The Strange Case of Christopher Ruddy

Reading between the lines.
Oct. 19 1997 3:30 AM

The Strange Case of Christopher Ruddy

And the crime against logic being passed off as a book.

The Strange Death of Vincent Foster: An Investigation

By Christopher Ruddy

The Free Press; 316 pages; $25

Illustration by Charlie Powell

On the off chance that you haven't followed every twist and turn of the case, there are two ways to reassure yourself that former Deputy White House Counsel Vincent Foster killed himself in Fort Marcy Park. One is to read Whitewater Independent Counsel Kenneth Starr's just-released report on the subject--a briskly efficient 114-page document that makes an already overwhelming case for suicide about as close to airtight as you can get. The other is to read Christopher Ruddy's new book, The Strange Death of Vincent Foster. Ruddy, of course, is the Inspector Clouseau of the Foster case--a determined, if bumbling, former New York Post reporter who has virtually single-handedly spawned a cottage industry of conspiracy buffs dedicated to the proposition that a foul and monstrous cover-up surrounds the circumstances of Foster's death.

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Financed by a cranky right-wing philanthropist, Richard Mellon Scaife, Ruddy's repeated bromides about the Foster case have been republished in newspaper ads across the country; his sheer persistence has led some casual observers to conclude he might be on to something. The Strange Death, published by The Free Press, a division of Simon & Schuster, is endorsed as "serious and compelling" by former FBI Director William Sessions. In the New York Times Book Review, National Review senior editor Richard Brookhiser chides political journalists for failing to pursue Ruddy's many "unanswered questions" about the case.

Don't worry, when it comes to how Foster died, there aren't any--or none that matter. Ruddy's book--and the entire movement he has helped create--is utterly preposterous. Turgidly written and dense with 534 footnotes and seven appendixes, Ruddy's plodding book repeatedly confuses the evidence and chases after scores of imaginary holes in the official verdict--without ever positing an alternative scenario that makes the least bit of sense.

To fully understand why the "debate" over Foster's death is so phony, it helps to review a few of the raw, incontrovertible (you would think) facts. Foster left his White House office for the last time at around 1 p.m. on July 20, 1993. About five hours later, his supine body was discovered by a secluded Civil War cannon near the Potomac River, a bullet wound through his mouth, his right thumb trapped in the trigger of an antique .38-caliber revolver, gun-shot residue on his hand, and blood oozing from the back of his head. There were no signs of a struggle; his sports jacket was later found folded over the front seat of his Honda Accord in a nearby parking lot. In the days that followed, friends and family members described Foster as distraught over the demands of his job and suffering from clear signs of depression. Starr adds new details: Just four days before his death, he reports, Foster broke down in tears over dinner with his wife and talked of resigning. On the day before he died he phoned his family doctor in Little Rock, Ark. According to the doctor's typewritten notes, published in Starr's report for the first time, Foster complained of stress, anorexia, and insomnia, and received a prescription for Desyrel, an antidepressant.

It is Ruddy's contention that none of this should necessarily be believed; the doctor, the widow, the friends, the Park Police officers that found the body, the coroner who performed the autopsy--all may well be "complicit" in a cover-up. But why? As far as the Park Police goes, Ruddy argues, they mistakenly rushed to the judgment that Foster's death was a suicide and are concealing the fact that they failed to follow proper police procedures by considering alternatives, such as murder and/or the possibility that Foster died somewhere else and his body was "moved" to Fort Marcy by an unidentified group of secret conspirators. The argument begs certain questions, such as: Who were these conspirators? What possible motive would they have had? Why deposit Foster's body in a public park? (At least the Mafia drops its victims in rivers.) And most curious of all, how exactly could this dastardly crime have been carried off? Consider: There were at least a half-dozen people known to have visited the park that afternoon. It was broad daylight. Foster was 6 feet 4 inches tall and weighed 200 pounds. To have transported the deputy White House counsel's lumpy dead body 200 yards from the parking lot to the cannon and have nobody notice would have been quite an achievement. Wouldn't they have at least waited until nightfall?

Ruddy makes no stab at guessing who the criminals are. But as he plows his way through hundreds of pages of witness statements, he thinks he has discovered what they were wearing: orange vests! This is actually not a joke. Ruddy dwells ominously on the equivocal testimony of a Fairfax County rescue worker, Todd Hall, who initially told the police he thought he might have seen someone in an orange or red vest in the woods. Hall later conceded it may have been nothing more than a car or truck in the distance. Still, Ruddy smells a rat. He speculates darkly that Hall's possible sighting was evidence of a suspicious group of orange-vest-clad body-movers in the park that day masquerading as Park Police "volunteers."

There is, of course, much more about Ruddy's book that is equally absurd--or simply wrong. Like his fellow conspiracy nuts, Ruddy argues that there was too little blood in Fort Marcy for Foster to have been killed there. In fact, as Starr makes clear, when Foster's body was turned over, three Park Police officers reported a pool of blood underneath his head and new, wet blood pouring out of his nose. The first independent counsel, Robert Fiske, is chastised for failing to identify supposedly mysterious white carpet fibers found on Foster's clothing. Starr has: The carpet fibers are the same as those found in Foster's home. Ruddy and other critics have questioned where the .38-caliber revolver found in Foster's hand came from. According to Starr's report, Foster's widow, sister, and two of his children recall that Foster inherited a similar handgun from his late father in 1991 and that he took it to Washington two years later, keeping it in a bedroom closet. When Lisa Foster ran upstairs to look for it on the night of her husband's death, the weapon was missing. Are they all lying?

In the days before his death, Foster was obsessing about the White House travel-office affair, and apparently feared continued investigations would focus attention on Hillary Clinton's role in the firings. That almost certainly helps to account for White House stonewalling over the documents left behind in his office--an action that did much to fuel suspicions about what secrets Foster might have known. But that the man killed himself is beyond dispute. It would be comforting to think that Starr's report--reaching precisely the same conclusion as four previous government investigations--will finally end the matter. Of course, it won't. On his continually updated Web site, the indomitable Ruddy charges on, picking away at Starr's report and darkly suggesting that the Whitewater prosecutor, with his impeccable Republican credentials, has joined the cover-up. It must be heady stuff taking on such giant conspiracies--and frightening too. Can Ruddy be sure the men with orange vests won't soon be coming for him?

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