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Interviews

Susan McDougal: The Woman Who Wouldn't Talk

When Susan McDougal refused to implicate the Clintons in the Whitewater fiasco, she was thrown in prison, left alone with murderers and her own stubborn dignity. Savaged by Republicans and abandoned by Democrats, she would emerge from that dark chapter of American history a hero.

Transcript at bottom.


Part One: The Whitewater Scandal(Download Part One – QT)


Part Two: “Why Didn’t You Go Along With It?”(Download Part Two – QT)


Part Three: Jail(Download Part Three – QT)


Part Four: Real Faith(Download Part Four – QT)Part Five: Epilogue(Download Part Five – QT)Videography by Todd Wilkinson / Videography and Editing by George Edelman

Transcript

TRUTHDIG: Well, I’m sitting here with Susan McDougal, and let me just confess: I’ve got her book here, “The Woman Who Wouldn’t Talk.” One of the major figures in American history, really, in the last 30, 40 years — central to the whole Whitewater Clinton impeachment scandal. At the end of the day, what was Whitewater all about?

MCDOUGAL: I think it’s really interesting that the one thing that they could really go after Clinton on was this little real estate deal. My husband and I had gone up to northwestern Arkansas; we had found this piece of land with a beautiful stream running through it. We bought it, and we went to dinner one night at the Black Eyed Pea restaurant. It’s Southern fried food. The Clintons came in and sat with us. Jim said, “We found this great piece of land. We’re going to divide it into tracts. And we had a history — that’s what we were doing for a living — of making money.

TRUTHDIG: And Clinton wasn’t governor yet, right?

MCDOUGAL: No, he was Attorney General. They were a young couple. And Jim McDougal had known him — Jim McDougal had been an aide to Senator Fullbright. And Clinton had actually come over from Oxford to volunteer for the campaign. Clinton had driven Fullbright around, and Fullbright told Jim McDougal, “Don’t ever let that guy drive me again. He talks so much I can’t stand it.” And it was always a joke that Fullbright and Clinton had met and they didn’t get along. But Jim McDougal loved Clinton, and Clinton loved Jim McDougal.

So we sat down to dinner with them and Jim said to them, “Why don’t you come into this deal with us? It would be fun. We could go up there and look at the land together. It would get you out of politics, out of Little Rock. It would be a diversion. We could make some money together. It eventually — because interest rates went to 23 percent under Jimmy Carter — lost money. We were selling it on contract for 10 percent, and paying the bank 23 percent. It doesn’t take a genius to see that that deal isn’t going to work. We all lost money. It’s the first scandal in history, that I can think of, in which all four principals lost money. But the most amount of money at any one time that ever passed through this little land deal was $300,000. The whole story behind Whitewater was that the banker who loaned us the money was crooked.

The FBI raided his office and they found that he had been making all sorts of illegal loans — to his family, to his friends — putting names of companies on these loans that didn’t even exist. So he went to the prosecutor and said, “Look, I can give you this guy running for president, Bill Clinton. I made an illegal loan to his company. I loaned him $300,000. Clinton came to me in the dark and said that the money is actually for my campaign.” That was the whole story. David Hale, the banker that we loaned the money from, did less time in jail than I did for civil comtempt; [after he stole] millions of dollars from the federal government and making up all these loans. He was the crux of the entire story that they put in the New York Times that Jeff Gerth wrote about. And it was a lie from beginning to end.

TRUTHDIG: So it only became a big story when Clinton was running for president, right?

MCDOUGAL: Yes, this never would have been a story, except for the national press was investigating Clinton. He was running for president, and this guy saw his opportunity to save himself from prosecution. He had been charged with so many felony counts on each loan that was illegal; and it was hundreds of felony counts, and he was going to prison for the rest of his life, and he said, “Look, one of these loans is to Bill Clinton, who’s running for president, and I’ll testify against him.”

TRUTHDIG: But what I’d like to know is: At the end of the day, what happens? There’s no connection to Bill or Hillary Clinton, right? To this day, they never nailed the Clintons.

MCDOUGAL: Oh, no! Even the Starr Report, at the end, had two references to Whitewater. In the entire Starr report! At the end. And it said [that there had been] no wrongdoing on the part of the Clintons having to do with Whitewater. The Clintons literally had no day-to-day operational part in this development — whatsoever! The only thing they ever knew about it was what we met over dinner and said, “It’s selling pretty well. We’ve sold six or seven lots.” And they said, “Oh, good. That’s great.” Or we’d say, “Interest rates have jumped up at the bank and we’re showing a loss now. We’ve got to put some more money into it. They had nothing to do with it. It wasn’t something I had to go home and say, “Gosh!” No when the independent counsel came to me with this story, and said, “Did the Clintons tell you to go borrow money, and you loaned it to them, and you lied on the application? Did that happen?” This isn’t really something I had to go home and think about.” Like when someone asks you if a friend broke the law, and you think: Could that have happened? It absolutely never happened. It couldn’t have happened. Clinton raised millions of dollars for his campaign. He’s one of the best fund-raisers in American history. That he was asking Susan McDougal to go to a bank and borrow $300,000 for a small business loan, in order to steal money for a campaign, is ludicrous.

But it was never about the truth of it. It was never about whether they were guilty or innocent. It was really about the smear. Could they put this tag on this guy running for president, and stop him in his tracks? It was really about the smear more than anything, because at the outset, they wanted me to say that I had had sex with him. There was a guy who worked for Starr who was — Jim McDougal called him the snake handler. He was the most right-wing religious zealot you could imagine. And from the beginning, he said, “We can get Clinton on morals. We can stop him from becoming president on moral character.” And they wanted me to say from the very beginning that I had had sex with Clinton. And I could have had nothing to do with the Whitewater charges, which I immediately said were not true, and you could never find a penny of that money that was spent illegally or wrongly. And I knew that they would never find any evidence on it. So it was really about the smear of him than any real, true evidence.

TRUTHDIG: The reason I find your book so interested and you so interesting, is that it gets past this cartoon image of America. What they try to do is reduce Clinton to some kind of cartoon figure — Bubba, you know? — and all he wants to do is chase skirts. And someone like you — all you care about is that he’s handsome, and you’re a woman, so obviously you must be interested. And the fact iMCDOUGAL: Whatever else you may think about Clinton, he’s an incredibly bright, complex guy with interesting views of the world. As interesting as any statesman we’ve known in hundreds of years. And in your case, you’re not some local, some cheerleader, you’re someone who turned out to be unbreakable. They couldn’t break you. If you had testified about — if you had testified against him, he would have been impeached. Not only impeached, but thrown out of office. He was impeached. They would have had him. So why didn’t you go along with it? You would have had money, you would have gotten —

MCDOUGAL: A lot of it I do think had to do with growing up in a household that thought of America as a great place, growing up with a certain belief system. And seeing in the meetings I had with them, they could have cared less who was innocent and who was guilty. They simply wanted to get him. And the stories changed as they went along. And watching Jim McDougal after we were convicted, he tried to save himself. And I was at his house one night, and I said, “What are we going to do?” We were just a week away from sentencing. We had gone to trial. We had not made a deal. In fact, of all the people having to do with Whitewater, Jim McDougal and I were the only two people who did not make a deal, who did not cooperate from the very beginning and say that the Clintons were guilty of something. And Jim had been saying they were innocent all along. And he said, “You know? I don’t want to die in prison. And I am going to cooperate. I think we should cooperate. What have they ever done for us, anyway?” And I said, “I can’t do that, but I understand.”

He was much older than I; he had been in ill health. And I was really happy that he had come to something that might save him years in prison. And he called them on the phone while I was there. And he said, “This is Jim McDougal, and I’ve decided I will cooperate. But there are a few things you have to agree to before I will say that the Clintons were guilty of this.” And he said, “I need a year before I go to prison so I can get my affairs in order.” And he gave me this thumbs up, you know, that it was no problem. And he said with the phone up to his ear, “We’re totally broke. We don’t even have a car to drive.” He said he was going to need some walking around money. And he gave me a thumbs up — no problem. They could give him that. [He said,] “I’ll need a car and driver. I don’t have a car; I’m in ill health. When I have meetings with you, you’ll have to come and pick me up and drive me around.” No problem. Thumbs up. And he said, “I’ll need a hospital. I’m a sick man.” No problem.

God, I was so grateful. Because this was a man I had cared about, and whom I did not want to see hurt. And he talked with them a while longer, hung up the phone, and said, “You’re not going to believe what they said. They said that because I have consistently said that the Clintons were innocent, that now that I’m going to change my story, what they’re going to do is say that Starr will come down and talk to this Baptist minister, who’s the judge — the sentencing judge — and he’s going to say that like Saul on the road to Damascus, you had this blinding light, and you’ve now become this Christian man, and now you’re going to tell the truth. And that’s the story we’re going to use.” And it so turned my stomach to hear Jim McDougal talk like that, because he would have been the first person in another life to hate that — that use of Christianity in order to get something.

In the weeks that ensued after that, he would encourage me, too, to cooperate, that it was going to be the best way, that they were going to give me some money. They would send me to Europe and hide me out until it was time to testify. I’d be protected. And I would have money to spend. And it would be — we would be together again. We would testify against the Clintons. And I said, “Jim, they’re going to kill us. This is not true. This is the President of the United States. When we go to trial, they’re going to have lawyers. They’re going to have proof that this money never went anywhere near the Clintons. And it’s a lie. They’re going to make us look like liars, and we’re going to forever be these bad people who lied. And he said, “They’re giving me the documents, Susan.” Meaning the independent counsel was giving him the documents to spin these stories around.

And as Jim met with them time after time, he was becoming this terrible person. And he’d kind of laugh, and he’d say, “Remember that time we went to their house, or the governor’s mansion? Doesn’t that sound like a great story? We’ll say that that was when we hatched the scheme.” And watching him turn into, sort of, this — car dog is the think that comes to my mind — he was a lap dog to what they wanted him to say. And they were telling him what a great job he was doing. And they were giving him money and things we hadn’t had in a very long time. And we were so broken by the conviction and the fact that we had nothing left — everything we had in the world was gone — except the fact that we were telling the truth, which didn’t seem to matter very much, and to see him turn into this person who was willing to lie and laugh about it, and to tell jokes about it, was really what made me, more than any other thing, say to myself: I will never have anything to do with those people. Never will I become that person that I see Jim becoming.

And the fact that I loved him and saw him become this person, was really the catalyst for me. I remember the night before I went to jail, I sat down with my seven brothers and sisters, my Mom and Dad; my Mom was Belgian and had been though the war and my Dad was a soldier, and I remember people were saying, “She knows something. She’s hiding something. She’s probably getting payoffs. There were all sorts of things being said in the media on both sides. And I remember my Mom said to me — this tiny little lady, only five-feet tall; I had been taller than her since I was in the fourth grade — she said, “Isn’t there anything you know about them that you could say that would be the truth? That you could trade? That would be truthful and you could live with?” And I looked at her and I said, “I don’t know a thing those people have ever done that was illegal, immoral, wrong.” And I remember, she stood up, and said, “It’s what Hitler did: He would turn people against other people and make them testify against them. And send them to concentration camps and threaten them if they didn’t.” And she said, “If we beat that guy, we can beat this guy.”

And it was literally my little family and me making this decision that I would not talk to them, and that instead I would go to jail. And I said that they were going to put me in jail if I don’t testify and if I don’t cooperate with the grand jury that he’s got there. And it was literally just us sitting there that night, all of us crying. We never even knew anyone who had gone to jail, you know? It was that night that really was the crux of why I had the strength I had not to cooperate.

TRUTHDIG: But it didn’t save your husband. They betrayed him.

MCDOUGAL: It was a year before Jim McDougal was to report to prison. And in that year a lot of things changed. Whitewater really become boring. There was no sex in it, there was never any proof that the Clintons had ever had one penny of that money. There was never one bit of proof, and they thought that the slur alone, just the alleging of the crime, would be enough. People were smarter than [the Starr team] wanted to give them credit for, which is why this is a great country. But Jim reported a year later, and the story then was Monica Lewinsky. The McDougals were long forgotten. Whitewater was not even on the tongues of anyone anymore. It was all Monica, all the time.

And so Jim McDougal did not get the help of the independent counsel. He was the last person they were thinking about. And he went to a federal prison, not a federal hospital, as they had promised. And in just a routine urine test that they do in prison just to see if you’re taking drugs or alcohol, Jim could not urinate on demand, and he was put in a lockdown cell, naked, because you have a hole in the floor, and they collect all your bodily fluids, and they test them. It’s called a dry cell.

TRUTHDIG: He couldn’t do it because he had a prostate problem?

MCDOUGAL: He had a prostate problem. And he was calling the independent counsel’s office on the only phone on that cellblock, begging them to help him. Naked, he died, of a heart attack without his medicine, in that dry cell. And it was the hardest thing for me about all of this, because I always thought there would come a day, when Jim McDougal could say, this was to save myself. This was to save me, that I did this. The Clintons never did this wrong. And he did: He got a light sentence from the judge. Starr came down and said like Saul on the road to Damascus, Jim McDougal was a Christian now. And when he did, this deputy of Starr’s delivered this eulogy at the cemetery. What a great Christian Jim McDougal had become. And I was not let go for the funeral. I was kept in prison at the time. But what a travesty! To have these people who called themselves Christians — who were doing everything they could in the back rooms of the courthouse to lie about the Clintons — giving the eulogy. They didn’t have a tenth of the honor that the man that Jim McDougal was before they had broken him, had ever had.

TRUTHDIG: I remember the first time I encountered your case in a person way — because I was following it — was when your attorney called me up, because I was writing columns for the L.A. Times, and Mark called me up and said, “You ought to really look into this. We have this filing — the filing about how you were being treated –“

MCDOUGAL: The conditions.

TRUTHDIG: Well, tell us something about that. What were you experiencing? It was horrendous.

MCDOUGAL: One of the rules of a high profile woman prisoner was that she wear the red dress. It was something that let everyone know that this was a high profile case, and most of those cases were women who had killed children. And they were the most hated people inside the jail system. And so on murderer’s row, where I was being held for civil contempt, most of the women who were there were accused of killing a child or a helpless person — some kind of really bad, heinous crime. And they wore the red dress. And when you would go to court, the women who were in the red dress were put on the bus to court, but they were caged inside the bus in a cage that was locked. And the men and women who were on the bus would spit on those women, ejaculate on those women, call them names, try to get through the bars and hit them or tear at them, because they were the most despised people in the system, and they were locked in the bus for everyone not to be able to get to. And going to court was beyond description. I would spend a day getting ready to go to court, trying to get myself psyched up for going. Because you are woken at dawn, there is no breakfast, you are hustled downstairs into a locked cell, you’re strip- searched, you’re handcuffed, your legs are chained in irons. You’re in waist chains, and you wait for hours for the bus. Then you’re herded onto the bus, and you’re locked into the cage. And then all the prisoners come. They have no idea who you are, but you are abused the entire trip on the bus. And the women who are locked in there with you cry and sob all the way to justice, which is your day in court. It’s a lovely day, I can tell you, getting your day in court. You go to court, you’re locked in a holding cell, you go out into the court room, you are strip-searched, chained, locked inside the cage on the bus for the trip back to jail, then once again as you get inside you are strip-searched again. And by this time it has been a full, maybe, 12 hours of being chained and dragged around like an animal, and hooked to other people, and chained, and maybe they fall, and you fall. That happens many times, where you can’t walk in lockstep, and you all go tumbling down. And the degradation of it, of your day in court, is horrible that you don’t want to go. And so you get back in the locked room, and once again you’re strip-searched with all the other women there, and you are bent over, your cavities are searched.

In the motion, we put that about the day that they took the pad out — I was menstruating — and the blood ran out down my legs, and you’re just left until someone takes you to your cell, and then maybe you get a pad, or you don’t. The kind of degradation a woman goes through to get her day in court, was something I never could have dreamed of, in a million years, being a citizen of this country, and thinking that that could happen in America. From the time you wake up, to the time you get back in your cell, maybe 10 hours later, you are yelled at, you are screamed at by the guards, by the other inmates, in my case, because I was in the red dress. And you get maybe 15 minutes in court, and you don’t get to say a word while you’re in there. And all of that was in [the motion], and I remember the judge who got the motion that you were given that day, said —

TRUTHDIG: This is a Southern woman —

MCDOUGAL: Yes, She said, “I have no trouble believing that all these things happened, that these conditions exist, that the food is pushed underneath the metal door, and the rats will get to it if you don’t get to it quick enough, that the roaches fall on you all night long while you’re in your cell, I have no trouble believing any of these things, but I will tell you thiMCDOUGAL: For telling you these things, Susan McDougal is no lady. And I was always very proud of the fact that I was not a lady, if it meant that, maybe some of those kids … because in the seven jails that I was most often in, I was the oldest woman there; these are kids we’re talking about. And it’s not about color any more. It may have been a racial issue at one time, but it is all about poverty. It is the poorest people you could imagine: kids eating out of trash cans, and never having anyone look after them, or never have any care given them, ending up in jail, and it’s all about drugs and alcohol and poverty and hopelessness.

TRUTHDIG: The amazing thing about your story is that you crossed over when you didn’t have to. You came from this basic white bread American family, and all that. And you were a friend of Bill’s. You were in the governor’s office when people came from Yale and other places to work in Arkansas. This was the New Democrat, showing the new way, and so forth. You were the sacrificial lamb. You were left there, and this all happened very close to Beverly Hills, very close to Santa Monica. And even after the story came out, so what? There was some stirring of support or concern, but basically, Ken Starr was able to put you in a situation in murderer’s row, in a red dress, as a dangerous criminal, on a civil contempt [charge].

MCDOUGAL: After I got out of jail, the only nightmares I ever had, were about [the jail] Twin Towers. I remember the lieutenant at [the jail] Civil Brand came, and he said, “We have just the perfect place for you, McDougal: We’re putting you in the Hannibal Lecter cell at Twin Towers. And it was a cell in which the glass was so thick that if you came up and yelled at me, I couldn’t have heard you. It was a totally sound-proof, 24-hour-per day, lit, open toilet, me in this room. Twenty three hours a day. One hour a day I got to go out to a basketball court.

TRUTHDIG: No privacy?

MCDOUGAL: No privacy at all. And I couldn’t hear anything. I could look out and see the other women who were mostly charged with terrible, heinous crimes, who were going to church meetings, who were going to office visits. Not me — I was locked in. And that part was by far the part that I thought would break me. It was okay treat us in any way. It was what the sheriff told me when he called me down to his office and said —

TRUTHDIG: Do you remember which sheriff, do you remember where it was?

MCDOUGAL: It was in Arkansas. It was in Conway, Arkansas. He said, “I’ve been elected over and over and over again. I know politics.

TRUTHDIG: He was probably a Democrat.

MCDOUGAL: Yeah. He said, “I know politics, and you think you’re doing something; you think you’re standing up for principles. Nobody gives a damn about you. You’re locked in here and nobody even knows you’re here. And what you’re doing is so stupid. Nobody cares about people in jail. That’s something you’re going to find out. They don’t even know you’re in here any more. And it is a truism for most women in jail. Most women on visiting day never get a visit. On men’s visiting day, there are lines. You can’t even get in to see your male guy in jail, because the mothers come, the wives come, the children come. But with women, it’s not true. Most of those women are in there because they never had anyone help them in their whole lives, or a family to support them. But you know, after I had that meeting with the sheriff, they came days later with these huge bags of letters, 50,000 letters from all over the world, or people saying, “What is happening? What is happening in America, that you can go to jail in leg irons and waist chains and handcuffs, and be taken away to jail because you refuse to cooperate with Kenneth Starr. And most of those people cared not only about me, but about the women in jail, and [the letter writers] ask about them. And one of the things that I had the most trouble with deciding that I wouldn’t cooperate, was that I would be locked up with women who must be the worst people on earth. They must be these calloused, hard, terrible women; and that I would be locked up and they would be so different from me. And they begged me after these letters came, “Susan, can we read them?” And in the night in that place, I can remember lying there and I would hear a voice just in the darkness, say, “You’ve got to hear this letter. You guys have got to listen. And this little voice reading this letter out would say, “Dear Susan: I can’t believe this is happening to you, but because of your strength and your courage, I’m going to fight even harder against my cancer.” Or, “I’m going to fight even harder for what I believe in.” And how are the women there with you? Are they getting enough to eat? Are they warm? Are they getting what they need?” And [the other prisoners] would say, “Do you really think people out there care about us?” And it was astonishing to them that people were good in the world, that they had a care for people that they didn’t know. These were kids who never had a kind word given to them. These were girls who were in trouble because they rarely had anyone care. And to think that I almost gave up my integrity and everything I always believed in, because I was so frightened to go in that place, and then to hear their voices in the night, and I would lie there and think: I can’t believe it. I can’t believe —

TRUTHDIG: But when you were there behind that plexiglass, in that isolation, you must have come close to going crazy.

MCDOUGAL: I think that was the closest I came to thinking that I wouldn’t be able to do this. I’m just not going to be able to do this.

TRUTHDIG: What did Starr want? Why did he go so far to break you — just to accept his narrative and bring the Clintons in?

MCDOUGAL: There were [five] people who could testify as to what actually happened in the Whitewater company: Bill and Hillary Clinton, who were saying that they were innocent of any wrongdoing; Jim McDougal, who, up until the time we were convicted of wrongdoing, had said that the Clintons were innocent, but was now saying, “I lied and want to tell the truth;” the banker who had loaned the money was a cooperating witness because he was now charged with crimes; and so I was the last person. And so if I came and stuck with the Clintons and said, “Look, these guys are lying, it never happened this way –” And not only was I the last person, I was really, if you looked at it, the least involved, the least-motivated person to lie of any of them. I wasn’t friends with the Clintons, I hadn’t talked to them in years, I had no reason to cover for them — and so they had to rough me up a little; they had to make me look like a bad guy, so that I could never stand and say, “This never happened.”

TRUTHDIG: And who were the “they”?

MCDOUGAL: I think that — You know, there was an independent counsel before Kenneth Starr, and the one thing he did while he was independent counsel, was he held a press conference. And he said, “I can find no wrongdoing on the part of Bill and Hillary Clinton, having to do with Whitewater.” And he was summarily fired. And Kennth Starr was appointed by a group of — on the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, one was a former aide to Jesse Helms in North Carolina

TRUTHDIG: Not the Ninth Circuit, right? It was the one in Washington…

MCDOUGAL: Yes, it was the Federal Court of Appeals. And they were all very staunch Republicans, and they appointed Starr, and I believe at that point, when Starr was appointed, [the previous independent counsel] had just said there had been no wrongdoing, at that point, that is when we all should have said, “What is really going on? Why is this man who everybody looks at as being a fair-minded independent counsel, who’s done a year’s worth of work, who’s come up with a press conference, why is he summarily discharged, and this guy [Starr], who none of us had any idea of, being appointed?” And I think that was really the beginning of trying to use this investigation.

TRUTHDIG: This guy is now within a mile of us as a dean of a law school. Isn’t that —

MCDOUGAL: Pepperdine Law School.

TRUTHDIG: Yeah, he’s right up the road — respectable — most of the people who put you in that plexiglass place are —

MCDOUGAL: They’re federal judges now, running the country. Yes, it’s true: Evil is not punished on earth. I think we can see that every day. I’m not [waiting for that to happen.] You know, there was a woman one night, on the weekend; she was rolled in — literally. She was rolled out of some kind of blanket into the room where we were all held, all of the women. And she was unconscious — she had been drinking to the point of unconsciousness — and she had urinated on herself, she had thrown up on herself, she smelled so badly, and we were locked in this concrete room with her, and we hated this woman. She had been rolled under the telephone, and so every time we had to use the telephone, we literally had to hold our breath to use the phone. She didn’t wake up for days. She was unconscious. And when she woke up, she was seeing these imaginary insects on her, and she was so hungry when she woke up, because there had been days when she hadn’t eaten a thing, just lying there, unconscious, that she would steal the food from our plates. And we couldn’t stand her. I mean, literally, if you turned your head, your food would be stolen. And in jail, if you eat every bite you are given, you are so hungry. It’s all you think about — food. You eat everything they give you. And Althea was hungrier than any of us. And we literally hated this woman. And this one night, after Althea was there for a while, I found a note under my pillow. And she had written a poem to me. And it’s in the book.

[Picks up her book] This is the poem I found under my pillow at night:

We can’t see any wrong she’s
done
But we know just why she’s
here
God has sent this woman of
courage
To help calm our fears

We’re grateful every morning
when
We rise and see her shine
We feel it’s such a pleasure
To sit with her and dine.

She makes us feel worthwhile
As she helps us get through the
day
She speaks of a brighter
future
In a special sort of way.

Every day I thank god
For introducing her to me
It doesn’t matter that the
door is locked
She makes us all feel free.

TRUTHDIG: The reference to god — the people who put you in jail claimed to be acting in strict accordance to scripture. You grew up with a strict Christian background; you went to a Baptist college; what did you think about god while you were in jail?

MCDOUGAL: I was really bitter when I went to jail. I was as angry a person as I had ever known. There were times I used to think [that] this is the perfect place for me — as I am so angry, I had better be locked up. I used to dream while I was in jail. I’d lie on the bed and think what I’d do to Ken Starr if I could get my hands on him. And I would almost laugh maniacally thinking how I would hurt him if I could get my hands on him. I was so far form any spirituality because I felt robbed of it. It was as if Kenneth Starr talking about his Christianity, and about all of that, it was as if god himself were saying that we were guilty. You know, that god had given him this imprimatur to do this investigation. And I couldn’t believe that this was the same Christianity that I had always been a part of. And so I had nothing left. I was nothing but a bitter, angry person who was innocent and locked up in jail.

And a lot of that changed when I met the young women in there, and the hope that they had for the future after the terrible things they had been through. I sort of felt guilty at the bitterness I had, at the life I had been given. That I was so bitter, and these women, who had been through such more terrible things than I, had so much hope.

But I tell a story, I think, in the book, of the lady who came two days before Christmas. I was in the cell block at Civil Brand on murderer’s row. Two days before Christmas, my parents had no idea where I was, my brothers and sisters, I’m sure, were gathered all around the Christmas tree — all weeping, saying, “Where is Susan?” I had just been moved; it would take weeks to get a visitor’s list, to use the telephone. No one knew that I had been moved to Civil Brand on murderer’s row, and I was alone. And I heard a Christmas carol, and I thought, “This is it. You’ve really lost it.” And around the corner of that cellblock came this little lady, she was as wide as she was tall. I will never forget Sister Rose. On Christmas Eve night, Sister Rose had come to Civil Brand, to murderer’s row, to spend her Christmas Eve with women who had not a penny in the world, and many of them, not even a kind word to give, because they themselves were so bitter and destroyed and destructive. And no TV cameras, no one to tell about what a great Christian she was, or what a great person she was. There was no one there. And she walked down the hall spending her night singing Christmas carols to women accused of the worst crimes you could imagine. And she walked up to my cell, and she pointed her finger and she said, “I know who you are.” And she stood there that night and she talked to me. And it was through people like her, and through Rabbi Kreigel and people who came to work with people in prison, that I was given back a sense of what is to be a good, spiritually, compassionate person, and to believe that there are good people in the world again. And so I’m really grateful for the time that I had there, to be given back that spirituality. Living in Arkansas now, I see people who are connected in some way with Whitewater, and who made the deal with Starr. And you know what I tell them? “You should have gone to jail.” Because they are still so bitter and destroyed. And as you say: I don’t feel that way at all. I know I beat ’em.

TRUTHDIG: One last thing: You finally did get to meet Clinton. He came to a reading of yours?

MCDOUGAL: No, he came to Harry Thomas’ film, “The Hunting of the President,” that I had a little, tiny role in.

TRUTHDIG: But he came, and it was the first time you had seen him?

MCDOUGAL: It was the first time I had seen him since 1986. I think it was 2005, or something like that.

TRUTHDIG: And where was this?

MCDOUGAL: It was in New York. And it was a huge auditorium. There were five levels; you couldn’t even see the top of the room. And after the film, Clinton ran up on stage, and he said — it was full of people; every star you could imagine from Hollywood, and people you know from all over the world, and generals — and he said, “Thank you, Harry, for this film. It really tells the story well.” And he said, “I’ve very grateful, but we have in this audience tonight a true American hero that we need to recognize.” And I was looking around for the general who would stand up, or the person he was talking about, and he said, “Susan McDougal, would you stand up?”

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