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Lessons From Foster

WHAT should have been a sweet period of triumph for President Clinton this week has had a shadow of sadness across it.

The signing of his budget bill, representing a hard-won victory in the Congress, and the swearing-in of Ruth Bader Ginsburg, his widely hailed selection for the Supreme Court of the United States, occurred just as the US Park Police and the Justice Department issued their ruling in the July 20 death of White House Deputy Counsel Vincent Foster and released the text of the note found in his briefcase.

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Mr. Foster died by his own hand, investigators found. And the note reveals a man deeply troubled and unsure of his fitness to serve in such a high position.

President Clinton and the others at the White House are left to mourn a close friend and colleague.

The rest of us should consider what a case like this tells us about the demands we should allow government to place on individuals in public service. The Foster case shows the darker, more personalized side of the widespread public cynicism toward government whose more institutional expression came forth in the acrimonious budget debate.

A newspaper that had been so sharply critical of Mr. Foster, especially his handling of the White House travel office scandal, has defended itself by saying, in effect, that it can't afford to cover public figures on the assumption that they may be suicidal.

Yes, public officials need the kind of resilience that the president himself has shown along the way. But the charge in the Foster note, "Here ruining people is considered sport," wouldn't have stung so in Washington had it been utterly wide of the mark.

And, in the Washington pressure cooker no less than in any other workplace or family setting, people need to guard against impossibly scattered priorities and to be sure of having the time and the mental quiet in which to listen for signs of trouble among friends and colleagues.

Lifelong presidential friends like Foster can perform a great service of validation to the occupant of the White House; they can say, I knew him before there were consultants and spin doctors, and I saw in him a president.

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Mr. Clinton can repay some of the debt now owed by focusing his presidency on the few things that matter and by ensuring that his is a White House in which there is time to think and to listen.

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