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Vincent Foster Jr.

updated 12/27/1993 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 12/27/1993 AT 01:00 AM EST

For a moment last July, time stood still in the corridors of power. The scandals du jour, the ceaseless infighting—all seemed trivial after deputy White House counsel Vincent Foster Jr. drove to a quiet Virginia park arid put a bullet through his brain.

Bill arid Hillary Rodham Clinton were shaken by the suicide. Foster, 48, and the President had grown up together in Hope, Ark., and the deputy counsel was one of the First Lady's closest friends from their years together at Little Rock's Rose law firm. Foster was a devoted husband, a father of three, a man with a reputation for steadiness and integrity—and the last person anyone had expected to take his own life. The Rock of Gibraltar, Clinton called him.

Sometimes, of course, those who strive hardest for perfection are also the most devastated when they feel they have failed to achieve it—a point made trenchantly this year in Remembering Denny, Calvin Trillin's "best-selling memoir about the suicide of a gifted Yale classmate. In Washington, the initial shock and sorrow inevitably gave way to a search for answers. Did Foster have something to hide? Though friends knew he was troubled by criticism of his involvement in the White House travel-office firings arid of the power wielded by Clinton's Little Rock cronies, to date nothing substantial has been found—except for some scraps of paper that showed a tormented man trying to make sense of his existence. "I was not meant for...public life in Washington," he wrote. "Here, ruining people is considered sport."

Not long before he died, Foster had written to a friend "The wind blows hardest at the top of the mountain." But Foster had never called either of two psychiatrists whose names he had taken down in his final days, and he was, ultimately, incapable of facing that harsh wind alone. Finally, many Washingtonians came to read the Foster tragedy as a cautionary tale: that some times it is necessary to see beyond the daily battles for power and prestige to reflect on the human vulnerability of one's opponents—and oneself.

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