-ray’s were, indeed, taken, but they showed a small-caliber bullet in the brain, a bullet that had entered through the neck wound that was seen by witnesses, so the X-rays had to be ditched.
About that bizarre torn-up note supposedly found in a briefcase previously searched and emptied out with the note being undiscovered at that time, there are many skeptical things one might say. Here’s a sample from my “America’s Dreyfus Affair”:
To call this collection of random jottings sophomoric and peevish and wholly out of character for a man of Foster's caliber is to understate the case. From its text alone, the reassembled note virtually screamed "fake". One could easily interpret it as a construction whose deceptive purpose was to persuade the public that Foster did, indeed, commit suicide, but not over anything very serious. What personal "mistakes" could the man have been talking about anyway, and what "lies" by his antagonists? He didn't say. Furthermore, if his performance, and that of his cohorts, was as blameless as he goes on to say it was, what was the problem? What was ultimately so serious that he should feel compelled to abandon his family, his loved ones, and his responsibilities by taking his own life?
A detached, objective press would have to be wondering aloud if this could really be the writing, or the thinking, or the actions of the man Vincent Foster was known to be? Yet, with virtual unanimity, they ignored all the textual problems and bizarre circumstances surrounding the note's discovery and seized upon the squalidly self-pitying last item, trumpeting it as the note's main message. Here, obviously, was a poor, weak wretch about to slink off to the Washington area's most out-of-the-way place and end it all with suicide.
Limbaugh, Fiske, Starr: Useful Fake Opposition
Leuchtenburg’s mention of Rush Limbaugh, who never followed any critical leads in the case while masquerading as a real Clinton critic, represents the familiar red-herring-dragging technique, a combination of #4 and #6 of the Seventeen Techniques for Truth Suppression that we have seen employed so often by the propagandists in the press. Leuchtenburg is in a musty, ivory-towered league of his own, though, with his confident declaration that the suicide-from-depression conclusion is “self-evident” right after he has just demonstrated his profound ignorance of the most basic facts in the case.
At this point we skip ahead to what is, in effect, Leuchtenburg’s last word on the Foster death case (His discussion of Independent Counsel Kenneth Starr’s work is devoted virtually entirely to the Monica Lewinsky matter and the Whitewater scandal.):
Precisely one year after Clinton’s inauguration, Attorney General [Janet] Reno named as special prosecutor Robert Fiske, a highly regarded lawyer who had been chosen by President Ford to be a US attorney in New York. A Republican, Fiske had compiled such an unassailable record that Jimmy Carter had kept him on. Though Democrats might have been uneasy at the choice of a Republican to assess the president’s past in an era of heated partisanship, Fiske proved himself to be impressively fair-minded. In fact, the only outcry against him came from ultrarightests who deplored his conclusion that, contrary to the conspiracy-minded, Vince Foster had not been killed but, as a consequence of untreated depression, had committed suicide.
That is indeed the narrative that has been sold to the general public by the national molders of public opinion, primarily the news media. The actual Fiske report is a slender little volume of only 58 pages of double-spaced writing. A good portion of it is taken up with reproductions of the lengthy resumes of the team of doctors that he assembled. The primary tool of persuasion employed—which one will also notice in Leuchtenburg’s work as well—is #7 in the Seventeen Techniques of Truth Suppression, to “invoke authority.” Its primary value was that it included the very problematic autopsy of Dr. Beyer, mentioned above, upon which the doctors depended completely. That report lay at the heart of the suicide conclusion, but it amounted to a very slender reed, indeed, on which to build a case.
The present writer, who certainly raised an outcry but had no outlet at the time, is hardly an “ultrarightest” nor is the witness Knowlton or his lawyer, John Clarke. I was a lifelong Democrat who voted for Bill Clinton in 1992. That was the last time I cast a ballot for the candidate of either major party for President, however. My experience with the actions of our elected officials from both parties in this case has been a big part of my education.
Based upon that experience and primarily from reading what he has written about the Foster case, my judgment of Leuchtenburg’s book on the 20th century presidents is that it is the work of a cowardly intellectual featherweight who is influenced by his left-liberal orthodox Democratic Party prejudices more than anything else. It was with just such people in mind (and we can include his interviewer D.G. Martin in the group) that I wrote my second verse of my poem, “The Lies”:
Hopelessly smug and indisposed
To look into the light
With minds made up and closed
They turn from truth exposed
And seek the shelter of the night.
Avoiding with averted eyes
All they wish were otherwise,
Confused by the thinnest disguise,
They hesitate and temporize,
Then cast about and choose the lies,
The cozy lies,
The rosy lies…
Looking at this work by a man who has long been at the very pinnacle of the U.S. academic history profession, it is not too difficult to see how a young aspirant of the likes of a Matthew McNiece at a backwater college in Texas could be granted the credentials to infect a new generation of students. One needn’t be diligent in seeking out the truth. In fact, in doing so, as with a young journalist, one might jeopardize one’s career. As young McNiece so well demonstrated, all that is really required is to appeal to the prejudices of the gatekeeping Leuchtenburgs of the profession and the door to upward mobility will be opened.
Now one might charge that I have blown what the superannuated scholar has written about the Foster death out of proportion since he is very ambitiously writing about all the presidents from Teddy Roosevelt to Bill Clinton. But he is the one who chose to make such a big thing of the Foster case, and, in the process, showed such a paucity of knowledge. All history must be selective, but Leuchtenburg’s selectivity is very revealing. The names Timothy McVeigh and Lee Harvey Oswald, for instance, do not even appear in his book nor is there any mention of the attack upon the USS Liberty in the Six Day War in 1967.
Wrong about the Reds, Too
Furthermore, it’s not just on the Foster case that Leuchtenburg demonstrates his naked partisanship and his featherweight scholarship. Take the matter of the infiltration of the Roosevelt and Truman administrations by Communists. “America’s China hands in the Foreign Service sometimes fell short,” he writes, ”and there were, indeed, spies in the federal government, though they had little or no effect on policy.”
Nothing could be further from the truth. The primary message of Stalin’s Secret Agents: The Subversion of Roosevelt’s Government by M. Stanton Evans and Herbert Romerstein, as I say in my review of the book, was that those Communist infiltrators vitally affected our policy:
What we learn from Evans and Romerstein is that the Soviet war and post-war gains at the West’s expense were hardly an accident. They had ample assistance from a Roosevelt administration that was thoroughly laced with Stalin’s agents. The agents were sufficiently numerous and highly placed that almost any theft of secrets they might have accomplished was small potatoes compared to their influence upon policy.
That’s another book, of course, that you won’t find in Leuchtenburg’s bibliography. Those authors are just “right-wingers,” don’t you know? Never mind that their claims are heavily supported by solid documentary evidence, similar to the evidence that the leading critics of the government and the press in the Foster case have presented.
How Leuchtenburg cauterizes the Communist-infiltration wound is well demonstrated by what follows his quoted passage above about the fairly innocuous spies in the federal government:
A sensational court case, however, made these imputations seem plausible.
Three months before the 1948 election, a Time magazine editor, Whittaker Chambers, told the House Committee on Un-American Activities that a former State Department official, Alger Hiss, had been a member of the Communist Party. He offered no convincing proof, and Truman dismissed charges against and others as a “red herring” drawn across the path of the campaign by irresponsible Republicans. But on a December night in 1948 Chambers, accompanied by two investigators, reached into a pumpkin on his Maryland farm and pulled out microfilm of classified State Department documents that he claimed had been given to him when he was a Soviet agent by a spy ring to which Hiss belonged.
Leuchtenburg goes on to admit that Hiss was sent to prison for perjury after he sued Chambers, suggesting that Hiss was, indeed, guilty as charged, and that is the overwhelming grudging consensus of historians today—which Leuchtenburg does not tell us—but he trivializes the episode and treats it more as a public relations problem for the Harry Truman administration than anything else.
Once again, what’s important is what’s missing. Chambers didn’t just suddenly fall down from the sky. He had told the same story, naming lots of people, to FDR’s chief of internal security Adolf Berle way back in 1939. When nothing was done and the Communist agents were left in their key positions, he went underground, fearing for his life. Among the infiltrators he named in addition to Hiss and his brother Donald in the State Department were key Treasury aide Harry Dexter White and important White House aide Lauchlin Currie. Chambers did not testify to that House committee voluntarily. He still feared the power of the Communists. Another defector, Elizabeth Bentley, had named him and he was subpoenaed. We can learn all about this from reading one of the most important books of the 20th century, Chambers’ memoir Witness. Even more important information about that 1939 Berle-Chambers meeting is in the book by the man who set the meeting up and was present and took notes, Isaac Don Levine. His book is Eyewitness to History, and like Witness it is also missing from Leuchtenburg’s bibliography. As you might expect, the very important names of White, Currie, and Bentley are nowhere to be found in Leuchtenburg’s book, either.
You name the big issue, from Communist infiltration of the government, to the Pearl Harbor attack, the Japanese surrender, or, yes, the death of Vincent Foster, and Leuchtenburg is wrong. But the important thing is that he is safely wrong, which, unfortunately, is what it takes these days to be at the top of the heap in the U.S. history profession.
May 26, 2016
* I was rummaging through my files a few days ago and stumbled across a copy of The Wall Street Journal that I had saved that had a lead editorial entitled “Vincent Foster’s Victory.” It appeared on June 24, 1993, exactly a week after the “Who Is Vincent Foster?” editorial. It is in no way an attack on the man. Rather, it offers rather backhanded praise for his lawyerly skill in arguing what the Journal sees as the right legal principle in support of what they also see as the Clinton administration’s wrongheaded purpose, that is, keeping the deliberations of Hillary’s Health Task Force secret. The editorial was so unremarkable that I had apparently saved the edition because of a critical op-ed piece about the National Endowment for the Arts that ran beside it, where I see I had underlined a sentence that I liked. The editorial reinforces my point that The Wall Street Journal’s writings about Foster were in no way vicious. In fact, they stand in stark contrast to what one sees these days in virtually all the newspapers daily about anyone you might name in the Trump administration, especially about Donald Trump, himself. – October 23, 2017