The happy prisoner

Because of Whitewater and Kenneth Starr, she may not be seeing the outside world for the next several years, but Susan McDougal regrets almost nothing.

By Lori Leibovich
Published April 22, 1998 7:11PM (EDT)

Nineteen months and five prisons later, there is still no freedom in sight for Susan McDougal. Since November 1996, she has been shuffled between prisons in Arkansas, Texas and California. She currently resides with about 75 other women inmates at the Metropolitan Detention Center, a low-security facility in downtown Los Angeles for women who are awaiting trial or bail for crimes ranging from bank robbery to credit card fraud.

McDougal's alleged crimes stemmed primarily from a business relationship with the person who is now the president of the United States. Two years ago, she was charged with civil contempt, and then imprisoned, for refusing to answer questions before the Whitewater grand jury about a $300,000 loan she received from key Whitewater witness David Hale. Hale and Susan McDougal's late ex-husband, James McDougal, told the independent counsel that Bill Clinton, in person, pressured Hale to make a fraudulent loan.

McDougal insists she was pressured by Kenneth Starr to invent information that could implicate the Clintons and maintains that she would rather be behind bars than lie. Her critics are skeptical, noting that she has been granted immunity against self-incrimination in exchange for her testimony. They also wonder why, if the charges by Hale and her ex-husband are false, why she simply does not come out and say so.

For her refusal to answer questions, McDougal spent 18 months in prison. As soon as that sentence was complete, she began doing time on fraud and conspiracy charges in a Whitewater case involving her former husband and former Arkansas Gov. Jim Guy Tucker, who were also convicted. And when that's over, she is due to face charges that she embezzled money from the wife of classical music conductor Zubin Mehta.

If all that weren't enough, Starr has summoned McDougal to appear before the Whitewater grand jury again on Thursday, presumably to ask her once again the questions she has refused to answer. Still, she appears surprisingly upbeat as she sits for an interview in a conference room in the Metropolitan Detention Center. Dressed in a loose mauve top and hot-pink pants, McDougal's face is expertly made up and she is slim from a diet of raw vegetables.

Seated alongside her attorney, Mark Geragos, McDougal is chatty and charming when discussing her childhood in Arkansas, her fourth-grade radicalism and the friends she has made in prison. When the conversation turns to her late ex-husband, though, her face clouds and her voice strains. Mention independent counsel Kenneth Starr, and she becomes instantly enraged and tears begin to fall.

Do you agree with Hillary Clinton that there is a "right-wing conspiracy" to topple the Clinton presidency?

Yes, I do think it is a concerted effort. I don't think it takes a great many individuals to make a conspiracy -- I mean, according to the women who have been charged with it upstairs, it only takes two people. In my meetings with the independent counsel and my telephone conversations with the independent counsel, and when my ex-husband was cooperating with the independent counsel, I heard it time and time again: "Just give us anything to get the Clintons and you walk."

But isn't it a prosecutor's job to play tough and get the facts he believes are out there?

It was my understanding that an independent counsel was to investigate a crime and try to find out who was involved. This independent counsel found a man, and then tried to find a crime. And that's why I wouldn't have anything to do with it. This is America -- we don't start with a person and then try to find a crime. That is just totally wrong. Very early in the investigation it was made very clear to me that if I would make allegations concerning a personal relationship with the president, then things would go well for me.

But you could have been free months ago. You have a fianci and a family waiting for you. You could have avoided a trial altogether. So why not answer the independent counsel's questions and take the immunity?

First, I was offended that they would offer me global immunity in the first place. If they thought I was guilty, they shouldn't have offered it. If I am innocent, they sure shouldn't have offered it. So, I took that off the table immediately. It repulses me. If I am guilty, charge me. If I am not guilty, leave me alone.

Second, when I decided to do this I was at a certain point in my life. If I was in my 20s I probably would have taken immunity. But I was 43 years old. A man I had admired all of my life had turned his back on everything he believed in order to save himself from a long jail term because he was afraid of the independent counsel.

And you wanted to prove that you could stand up for yourself?

Well, I had spent much of my life pleasing other people -- especially my husband. He was older than me, he was infinitely brighter than me and I always did what he asked. Then this came up and it was just so clear. He told me, "I am going to back the David Hale story," and he said, "The bigger the lie you tell, the more people will believe it." I mean, he was inventing his story, and I was so appalled by that. Appalled that I had believed in this person. It just came to the point where I had had it.

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How much do you think your husband's manic depression contributed to these decisions you say he made?

His illness absolutely contributed. I mean, I have always championed him. But I know in the end, he was not what I thought he was. I know that he was a liar, he loved the attention that he was getting. This was not the man who I had married.

Was it that he was not taking his medications?

He wasn't taking the lithium for the manic depression at all because it made him too calm, and he didn't like it. And he was taking
anti-depressants to kick up the high end of the manic phase. He was going a thousand miles an hour. The morning he testified at the trial, I went to his attorney, and I said, "Please don't put Jim on the stand today. He is drugged out. I talked to him at breakfast and he was talking so fast, I couldn't even hear the words he was saying." I said, "He isn't capable today." And they put him on the stand anyway. I mean his illness was a
huge contributor.

How did you feel when you heard that he died?

It was awful. I don't have the words to describe it and I am usually pretty descriptive. There is no closure and it hurts that I will never get to talk to him again. In one sense, I think he was always lost to me because he was ill; he wouldn't be sane again -- not in his lifetime. But in this other way, I had always hoped I'd be able to talk with him. And the last words that he said to me were very angry. That doesn't make me feel very good.

What were those last words?

Jim said, "This is going to be fun. You and I are going to be witnesses against the Clintons, we're going to hang out together, we'll go to all these hearings and we'll slaughter them. This will be a good thing for the two of us to be back together again as a team." He was just trying to make it seem like it would be a fun thing. Then he started saying, "If you don't do this, you're going to go to jail for a long time. And they are going to get you."

I put him off for a while. It was very hard for me to say no to him. I would say, "Let me think about it." Finally, he called me and I told him I couldn't do it. He said, "You're going to pay for this! And I don't want to hear any more! I'm tired of your Pollyanna ways and your Pollyanna thinking!" That made me mad. I said, "Well, I'm sorry, I just can't do it." Then he yelled, "Well then I don't ever want to speak to you again!" Then he hung up.

In a New Yorker article before he died, Jim hinted that you had an affair with President Clinton.

It is absolutely untrue.

Twenty years ago you were doing commercials for your husband's land developments in Arkansas. At the time, he was quite a political player. Did you consider yourself a political person?

I was always a political person. In the fourth grade I got in a terrible argument with my teacher about communism because I really thought it was a great thing. I thought everybody should turn in everything they owned and we should share. And my teacher, at this little public school in Camden, Ark., was appalled. She said, "I work hard for my money. I'm not turning my things in!" Then a group of girls came to me at school one day and said they'd prayed for me at church. And I said, "Why?" And they said, "We know you have these communist tendencies and we consider that ungodly." It started early for me -- this idea of trying to fix everything.

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Now you're in a fix, courtesy of Kenneth Starr. Have you ever met him?

I've never spoken to Ken Starr directly, but to people in his office.

What was it like being questioned by the independent counsel's office?

At my trial, several witnesses were asked that question and to a person, they said they had felt intimidated, harassed, threatened. And you've heard Monica Lewinsky's mother's story of intimidation. I'm not easily intimidated. I had two lawyers with me at my first meeting with them. I went in with the idea that I would tell them everything I knew, that I would look at documents, I would answer everything and I would get some sense of what they thought the crime was. That's all I wanted from that first meeting -- just tell me what the crime is, and I'll tell you what I know.

But that didn't happen?

In the first seconds of the meeting -- I mean we had just gotten there -- they said, "We're going to offer you global immunity." They said they had talked to my California prosecutor [regarding the embezzlement charges] and that those charges would be handled. They said they wouldn't charge me with anything in Whitewater. They told me that all they wanted was a proffer [an outline of what would be offered as testimony under oath] against Bill or Hillary Clinton.

And you said?

I said: "I don't need global immunity because I'm not guilty of anything. I didn't do anything wrong in Whitewater, and I'm not guilty in California. You can forget the global immunity. But I will tell you what I know." And they said, "No. We want a proffer. And the proffer has to be against them."

Then what happened?

We had already determined before we walked in there that if
they weren't going to let me just talk to them, we were going to walk out. The press was waiting outside and the independent counsel asked me to leave out the back of the building because they didn't want me talking to the press. I said, "No. I am going to go out there and tell them that you offered me global immunity for crimes if I would just give you something." If I am
guilty of those crimes, why offer me immunity? It is just wrong. From the very first words out of their mouths, the tone was wrong, everything was wrong.

You don't sound as if you were particularly intimidated.

I grew up in a household with an Army sergeant. He is a one-man bulldozer, and I am not easily intimidated. And besides that, I had no belief that a crime had been committed. None. It would be like the police calling you in for questioning on a murder when you knew you had nothing to do with it -- you would go in pretty confident.

So how do your parents feel about you being in here?

No one wanted me to go to jail. The first real battle that I
had was with my mom and dad. I sat down with my whole family and
said, "I have come to a decision. It is clear in my mind that I am
going to have to go to jail. I just want all of you to be OK with that, because I don't want any guilt when I go." So, we battled it out. We are a very vocal family -- screaming, crying, beating of chests -- you can't imagine. My mother was weeping.

I have a younger brother who is a minister, and he really didn't want me to go to jail. I was sitting on the floor at my mother's knees, talking to her, in her face, trying to reassure her. She said, "Don't you know anything you could give them?" I said, "Mom, I swear I don't." At that point, my mother, who is Belgian, said, "This is just like it was in Belgium during the war, where people were threatened to turn Jews in, to turn in neighbors."

David Hale made a $300,000 loan to you, and claimed that you know Bill Clinton pressured him to make it. How well do you know David Hale?

I remember seeing him twice in my life. The first time he was in a local election race, giving a speech. I thought he was a nice, quiet guy. The second time I saw him was when I went in to sign the loan document. He gave testimony at my trial, and said, "To my recollection, I have seen her for maybe 20 minutes of my life." He didn't remember me. I am having more of a conversation with you than I ever did with him.

There have been stories that Hale allegedly received payments from the anti-Clinton Arkansas Project. He has denied it. What do you think?

When he went before the [Whitewater] grand jury I knew he was lying so he would get his sentence reduced. I could see that this was a desperate man, and he was doing what he thought he needed to do to protect his family. When I heard these latest allegations, I thought, Hale's ability to con is just remarkable. He is walking around out there now, and I am still in jail, so he's better than I am at convincing people of things! I am not terribly surprised about the allegations.

Mark Geragos: Hale was instrumental in Susan's thought process when she went to jail in the first place. She figured, if I am going to go in front of the grand jury, and they have already vouched for David Hale, and I know David Hale is lying, then how are they ever going to accept what I know to be the truth?

If Starr's case against you is based on a lie, what do you think his motives are?

I believe -- and this is something I've never said before -- that Ken Starr is being paid to do this. I think the Pepperdine job was a payoff. This is just a belief of mine, I don't know that. But no man would do the things he's done without some gain at the end. And that is why I hold him in such absolute loathing.

What is it like now in prison, being with all women?

I had never lived with women before this. I grew up with all these brothers. I never wanted to live with women but now I've gotten to the point where I'm starting to feel some affinity towards women. It's good to have women friends.

You had never had women friends in the past?

I married Jim when I was young, and we didn't have friends really. We had business friends like the Clintons and the Tuckers. But we spent most of our time together. After I divorced Jim I got into a slump of working and then schlepping home. So this is the first time I've communed with women.

Does it ever get hairy in here?

Oh yes. There are fistfights. There are black eyes, broken noses, broken bones. Women can be fairly violent when they are enclosed. When I got to federal prison and met women who are facing 20, 30 years or life in jail -- it was unbelievable to me because these women are savable. I've rarely met a women in prison that I felt was so lost that she couldn't redeem herself or find a place in society. I'm a mother figure to some of the younger girls and it's a good feeling because I don't have any children of my own. It makes me happy.

Lori Leibovich

Lori Leibovich is a contributing editor at Salon and the former editor of the Life section.

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