Excerpt from The Washington Post, Sunday August 1, 1993, p. C5, editorial section, twelve days after the discovery of the body of Vincent Foster, Jr. in Fort Marcy Park, Virginia. The author is national political reporter (later Style Section editor) David Von Drehle.
The Muse in the News
I Confess–T. S. Eliot Matters More to Me Than the Thomases
When I was a college student majoring in English literature, it was customary to ask English majors: “Well. And what do you intend to do with that?”
The customary answer was law school. The idea, see, was that a lawyer might benefit in a fiduciary [sic, he means “pecuniary”] way, from having a way with words. Studying poetry was tolerable if you were bent on making words your weapon.
Me, I liked the sound of the poetry, and more than that, the truth in it. Good poems seemed to say important things, memorably, briefly, precisely. “Emotion recollected in tranquility,” in Wordsworth’s famous phrase, and by emotion I think he meant life, distilled; and by tranquility I think he meant reflection. Life distilled upon reflection. “All our knowledge is, ourselves to know,” as Alexander Pope put it, in a poem.
Poetry–at least the way it was studied in backwater colleges a dozen years ago–is rather out of fashion now. I suppose it always has been.
Still, the odd, antique notion that poets deliver large and universal truths in small and disciplined containers has never really left me. In fact, it has been refreshed recently as I realized that certain awful, perplexing events of the front pages had already been experienced, and understood; reflected on and precisely expressed; by long-dead poets.
Vincent Foster, Jr. was a handsome, slender, prosperous lawyer; a friend of the president of the United States. He was a high-ranking official in the White House; smart, accomplished–near perfect, it seemed. His apparent suicide flummoxed and unsettled us more ordinary folks. How could someone so marvelous kill himself? I was turning this mystery over in my head when, quite suddenly, I realized that I knew Foster’s story already.
The poet was Edward [sic, Edwin] Arlington Robinson:
Whenever Richard Cory went down town
We people on the pavement looked at him:
He was a gentleman from sole to crown,
Clean favored, and imperially slim,
And he was always quietly arrayed,
And he was always human when he talked;
But still he fluttered pulses when he said,
“Good morning,” and he glittered when he walked,
And he was rich–yes, richer than a king–
And admirably schooled in every grace;
In fine, we thought he was everything
To make us wish that we were in his place.
So on we worked, and waited for the light,
And went without the meat, and cursed the bread;
And Richard Cory, one calm summer night,
Went home and put a bullet in his head.
Thousands of lines of newspaper type have been spent on Vincent Foster’s tragic death. I don’t think any one of us put it any clearer.
And this was one of the Washington Post reporters who was supposed to be looking into what happened, one of the sets of eyes and ears of the public, as it were. Instead, he gave us this. So I was immediately moved to write him a letter, which I hand delivered to The Post the next day. My office in the city was only a few blocks away.
Dear Mr. Von Drehle:
I share with you your lament over the decline of the study of poetry in our nation’s institutions of higher learning, even in the “backwater colleges” such as the one you attended a short while ago. I recently penned a little four liner which, for want of a better title I called, generically, “Literary Allusion,” and then I tried it out on a wide sampling of friends and acquaintances. Graduates of Harvard, Princeton, California at Berkeley, and Georgetown, all holders of advanced degrees, failed to recognize the reference. The one thing they have in common is that they are under forty years of age. Virtually every educated person over forty recognized it instantly. It goes as follows:
Truth has a beauty all its own,
It’s something that I’ve always known;
The obverse one can also learn
From a finely crafted urn.
As an English major, albeit obviously one under forty, you no doubt recognize the reference to “Ode on a Grecian Urn” by John Keats, and from your article I gather that you would appreciate the mode of expression. Poetry does have a power and a seductiveness that goes far beyond the best prose. When “Country Joe” McDonald wrote, “Well it’s one, two, three what are we fighting for? Don’t ask me I don’t give a damn, next stop is Vietnam,” he probably did more to undermine the U.S. war effort than all the learned essays in all the nation’s newspapers and magazines. Poetry, however, should not be used as a substitute for rational thought, and it is not, by virtue of its supposed closer affinity to truth, admissible as evidence in a court of law, and I think we should be grateful for that.
Actually, you didn’t have to inform your readers that you are a college graduate of the 80s. Your defensiveness about your “impractical” major had already given you away. When Vince Foster and I were students at the “backwater college” of Davidson, we simply didn’t think that way. The idealism of the era had been very well captured in the inaugural address of our young president. But then, not quite three months into Vince’s freshman year, John Kennedy was shot to death, and this country has not been quite the same since.
Because I am a product of the same era, and the same education, and, dare we say it, the same moral and religious guidance as Vince Foster, I think I might have somewhat better insight into his mysterious demise than the poet, Edward (sic) Arlington Robinson, whom you quote so approvingly. A Davidson man (many years would pass before it went coed), we were told, was special. We had the strictest honor code in the country. Two years of English, two years of ROTC, and TWO YEARS OF RELIGION were required. We were also required to attend church on Sunday and three college-wide assemblies a week. The assemblies often had a moral or religious theme. An old-fashioned sense of honor, of responsibility, and of probity was inculcated into us. One was not to cope with adversity by feeling sorry for oneself. Vince, I believe, majored in psychology, but the department was very small, and the creed of feel-good self-actualization was yet as foreign to us as were the jungles of Southeast Asia.
If I may telescope time a little bit, I can see Vince Foster departing Davidson for Washington like A. E. Housman’s Shropshire lad leaving home for London:
That morning half a shire away
So many an honest fellow’s fist
Had well-nigh wrung it from my wrist
Hand, said I, since now we part
From fields and men we know by heart,
For strangers’ faces, strangers’ lands,–
Hand, you have held true fellows’ hands.
Be clean then; rot before you do
A thing they’d not believe of you.
Vince Foster had a wife and three children. He was just getting started in a job in which he could do a great deal of good for his country. He was advising the president on personal and legal (that is to say LAW ENFORCEMENT) matters. To conclude without any persuasive evidence that he quailed before these responsibilities to the point of dying by his own hand seriously dishonors his memory according to the code that was impressed upon me and my cohorts.
Even the psychologists would agree, I believe, that the natural and normal reaction of a true friend to the mysterious death of a stalwart comrade would be to suspect that he was the victim of foul play. One hardly shows proper concern for the feelings of the widow and other survivors by leaping, with unseemly haste, to the conclusion that Vince Foster did himself in over things that, from all we have been told, look like trivia.
Until at least one bit of evidence has been revealed that is clearly and persuasively inconsistent with murder–as opposed to the bushels that seem inconsistent with suicide–you may forgive me if I prefer to believe that Vince Foster died heroically, not ignominiously. Is it not entirely conceivable, even likely, from the evidence that is before us and from what we know of his character, as opposed to his state of mind, that he was killed over an issue of principle or over a law enforcement matter? As far as the state of mind is concerned, just as with the pivotal question of the ownership of the gun, there is no witness who compares to the wife, and we are told that no one from the police was able to talk with her FOR EIGHT DAYS! [sic, it was nine]*
But you have told one and all that you know Vince Foster’s story already because of a poem that impressed you. Might I suggest that you replace it with one that, at this point, seems more apropos and one that keeps Vince Foster’s sterling reputation intact:
Mourning in America
We’re mourning in America
With pain too deep for weeping;
We’re mourning in America,
Awake but almost sleeping.
We’re orphaned in America,
Victims of a plot;
We’re orphaned in America,
A good man has been shot.
We’re lying in America
On beds that we have made;
We’re lying in America,
The price is being paid.
We’re choking in America
On things we can’t digest;
They’re joking in America:
The White House did its best.
America, America, O my poor America,
Your beautiful and spacious skies
Are looking now quite otherwise,
And at the shore the shining sea
Laps upon iniquity.
We’re sinking in America,
Sinking till we’re drowned,
While winking at America
Beelzebub is crowned.
Class of ‘65
Since I wrote that letter we have learned a lot more about the Foster case, and I have learned a lot more about what’s going on around us, prompting two more related poems:
The Richard Cory Effect
Now, let us sing of the smooth Richard Cory,
The rich man in Edwin A. Robinson’s story,
Who went home for no reason anyone could explain
And fired a small bullet right into his brain.
This quaint little tale has been put to ill use
By media defenders of power abuse.
Placing their shroud over obvious crime,
They blithely refer to the Robinson rhyme.
The message the public is supposed to receive
Is that no one can ever know what to believe,
So right-minded citizens should not even try
To challenge a verdict received from on high.
You know what bothers me most of all
Is those guys that never learn how to play ball.
I’ve known some real losers, but I think that the worst
Was that bum with the plant up on Fifty-First,
Good looking fellow, all polished and slim,
The jerk believed nothing could happen to him,
He thought all his money was enough to protect him,
His stupid self-confidence finally wrecked him.
What he didn’t know was our guy was on top,
We had every pol and we had every cop.
The suckers don’t know that we nailed him yet,
We had every hack at the News and Gazette.
We hired a good hit man, and the boss didn’t know it,
But I even sprung for a slick-writing poet.
As soon as the boss seen how good that it went
He called it the very best dime that we spent.
Now youse have all heard my gospel-truth story.
Too bad what we done to that slick Richard Cory.
I have not shared these last two poems with Mr. Von Drehle. Should I?
*Actually, it is not true that the police were turned away from the Foster house and that the police did not interview the family on the night of the day he died. In my letter to Von Drehle I was relying upon this statement in a Washington Post article of July 30, 1993: “Police who arrived at Foster’s house the night of the death were turned away after being told Lisa Foster and family members were too distraught to talk. Investigators were not allowed to interview her until yesterday. ‘That was a matter between her lawyers and the police,’ [White House counselor David] Gergen said, and the White House ‘had no role in it.'”
Whether it originated with Gergen or with The Post, the substance of the assertion is false. We learned a year later from testimony before Congress by the Park Police that they were not turned away and that they did interview Lisa Foster and other family members. It also came to light that Gergen, himself, was at the house and therefore had to know that what he ostensibly told The Post was not true.
Originally published March 9, 1998 (now with updated hyperlink and footnote added)
David Von Drehle, we gather, is very much an organization man. But what is his organization? If you gave the obvious answer, The Washington Post, your scope is too narrow. The following quote from the British journalist, Ambrose Evans-Pritchard, more likely gets us closer to the right answer:
The Washington Post ceased to be a newspaper of liberal activism a long time ago, if it ever really was. “Its anti- establishment image is one of the most absurd myths in journalism today,” said Jeff Cohen, from Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting in New York, a liberal group that monitors the Post closely and accuses it of an incestuous relationship with the governing elite. “It has been an instrument of state power for many years.”
From his Wikipedia page we find that Von Drehle left The Post some time ago to become editor-at-large at another longstanding “instrument of state power,” Time magazine. Explaining his job history, Von Drehle says, “I like to change gears every four or five years.” But has he really been changing gears…or organizations? The following is from the 1987 book, Cloak and Gown, Scholars in the Secret War, 1939-1961, by Yale history professor, Robin Winks:
In the fall of 1942 R&A (Research and Analysis of the CIA precursor OSS) began to contract out research projects to specialized institutes, first at Stanford and the University of California at Berkeley, and soon after to the University of Denver, Columbia, Princeton, and Yale. No one at the universities appears to have protested these ties, and university presidents and professors courted contractors and consultantships, at times going well beyond the supplying of analysis and information, as when Cal Tech manufactured rockets for the army. (p. 79)
Of the universities listed, there is one that stands out for its lack of prominence. It is the one place where the OSS and later the CIA would be a very big fish in a small pond. It also happens to be the “backwater college” that is the alma mater of David Von Drehle. We are talking about the University of Denver. Condoleezza Rice also received her Ph.D. there, where she studied under Madeleine Albright’s father, Josef Korbel.