I never met Vincent Foster, the lifelong friend of the President who took his own life. and I can't pretend to know what drove him to do what he did.

It's been reported that he was a perfectionist who couldn't cope with the intense pressures of life in the Washington fishbowl. He was said to have been distraught over the thought that he had failed his friend in handling the White House travel office affair and investing some of the President's nominees for top positions.

His reaction was extreme and could not have been anticipated. But he was right about one thing. Washington has become a very tough town, where political expediency all too often overrides human compassion and basic decency.

The S&L Example

I have witnessed this phenomenon time and time again in Washington's handling of banking matters, particularly in the aftermath of the S&L debacle.

The S&L mess was created by a series of monumental blunders by government policymakers. Thrifts is were not allowed to evolve during the 1960s and 1970s, when developments in the marketplace were eroding their franchise.

Then in the 1980s, when much of the industry was beyond repair, S&Ls were turned loose. without proper supervision, to grow with abandon.

Once the magnitude of the disaster was recognized, it would have been honest for elected officials to accept responsibility for having allowed it to happen. Honest, yes, but politically expedient, no.

Victims of the Crisis

So, we embarked on a search for scapegoats. Countless lives and careers have been damaged severely in the process.

I recently met up with an old friend who had an illustrious career as a banker before his bank got caught up in the crisis and failed. He is one of the most decent and honorable individuals it has been my pleasure to know.

He and his fellow directors were sued by the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. Rather than continuing to defend themselves at a cost of some $ 10,000 per director per month, they settled.

My friend lost virtually everything but his house. His story. I am sad to say, is far from unique.

There were scoundrels and crooks who plundered banks and thrifts during the 1980s, and I would lose not a minute of sleep over putting them behind bars. But we have gone far beyond what simple justice requires and supports.

Even career public servants have not been immune to unconscionable attacks. The Resolution Trust Corp. and the FDIC have been called upon to deal with the most massive and complex financial cleanup in history.

Underpaid, overworked, and extremely dedicated agency staffers have handled this monumental undertaking remarkably well, with a minimum if waste and abuse. Yet, they are routinely subjected to personal attack and scorn at every turn when what they deserve is our gratitude.

Blame Power

I have a theory about Washington. New York and other major cities have a lot of hard-charging people intent on making money. But there is an infinite amount of money to go around. You don't have to confiscate someone else's wealth to accumulate your own.

The coin of the realm in the Washington is political power, of which there is a finite supply. In order to gain power in Washington, you have to take it from someone. That, I believe, is what makes Washington a particularly cutthroat town.

If Vincent Foster's tragic death could remind us of the need to restore a measure of civility, compassion, and fairness in our nation's capital, perhaps some good will come of it.

Mr. Isaac, a former chairman of the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp., is managing director and chief executive of the Secura Group, a financial services consulting firm based in Washington.

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