The Woman Who Wouldn't Talk

After enduring a harsh national spotlight for several years—almost two of them while she was confined in a series of seven different prisons—for refusing to furnish evidence in the historic Whitewater investigation led by Republican federal prosecutor Kenneth Starr, Susan McDougal of Camden (Ouachita County) wrote a book titled, The Woman Who Wouldn’t Talk: Why I Refused to Testify against the Clintons & What I Learned in Jail. The book had an unexpected impact, owing mainly to the second part of the subtitle—her descriptions of the conditions and treatment of women inmates in federal lockups.

Written with lawyer Pat Harris (her friend and former fiancé) and published by Carroll & Graf in January 2003, McDougal’s book received laudatory reviews, made the New York Times bestseller list for two weeks, heightened her fame (or notoriety), and altered the public discourse about the long-running investigation of the first family. The Whitewater investigation led eventually to President Bill Clinton’s impeachment in 1999 for not being truthful about a sexual dalliance with a female White House aide, but his impeachment had nothing to do with the Clintons’ long-ago business dealings with Susan McDougal and her former husband that triggered the investigation.

While she was a student at what is now Ouachita Baptist University in Arkadelphia (Clark County), Susan Henley met and married an instructor at the school, James B. (Jim) McDougal, a political enthusiast who was a former aide to two U.S. senators from Arkansas, a one-time (losing) political candidate himself, and something of an entrepreneur. While he was on Senator J. William Fulbright’s staff in the early 1970s, McDougal had tried his hand at small real-estate developments in central Arkansas and made some money, both for himself and for Fulbright. In 1978, he approached Attorney General Bill Clinton, his friend from their days with Fulbright, and wife Hillary about joining him and Susan in borrowing $203,000 and starting a vacation-home development they would call Whitewater on a remote mountain near the White River in Marion County. The two couples started the venture, and when Clinton was elected governor later that year, the McDougals joined his staff for a while.

With inflation in double digits, 1978 was a foolish time to start such a venture. No one bought lots or built cabins in Whitewater, and the project foundered. Along with another couple on the governor’s staff, the McDougals split from the Clintons in 1980 and bought a tiny bank in Kingston (Madison County). The bank soon folded, and Jim McDougal bought a small savings and loan company in Woodruff County, moved it to downtown Little Rock (Pulaski County), renamed it Madison Guaranty Savings and Loan, and created a subsidiary to undertake real-estate development. Although the McDougals would separate and then divorce, it would be Jim McDougal’s heedless business ventures from his little thrift, sometimes using his wife as a nominal investor or borrower, that years later would give the political enemies of the Clintons fodder for a series of criminal investigations. Jeff Gerth, a financial reporter for the New York Times, wrote a series of articles in 1992 and 1993 suggesting that the Clintons had consorted with powerful special interests in Arkansas and that a few of their enterprises, such as the failed Whitewater project, could have been illegal or unethical.

President Clinton’s new U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of Arkansas, Paula Casey, obtained a warrant in July 1993 to search the offices of a small-business loan company in Little Rock operated by David Hale, a municipal judge and political foe of Clinton who operated a small-business loan company. A federal grand jury indicted Hale for sending $2 million in federal funds to thirteen dummy corporations that he controlled. Hale countered by claiming that in the 1980s he had made a Small Business Administration (SBA) loan to his friend Jim McDougal—nominally to Susan McDougal—for one of Jim’s real-estate ventures at the urging of Clinton. Clinton claimed that he had never even heard of the loan, and Hale offered no evidence of Clinton’s request. The U.S. attorney turned the Hale case over to Kenneth Starr, the Whitewater prosecutor, and Hale eventually negotiated with Starr, making a guilty plea and receiving an abbreviated prison term.

It was the efforts by Starr and his deputies to get McDougal and his ex-wife to give them incriminating information about the Clintons that formed the narrative of The Woman Who Wouldn’t Talk. The McDougals were indicted for the dealings with Hale but were offered leniency and freedom if they would provide evidence on the first couple. Jim McDougal tried, telling of a random encounter with Clinton where the loan was discussed, but the president denied it ever happened. McDougal was convicted on eighteen counts of fraud and conspiracy in his business dealings with Hale and died in March 1998 while in solitary confinement at a federal prison in Texas. Susan McDougal was summoned before a grand jury but refused to answer any questions. She said she had no dealings with either of the Clintons on the SBA loans and that she would testify under oath in court but not before a secret grand jury. Starr had the judge convict her of contempt of court for refusing to answer questions before the grand jury. Newspapers showed pictures of McDougal, her hands and legs shackled, being led to jail.

She spent twenty-two months in jails and federal holding facilities around the country, including seven weeks in a Plexiglas-enclosed soundproof cell, which prison officials described to her as “the Hannibal Lecter cell” and which she described in the book as “hellish.” After she was released from jail for health problems, Starr had her indicted for obstruction of justice because she again refused to talk. A jury acquitted her.

Her book seeks to make the case for her innocence and the perfidy of Starr and his deputies in destroying the lives of innocent people in order to settle political scores for the Republican Party. Publishers Weekly noted that many personalities associated with scandals that centered upon the Clintons “rushed their books out to take advantage of their fleeting notoriety and, in some cases, the rising anti-Clinton tide.” (Jim McDougal, for example, published his own co-written book, Arkansas Mischief, in 1998.) By contrast, as Publishers Weekly noted, Susan McDougal’s “delay gives her account a historical and emotional perspective many of her predecessors lacked.” The other aspect of the tale, her sympathetic descriptions of the lives of the women she met in jail and their treatment, elicited even more praise and made her, for a while, a leader in the prison-reform movement and in demand as a speaker on the subject.

Once out of federal custody, McDougal attended Henderson State University and was awarded a degree in community counseling. She became staff chaplain for the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences (UAMS) in Little Rock and later director of the pastoral care and clinical pastoral education department at UAMS.

For additional information:
Conason, Joe, and Gene Lyons. The Hunting of the President: The Ten-Year Campaign to Destroy Bill and Hillary Clinton. New York: St. Martin’s Books, 2000.

Lowry, Beverly. “Her Lips Were Sealed.” New York Times Book Reviews, January 26, 2003, Section 7, p. 14.

McDougal, Jim, and Curtis Wilkie. Arkansas Mischief: The Birth of a National Scandal. New York: Henry Holt & Co., 1998.

McDougal, Susan, with Pat Harris. The Woman Who Wouldn’t Talk: Why I Refused to Testify against the Clintons & What I Learned in Jail. New York: Carroll & Graf Publishers, 2003.

“Once upon a Time in Arkansas.” Frontline Online. http://www.pbs.org/wgbh//pages/frontline/shows/arkansas/interviews/smcdougal.html (accessed January 14, 2022).

Ernest Dumas
Little Rock, Arkansas

Last Updated: 01/14/2022

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