That was some performance last week by members of Susan McDougal's family. At a news conference across from the Little Rock courthouse, Ms. McDougal's father, mother, three brothers, and a niece lined up as character witnesses for her, while blasting independent counsel Kenneth Starr. They said Mr. Starr has "tortured" Susan and that she was ready to go back to jail rather than cooperate with the investigation.
Ms. McDougal's brother, William Henley, provided some of the more laughable moments when he said: "Sometimes principle is far more important than the letter of the written law. Kenneth Starr is a sham. He's a liar and has suborned perjury from her earlier ... and she will have nothing to do with him."
This is a classic case of the frog calling someone else ugly. Principle was the first casualty in the twisted lives of not only Bill Clinton but also most people who got close enough to become tainted by him. And for this bunch to call Mr. Starr a sham and a liar is akin to an embezzler lecturing on the decline of good banking practices.
Susan McDougal is no innocent little lamb who lost her way and became tainted by unprincipled people. This is a woman who has been convicted of four felonies by an Arkansas jury of her peers. Bank regulators who investigated the failure of Madison Guaranty Savings and Loan, the thrift institution at the center of the Whitewater investigation that was owned by Susan and her late husband, James McDougal, said Madison paid through a subsidiary six-figure commissions to the McDougals and her brothers for land sales. The brothers would be expected to attack Mr. Starr and defend their sister since her troubles might quickly become their troubles, too. Those orange prison jumpsuits are not very flattering on women or men.
Susan McDougal is not being asked to perjure herself. Mr. Starr has offered her limited immunity to answer one simple question: Did Bill Clinton know about an illegal $300,000 Small Business Administration loan the McDougals received in 1986, or about the property the SBA helped buy for Whitewater Development Corporation? Knowing the answer to this question would help Mr. Starr determine whether President Clinton lied under oath during the first Whitewater trial, when he denied knowledge of the loan or pressuring anyone to approve it.
"Yes" or "no" is all Susan McDougal would have to say. It isn't about "telling Ken Starr what he wants to hear," as she has claimed. It's telling the grand jury what she heard from Bill Clinton. Did he or did he not know about the loan? What could be simpler than telling the truth?
Susan McDougal is tangled in this mess as deeply as the other co-conspirators. They know that if one blabs, they all might go down. That's why former Associate Attorney General Webster Hubbell was given $700,000 from "friends" for doing virtually no work after he bilked his former law firm and was forced to resign his government job and go to prison. His silence had to be assured.
Ms. McDougal is hardly a poster girl for virtue. Even if she decides to talk to the grand jury, she would remain in jail for her four felony convictions. And, while in jail on those convictions, she must still stand trial on unrelated charges that she embezzled funds from conductor Zubin Mehta and his wife, Nancy, for whom she worked for three years.
Last week, The Wall Street Journal published an essay by ABC investigative producer Chris Vlasto, who quoted Susan McDougal as telling him: "I know where all the bodies are buried." It's hard to understand what keeps Ms. McDougal quiet. She could bring down this president if she said he lied about the $300,000 loan. But she might also bring herself down.
Nasty things seem to happen to people who get too close to Bill Clinton. Perhaps Susan McDougal prefers the relative safety of prison to the uncertainties that could follow telling the truth about the liar-in-chief.
© 1998, Los Angeles Times Syndicate