Foster, the Press, And the White House Travel Office Perks

IN the analysis of White House Deputy Counsel Vincent Foster's apparent suicide, much has been made of contemporary pressures in official Washington, an allegedly new "get 'em" attitude on the part of the press, as well as the kind of clinical depression that leads people to take their own lives.

Lost in much of this has been the seeming instant cause of much of Mr. Foster's frustration, the Clinton administration's handling of the investigation of the White House Travel Office, which arranged for the Executive Mansion's huge entourage, including the White House press corps, to accompany the president out of town.

Long before Foster's suicide, I found the press's handling of the travel office controversy curious. The press coverage of the Clinton White House's attack of the Reagan-Bush Travel Office was so vociferous that the initial allegations quickly became obscured.

As a former White House correspondent for ABC News, I was even more struck by a passage in the torn fragments of a note from Foster that was unearthed a week after his death. "The press is covering up the illegal benefits they received from the travel staff," Foster wrote in what investigators now believe is the closest thing to a suicide note he left. On this matter, at least, Foster was absolutely correct.

Among the many reasons the press corps loved President Reagan's frequent vacations to Santa Barbara was that many journalists became connoisseurs of wine in California and would use Air Force One and the attendant press charter to transport, literally, truckloads of wine back to Andrews Air Force Base, without benefit of paying state taxes.

Once, near the end of Mr. Reagan's tenure, the press office advised reporters to limit their California wine purchases because the State of Maryland, where Andrews is located, had gotten word of the windfall and was threatening to stage a raid.

When traveling abroad with presidents, members of the White House press corps are granted the status of sovereigns, avoiding customs checks both in the foreign nations, as well as upon return to the US. Indeed, many White House journalists point proudly to expensive collectibles and furnishings in their homes that were collected from around the world and on which they paid not one penny of duty - to say nothing of shipping costs.

All this was abetted by the White House Travel Office, which Foster was charged with investigating before his death, either by ignoring the transgressions of the White House press corps or because they accepted petty gratuities offered by journalists to overlook their activities.

In and of itself, all this may signify nothing. But taken in conjunction with all the other perks pertaining to the White House press corps, it amounts to a kind of corruption that renders these reporters as unfit to respond, as George Bush was in the famous presidential debate in Richmond, Va., when the president seemed at a loss for words when asked, in effect: How had the depressed economy affected him personally?

More important, if someone as wired to the system as Vince Foster could not understand or forgive this egregious conflict of interest when it came to reporting on the White House travel office, then certainly there can be little wonder about the journalists' loss of credibility with the general public.

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