'The Woman Who Wouldn't Talk'
With Susan McDougal
Wednesday, Jan. 15, 2003; noon ET
The scandals of the Clinton administration seem like a very long time ago, nearly eclipsed by controversial presidential elections, terrorist attacks and looming U.S. involvement overseas. Yet the tenure of Independent Counsel Kenneth W. Starr brought dramatic changes to the lives of everyone involved -- not the least to Susan McDougal, who along with her former husband James McDougal, was a business partner to the Clintons in the real estate land deal gone bad. Susan McDougal served the maximum 18-month sentence for civil contempt for refusing to testify in Starr's Whitewater investigation, in addition to 3 1/2 months for a fraud conviction.
Why didn't she cooperate? How did her time in prison affect her life? McDougal tells her story, from childhood to jail, in a new book, "The Woman Who Wouldn't Talk: Why I Refused to Testify Against the Clintons & What I Learned in Jail," (Carroll & Graf, 2003). She was online to talk about her experiences on Wednesday, Jan. 15.
McDougal joins washingtonpost.com in advance of her upcoming visit to Washington, D.C., where she will appear on NPR's "Diane Rehm Show" and CNN's "Crossfire." She will be signing books at the Barnes & Noble in Georgetown on Tuesday, Jan. 21, at 7:30 p.m. ET
The transcript follows.
Editor's Note: Washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Live Online discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions.
washingtonpost.com: Good afternoon, Ms. McDougal, and welcome. What are you hoping to accomplish with this book? Why did you want to tell this story?
Susan McDougal: It took a long time to process everything that happened -- in fact, years before I was really wanting to write the book. It occurred to me that writing, especially about the women in jail, would give me a platform to continue that work.
Harrisburg, Pa.: You went to prison because you refused to lie. People wanted you to lie because they had their own agenda, and you were imprisoned for refusing to lie. Is this a proper summation of your experience? Looking back, in retrospect, are you glad you did what you did? In the long run, would you have felt worst if you gave in the those who wanted you to lie?
Susan McDougal: Yes, I really am glad that I took the stance that I did. For two reasons. First, I don't think it conscionable to lie about someone else in order to get leniency for yourself. Second, the almost-two years that I spent in jail changed my life forever. I think I'm a better person for it.
washingtonpost.com: You went to jail for not cooperating with the Starr investigation. What did Ken Starr's investigators want you to say? Was there a script you were supposed to follow?
Susan McDougal: There was a judge in Little Rock, Ark., named David Hale, who ran a small business investment corporation that borrowed money from the federal government. In the spring of 1992, his office was raided, and it was discovered that he had been stealing millions of dollars -- in fact, faking the loans and keeping the money for himself. At the time of his being charged, he went to the U.S. Attorney and told them that if they would give him a deal and give him less time in jail and strike a bargain, he would give them damaging information about presidential candidate Bill Clinton.
The story was that candidate Clinton had come to him and told him that he needed $300,000 for his campaign, and that Susan McDougal would come to borrow the money and give it to him, because it was illegal for the campaign to borrow money from this small business investment corporation. He would testify that that occurred if they would give him leniency. The U.S. Attorney did not believe his story, and subsequently charged him. David Hale then went to the media with the story, and it still went nowhere. Then Clinton was elected president, and Vince Foster killed himself. There was a clamor for an independent counsel to be appointed, because of all the rumors that were circulating. Then they appointed an independent counsel. A year later, he gave a press conference. He said he found that Vince Foster had committed suicide, and he could find no wrongdoing in connection with Whitewater. That independent counsel was fired, and Kenneth Starr was appointed. David Hale then took his story to Kenneth Starr, who believed him.
And they wanted me to back up that story, which was absolutely untrue, and had not believed by any credible investigating body prior to the investigation by Kenneth Starr.
washingtonpost.com: There's been speculation that you didn't want to talk about Whitewater because of your relationship with the president and your personal feelings for him. How do you respond?
Susan McDougal: I think this question must have come from a man, because no woman would ever ask if you would give up two years of your life, wound your entire family, live in isolation, because of a relationship that you had had with someone 10 years before and had never spoken to since. At the time of my separation from Jim McDougal in 1985, Jim kept his friends, the Clintons, and I kept my friends. I never saw them or spoke to them again until the Whitewater trial 10 years later.
So this theory, which I think came from the twisted, sex-crazed minds of the men of the independent counsel, Kenneth Starr and Hickman Ewing, who first asked me to lie and say that I had such a relationship. And then, not being able to find any financial transactions that were illegal, decided they would go after Clinton with sex. Unfortunately, any woman living in Arkansas of a certain age has had to refute this gossip. It makes me furious. No woman in her right mind would do such a thing. Not to mention that I had a fiance the entire time.
I wouldn't lie about anybody. If the person had been Bill Smith, I still would have felt it was absolutely wrong to lie for leniency.
Bethesda, Md.: With prison officials putting you in isolation "for your protection," were you afraid?
Susan McDougal: The only time I was really afraid was when they moved me. I was moved seven times to five different states. When you're moved, you're literally taken with the clothes on your back. If you have letters, addresses, clean underwear -- all of that is taken from you. And you're taken where you do not know, your family doesn't know where you are for a week or 10 days, your calling privileges are not instated for a week to two weeks. You are literally in limbo, and no one knows where you are. You also don't know the situation you're going into. Will it be violent? Because when they would move me, they would threaten me with saying things like, "Are you sure you're not ready to cooperate? You're really going into a hellhole this time."
Arlington, Va.: Do you know who made the decisions to have you transferred from jail to jail?
Susan McDougal: In the course of my last trial, Mark Geragos, my attorney, called to the stand an investigator for the independent counsel's office, who admitted under oath that they were involved in my conditions of incarceration. It was no surprise to me, because I had been told by every administrator of every facility that it was out of their hands how I was to be held -- whether in isolation, or in murderer's row, or in lockdown.
Washington, D.C.: Phil Donahue, the liberal talk show host, recently said in an interview that he feared for his family and pets if he crossed Bill Clinton during the '92 campaign. Donahue joined a long list of people who have expressed fear for their lives -- including witnesses, lovers, victims and reporters -- if they crossed the Clintons.
Has it ever occurred to you that the reason you were moved around from prison to prison and kept in isolation some times was to keep you from meeting the same fate as your ex-husband did, and others -- like Jerry Parks who died under questionable circumstances?
It may not seem like it to you now, but part of Ken Starr's job was to try keep people like you from danger. In your case, he succeeded.
Susan McDougal: (Laughter.)
An innocent person has no reason to try to harm a witness. Only someone who is guilty, and that guilt is known to the potential witness, would have the need to silence them. In order to force me to cooperate with his tainted investigation, Kenneth Starr made my two years in jail as difficult as possible in order to break me, so that I would have no choice but to lie to save myself. End of story.
Gaithersburg, Md.: Since the news I've read about your case has come principally from the political press, I never really understood what Whitewater was about until I read a description in an investment book.
What I understand is, you and your now-deceased husband convinced the Clintons to buy "investment" property for twice what it had just recently cost you and was actually worth. Your husband said this could be done with other people's money (i.e., loans). What most of us know about the case stems from the pyramidical nature of the house of cards you set up.
A lot of Clinton supporters respect and admire you for having stood up to a witch hunt, but at its root weren't you just trying to rip them off?
Susan McDougal: Good question.
I really think it has taken me years to figure out all of the twists and turns of Jim McDougal and my finances. There is certainly criticism that I can understand, and probably heap upon myself more than anyone else ever could, for not taking a more active part in discovering and in doing better with that. I can only tell you that I believed Jim McDougal to be an honorable and honest person, both personally and in business. And the fact that he was less than that is a very hard thing for me, to this day.
Washington, D.C.: Do you blame your ex-husband for your jail time?
Susan McDougal: I was in jail for federal contempt, because I refused to lie for Kenneth Starr. So although I have many issues regarding my relationship with my ex-husband, probably blame being part of that, the fact that he died begging the independent counsel to live up to their agreement that they would place him in a medical prison facility if he would only lie for them makes it extremely hard for me to feel anger toward him.
I was released after two months for the conviction for fraud -- of which I was innocent.
Huntington Beach, Calif.: What do you think about your ex-husband, Jim McDougal's death in prison? Do you think it's possible he was murdered? Tell us your thoughts on the contents of Jim McDougal's book.
Susan McDougal: I haven't read Jim McDougal's book. It is still too hard for me to face the fact that a man that I greatly admired and loved and trusted would lose his dignity and his honor in the way that it happened. I know the circumstances of Jim McDougal's death, which are as follows. He was approached by a guard and asked to give a urine sample, which is pretty common in the prison system. Jim had a prostate problem, as well as numerous other health problems, which is why he asked the independent counsel to place him in a prison hospital, which they agreed to do if he would lie for him. Because of his prostate problem, Jim could not urinate on demand. Therefore, he was placed in an isolation cell, which is pretty barbaric. It is a cell that has absolutely nothing in it, so that if you try to urinate and flush it away or hide it, you would not be able to do that. And the guard comes continuously to get your urine to see if you've been taking drugs. Jim was not given his medication because he was being searched for drugs. He specifically asked for his nitroglycerin for his heart condition, and they would not give it to him. He died of a heart attack, naked on a cold stone prison floor. His calls to the independent counsel as he sat in this isolation cell, went unreturned. I often tell people to be very careful of the deals you make in life, and especially those with whom you make them, because Jim made the deal with the independent counsel, he told me, so that he would not die in prison.
Washington, D.C.: What precisely made you feel that Starr wanted you to testify falsely? What did you know about their intentions or the grand jury process that made you take the extraordinary step of not even being willing to show up?
Susan McDougal: Oh, I showed up. But I refused to speak to them. It was a very long road to that decision. In fact, I was recently asked by a reporter why I didn't testify, and I laughingly said, "That's the whole damn book." And they quoted it. And it truly did take me, I guess years, of meeting with the independent counsel, watching their meetings with Jim McDougal, to understand that they were not interested in hearing the truth.
Vienna, Va.: You state that you went to prison because you refused to "lie." Judges are not in the business of ordering people to lie, especially when they are under oath, as you were. You were ordered to tell what you knew, refused to do it, and paid the price for it. What evidence do you have that you were ordered to "lie" as you put it? If in fact this was indeed the case (and we have only your statements here on this program to indicate it), then it would have been to your advantage to expose it. While it is true that the Clintons got into enough trouble on their own even without your testimony, perhaps your testimony would have made a difference at the impeachment hearings.
Susan McDougal: Thank goodness that there were witnesses to the meetings that I had with the independent counsel to verify that they wanted me to lie -- my attorney, Bobby McDaniel, and Claudia Riley, who attended the meetings with us -- two meetings where they pretty specifically asked me to lie.
Washington, D.C.: What is the nicest thing you could say about Ken Starr? If forced to come up with something?
Susan McDougal: He takes out his trash.
Washington, D.C.: Susan, What would you say to Ken Starr if you saw him today?
Susan McDougal: Probably the same thing that I said to Hickman Ewing, his chief of staff in Little Rock, Ark.: What rock did you crawl out from under? I hold you absolutely responsible for the death of Jim McDougal. His crimes did not warrant the death penalty.
Washington, D.C.: What's your opinion of the Clintons now? Are you in any sort of contact? Were you surprised by the pardon?
Susan McDougal: I am not in contact with the Clintons -- I have not spoken with them. I was overjoyed and grateful for the pardon. I know it must have been a hard thing for him to do, because of all of the false allegations surrounding the investigation. And I think he was a great president, as does the majority of the country.
washingtonpost.com: How have you been supporting yourself? Have you gotten any help from friends of the Clintons or political supporters in Arkansas?
Susan McDougal: (Laughter.)
Friends, family who support my work, $100 speech fees. I live on almost nothing. I don't own anything, so life is pretty simple.
washingtonpost.com: But even owning nothing, just everyday living costs money. So how exactly do you live?
Susan McDougal: I get very small fees from colleges and universities for speeches -- I have gotten $1,000 before for a speech at a university. And my long-suffering family [helps support]. My brother, Bill Henley, pretty much supports my women in jail program.
I live in a small town in Arkansas. And I live about as simply as anyone in a small town could. The only industry in town is closed down, the town is in terrible shape, and I think everyone here is suffering economically. I probably need to get a job. Once the book tour is over and I find something that's compatible with my working with women in jail, I will have to go to work.
washingtonpost.com: So your thoughts on the allegations that you were paid for your silence?
Susan McDougal: I'm still waiting on that delivery. That surprises me that I would be paid for my silence.
I consider that anyone who couldn't understand the concept that you would not lie for leniency against another human being -- that would show me the kind of person you are.
If you don't get that that you would have to be paid to do that, then there is nothing I can say to you.
Alexandria, Va.: You say you're a better person for having gone to jail. How?
Susan McDougal: When I went to jail, I was really bitter and angry. And I could almost tell myself that I was in the right place for someone as angry as I was. But when the lives of the women around me became more apparent to me, it became really hard to feel sorry for myself, and not to be really grateful for my family that had always supported me, and for all of the friends that stood by me, and the life that I'd been given. None of the women that I met in jail never had anywhere near the chance that I'd been given or had the support that I'd had. Most of them never made a phone and never had a visit. I lost all of the bitterness and anger over the course of the time that I was in jail, and that was replaced with gratitude for my life, and that was replaced with a mission -- finally -- to do something for the people who have the least in the entire world. Because not only are they poor and uneducated, but they have lost even their freedom.
Burtonsville, Md.: You admit your stupidity in “letting others call the shots for you”; do you see yourself as the victim because you lacked a backbone?
And please tell me why am I to buy your book, which takes women you met in prison, who where put in there for breaking the law like yourself, and makes them out to be the victim instead of the liars, embezzlers, prostitutes, murders, etc., they really are? Will this book help you pay your fine -- hope the library carries your book cause I won’t buy it!
Susan McDougal: It must be a wonderful thing to be able to look at other people and see the wrong that they've done, and not at the same time question how that came to be. In the course of my dealing with the women in jail, it was impossible for me not to say to these very young, sweet-faced women, "How did you get here?" Moral superiority always tends to land one right in the middle of the dirtiest puddle of water. But for the grace of God go you. And I think perhaps you would be better off reading another book. You could start with the Bible, which says, if just a cup of water you give in my name, then it is as if you've given it to me.
Arlington, Va.: What kind of work with women in jail do you intend to do?
Susan McDougal: Basically, I go directly to the jail in the community that I'm visiting and talk with the women there. Then I go to speak with whatever group that has invited me, be it defense lawyers, prosecutors, mental health groups, and I talk about the very specific problems of their community and their institution. It has never failed that people in that community are shocked by the inhumane conditions that I describe, and most especially those of the mentally ill in jail. And [they] want to become involved in their own community.
Fairfax, Va.: Would you say it was more loyalty or ethics that motivated you? Can you comment on how the Clintons have responded to your loyalty?
Susan McDougal: It had nothing to do with loyalty that I did not cooperate with the investigation of the independent counsel, Kenneth Starr. It had everything to do with the fact that at the very first meeting I ever had with him, they wanted me to lie about the Clintons. It might have been anyone, and I still would not have done it. I don't think that I am especially unusual in this regard. I did not know anything that the Clintons had done that was illegal. Therefore, anything I would have said would have been a lie -- other than what I said.
I have not spoken with the Clintons since then, but I did receive the pardon, which I am eternally grateful for.
Northport, N.Y.: Hillary Clinton currently leads in three presidential polls among Democrats. Do you think she'd make a good president?
Susan McDougal: I think she makes a great senator from the state of New York. I don't know anyone who would fight harder for the things she believes in, and she certainly represents her state well. I agree with her politics. So go Hillary.
That wraps up today's show. Thanks to everyone who joined the discussion.
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