Chapter 1Shooting at Melons
At the start of the Civil War, Union troops built Fort Marcy, on a ridge above the Potomac in Northern Virginia, as one of the fortifications ringing Washington to protect the capital from Confederate attack. The Union commander, General George McClellan, named it for his father-in-law and chief of staff, Randolph Marcy. Its earthworks measured up to eighteen feet thick in parts, and it bristled with three howitzers and eighteen field guns, defending the Chain Bridge river crossing below.
In the end, Fort Marcy wound up seeing no major action in the Civil War. But more than a century later, it became the site of the first shot in another conflict: the Republican Party’s war on truth.
The afternoon of July 20, 1993, brought the kind of oppressive weather that keeps almost everybody indoors: a high of 96 degrees and near 100 percent humidity. But sometime after the lunch hour, a gray Honda Accord with Arkansas plates, heading westbound on the George Washington Memorial Parkway, pulled off at Fort Marcy, now a national park. A man in his late forties, lanky and nearly six feet five inches tall, emerged from the Honda wearing a white dress shirt, gray dress pants, and black dress shoes. He left his sports jacket and his swan-pattern tie folded on the passenger seat, and he pocketed the car keys.
The man proceeded to walk uphill some eight hundred feet from the parking lot to the walls of the old fort, then continued to the second of two vintage 12-pound howitzers on display. Stopping on the steeply sloping earthworks just below the old cannon, the man pulled from his pants pocket an antique Colt .38 revolver. He put the barrel of the gun in his mouth and, with his right thumb, squeezed the trigger.
Hours later, after the man’s body had been discovered by a passerby, U.S. Park Police searching the Honda found, under the suit jacket, the man’s White House identification. The deceased was Vince Foster, the deputy White House counsel and personal friend of President Bill Clinton and First Lady Hillary Clinton.
Foster’s death was a tragic suicide. Since moving to Washington with the new administration, Foster had been battered in the press, particularly in the editorial pages of The Wall Street Journal, for his role in various penny-ante scandals of the first year of the Clinton presidency that ultimately amounted to nothing. Four days before his death, Foster broke down in tears at dinner with his wife and talked of resigning. He also told his sister he was depressed, and she gave him the names of three psychiatrists (the list was found in his wallet), and he tried to reach one of them but got an answering machine. The day before his death, he called his doctor in Little Rock and complained of stress, anorexia, and insomnia, and he received a prescription for an antidepressant.
Investigators deduced that the gun was an eighty-year-old model he had inherited from his father. He transported it in an oven mitt, found in his car’s glove compartment. Forensic evidence—gunshot residue on his hands, a mark on his thumb matching the trigger rebound, no indication of struggle—overwhelmingly pointed to suicide. And there was a note—torn into twenty-seven pieces, it was found in his briefcase, which he had left at the office.
“I made mistakes from ignorance, inexperience and overwork,” it said. “I did not knowingly violate any law or standard of conduct.” He listed various grievances—“The GOP has lied. . . . The public will never believe the innocence of the Clintons and their loyal staff. The WSJ editors lie without consequence”—and ended with this: “I was not meant for the job or the spotlight of public life in Washington. Here ruining people is considered sport.”
Alas for Foster, even death offered no relief from that sport. Republicans were about to ruin him—posthumously.
Almost exactly a year after Foster’s suicide, Dan Burton, a Republican congressman from Indiana and a close ally of Republican whip Newt Gingrich, stood in the well of the House of Representatives, giving an hour-long special order speech.
His purpose: to make the case that Vince Foster had been murdered. His proof: Burton shot a melon in his backyard.
The precise identity of the gourd Burton shot is a matter of some dispute. It has been identified, variously, as a watermelon, a pumpkin, and a cantaloupe. But this much is clear: Burton had used the gourd as a stand-in for Foster’s head—“a head-like thing,” he called it—to prove that it’s impossible Foster shot himself at Fort Marcy and nobody heard the gunshot.
“We, at my house, with a homicide detective, tried to re-create a head and fired a .38 inch barrel into that, to see if the sound could be heard from 100 yards away,” Burton declared on the House floor. “Even though there was an earth mover moving around in the background, making all kinds of racket, you could hear the bullet clearly.”
Investigators of Foster’s death found the lack of witnesses reporting a gunshot unsurprising: the strip of woods, with infrequent foot traffic, lies between the parkway and another busy road. But Burton took the unheard gunshot as evidence that Foster had been murdered at a different location, rolled up in a carpet, and carried in broad daylight uphill to the fort, with care being taken to hold the six-foot-four-and-a-half-inch corpse upright to keep the blood off his clothing.
“He died under very mysterious circumstances,” Burton told the House. “His body was moved. There is no question about it.” Burton suggested that the gun was planted in Foster’s hand and that the torn note was planted in his briefcase. Burton floated the possibility of a secret entrance to the park, and killers hiding in the trees. He asserted that “there is a connection” between Foster’s death and probes of the Clintons’ finances. And the scores of federal agents who investigated were trying to “cover up” the facts.
This was, of course, pure madness. The Park Police, investigating with the FBI and the Justice Department, found “no evidence of foul play” and concluded that “the condition of the scene, the medical examiner’s findings and the information gathered clearly indicate that Mr. Foster committed suicide.”
Independent counsel Robert Fiske, who had been appointed to probe the Clintons’ finances, undertook his own investigation of Foster’s death, using FBI resources and expert pathologists. He found that “the overwhelming weight of the evidence compels the conclusion . . . that Vincent Foster committed suicide in Fort Marcy Park on July 20, 1993.”
The top Republican on the Government Operations Committee, William Clinger, did a third investigation and concluded that “Foster died from a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the mouth while at Fort Marcy Park.”
A bipartisan Senate committee undertook a fourth probe and declared that “the evidence overwhelmingly supports the conclusion” that “Foster died in Fort Marcy Park from a self-inflicted gun shot wound.”
Clinger, closing his probe, said he hoped his findings would “put to rest any lingering questions regarding the events of July 20, 1993.” He lamented: “Perhaps the unexpected death of any high government official will needlessly bring cries of conspiracy from many in our society. That is unfortunate.”
There have always been conspiracy theories in politics. For decades after John F. Kennedy’s assassination, some still claimed there was a second gunman on the grassy knoll. But with Foster’s suicide, something new and different happened. This time, the conspiracy theories were promoted by wealthy interests in the Republican Party and allied right-wing media platforms, and embraced by the highest officials in the Republican Party.
Even after four separate, independent probes reached the same conclusion of suicide, Newt Gingrich, who had become speaker of the House in January 1995, threw the weight of the speakership behind the Vince Foster conspiracy theory.
“There’s something that doesn’t fit about this whole case and the way it’s been handled,” Gingrich proclaimed in July 1995. As for Foster’s suicide, “I’m not convinced he didn’t. I’m just not convinced he did.”
“I just don’t accept it,” he said of the repeated findings of suicide. “I believe there are plausible grounds to wonder what happened and very real grounds to wonder why it was investigated so badly.”
So Gingrich stoked the lie, which had already been four times disproven. A few months later, he would name none other than Dan Burton, of murdered melon fame, to replace the retiring Clinger as chairman of the House Operations Committee, which Republicans renamed the House Committee on Oversight and Reform and stocked with new, plenary investigative powers.
Why would the man second in line to the presidency publicly endorse an obvious lie? Well, if you were conspiracy minded, you might have observed that one of the largest contributors to Gingrich’s political action committee, GOPAC, was billionaire Richard Mellon Scaife, who funded the “Arkansas Project” solely to dig dirt on the Clintons. A chunk of the hundreds of millions of dollars he spent on conservative causes went to groups promoting conspiracy theories about Foster’s death. His Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, which he founded in 1992, was a leading promoter of the Foster fiction. He called Foster’s death “the Rosetta stone to the Clinton administration.” Bill Clinton, Scaife alleged to George magazine in 1998, “can order people done away with at his will. . . . God there must be 60 people who have died mysteriously.”
Scaife in 1995 hired right-wing journalist Christopher Ruddy, who had touted Foster conspiracy theories for the New York Post, to do the same for his Tribune-Review. Three years later, the two men would launch Newsmax, a disreputable right-wing website, and Ruddy would go on to become a friend and informal adviser to another born conspiracy theorist: Donald J. Trump.
The new genre of conservative talk radio, which traces its origins to 1988, when provocateur Rush Limbaugh’s AM radio show went national, fueled the Foster lies. After a financial newsletter made the fantastic and baseless claim that Foster’s corpse had been moved from an apartment in Virginia, Limbaugh upped the ante, telling his nationwide radio audience that the newsletter had reported that “Foster was murdered in an apartment owned by Hillary Clinton.”
As Newsweek reported at the time, “after Limbaugh’s broadcast, stock and bond prices tumbled—the Dow dropped nearly 23 points. . . . Elaine Garzarelli, the highly regarded Lehman Brothers market analyst who predicted the 1987 crash, said that European traders were particularly spooked by the Foster case. ‘They were afraid Hillary Clinton was involved in a murder,’ she said.”
One day in the summer of 1995, two lawyers in the Clinton White House, Chris Lehane and Mark Fabiani, tried to figure out the origins of the constant stream of Vince Foster allegations. Lehane later wrote:
Online we found early versions of chat rooms, postings and other information showing there was an entire cottage industry devoted to discussing conspiracy theories relating to Foster’s death, including numerous online reports of people claiming to have seen him. Those reports would be picked up by so-called news sources that most Americans at the time had never heard of—conservative outlets such as Eagle Publishing’s Human Events or Richard Mellon Scaife’s Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. From there, the story would migrate to right-leaning outlets we were familiar with, such as the New York Post, the Washington Times, and the editorial pages of The Wall Street Journal—all before eventually ending up in the mainstream press.
They assembled their findings in a 332-page report—the basis for what Hillary Clinton would famously describe as “this vast right-wing conspiracy that has been conspiring against my husband since the day he announced for president.”
The wild theories also captured the imagination of a thirty-year-old lawyer working in the independent counsel’s office: Brett Kavanaugh. The future Trump appointee to the Supreme Court had secured a job on the staff of Ken Starr, the fiercely partisan prosecutor who replaced Fiske and made it his office’s mission to run a rolling investigation of any allegation made against the Clintons.
“We are currently investigating Vincent Foster’s death to determine, among other things, whether he was murdered in violation of federal criminal law,” Kavanaugh wrote to his colleagues in a March 24, 1995, memo obtained years later by my Washington Post colleague Michael Kranish and shared with me.
Kavanaugh admitted that the absurd claims weren’t part of Starr’s mandate, but, he argued, “we have received allegations that Mr. Foster’s death related to President and Mrs. Clinton’s involvement” in the Whitewater financial dealings that Starr was investigating. The “allegations” were that Foster was murdered, or killed himself, because of the Clintons’ financial dealings and what he knew about them. Based on such allegations, Starr should launch “a full-fledged investigation of Mr. Foster’s death.”
Where did these “allegations” come from? Kavanaugh’s files showed that he was referring to the conspiracy theories promoted by Ruddy, by right-wing media critic Reed Irvine, and by a British writer who had claimed that the Oklahoma City bombing by right-wing militants was really a botched FBI plot.
Kavanaugh, naturally, knew that the probe he promoted was nonsense. “I am satisfied that Foster was sufficiently discouraged or depressed to commit suicide,” he wrote in a June 1995 memo. “I base my conclusion on the fact that Foster was found with a list of three psychiatrists in his wallet, the fact that Foster obtained a prescription on July 19 for an anti-depressant, and the many witness interviews describing his state of mind in the days and weeks preceding his death.”
But he would spend the next two years investigating—and thereby legitimizing—all the ludicrous claims: that Foster had an affair with Hillary Clinton; that blond hairs found on Foster’s clothing (Hillary’s?) were suspicious; that Foster was being blackmailed by Israel’s Mossad over a secret Swiss bank account; and that the White House had covered it all up. He kept a prurient “discrepancy list” in his files, with items such as “large semen stain in the decedent’s underwear.”
In October 1997, after two more years of anguish for Foster’s family, Starr would issue a report affirming precisely what the previous four investigations had found about Foster’s suicide. Kavanaugh and Starr, like Gingrich and virtually anybody else paying attention, had to have known the truth all along. But they also had to recognize that stringing out another “investigation” for two more years would give those who weren’t paying attention the impression that something sinister had happened in the Clinton White House.
Copyright © 2022 by Dana Milbank. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.