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COVER STORY

Can 50,000 People Be Wrong?

That's How Many Have Written Susan McDougal, Sending Encouragement and Money. Lawyers Have Donated Time. Jurors Have Become Groupies. What's Her Secret?

May 09, 1999|ANN W. O'NEILL | Ann W. O'Neill is a Times staff writer. Her last piece for the magazine was about $10-million homes

In a little rock hotel suite littered with court files, transcripts and crumpled soft drink cans, Susan McDougal leaped up from a laptop computer as a scene from "A Streetcar Named Desire" flashed across the television screen during the Academy Awards.

"Ah've ahlwuhs relied on the kindniz of stranguhs," McDougal drawled, long and slow with Blanche DuBois, her eyes shining, one hand fluttering over her heart.

"There I am," McDougal declared in her Arkansas twang. "Story of my life."

Not entirely. A former business associate of Bill Clinton's, McDougal went to jail for 18 months because she refused to answer questions from the Whitewater grand jury in 1996. She also served three months for her convictions that year at a Whitewater trial involving the collapse of two financial institutions. The time behind bars transformed the ex-wife of a flamboyant, slightly shady businessman into a national symbol of courage . . . or folly . . . or presidential cover-up.

But all the while, the 44-year-old McDougal was broke and relying on strangers. And the strangers have been kind.

Twice since Labor Day, McDougal's adversaries have hauled her into court. Twice she has turned the tables, putting her accusers on trial. And twice she has been vindicated by juries. In November, a jury in Santa Monica acquitted her of stealing from her former employers, famed conductor Zubin Mehta and his wife, Nancy. Last month, in her second Whitewater trial, a federal jury in Little Rock cleared her of obstructing Kenneth Starr's investigation. The same jurors deadlocked on two counts of criminal contempt involving McDougal's defiance of a court order to tell the grand jury about her personal and business dealings with Bill and Hillary Rodham Clinton during his years as governor of Arkansas.

And consider this: Her defense fund estimates that some 50,000 people have written to encourage her or to contribute. It has raised slightly more than $100,000. Her Los Angeles lawyer, Mark J. Geragos, donated his time, and five members of her California jury traveled to Little Rock in a show of support. Two of the women took her clothes shopping. Another gave her a haircut.

The jurors became a point of curiosity in Little Rock, where the local press dubbed them the McGroupies, and a network television reporter compared them to Deadheads.

"Just what is it about Susan McDougal that would, for wild example, compel . . . jurors from her last trial in California to spend Spring Break in a drab courtroom inside a gloomy old post office in Little Rock?" an editorial in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette pondered.

Why, indeed, do so many defend a woman who has been accused, not once, but twice, of playing fast and loose with other people's money? A woman prosecutors say extricates herself by spinning dramatic tales casting herself as the victim?

The girl can't help it. McDougal is funny, earthy and charming. She has a way of growing on people. Her jurors in the Santa Monica case say they had no opinion of her when they exonerated her. It was only when they met her at dinner afterward that they came to like her.

She is not the same, somewhat flighty woman who went to jail back in 1996. She's not even the same woman who couldn't keep still in the Santa Monica courtroom. In their attempts to break her, authorities turned this magnolia to steel.

*

When Susan McDougal finally ended her silence at the two most recent trials, jurors responded. The California jury foreman, a 24-year-old actor and Ivy League blueblood, was among those who showed up in Little Rock to support her. His reasons had nothing to do with being a trial groupie. "I respect her fortitude," Rufus Gifford says. "I would love to know what she knows, but I think she's stood her ground and you have to respect that."

Besides, he adds, "She's so damned sweet."

"She was a wide-eyed wonder," recalls Dr. Dan Martin, a high school friend with a medical practice in their hometown of Camden, Ark. "She had a genuine enthusiasm for all things." But she's also "trusting and she's stubborn. That's probably what got her where she is."

Looking back, McDougal, who lives in Redondo Beach, can't help but agree: "I never see trouble coming until it's too late."

She's impulsive.

She signed on with Geragos at their first jailhouse meeting, slightly more than two years ago, because she liked his shoes. He wore loafers, she recalls, deep brown and highly polished. "The shoes were perfect. And I said, 'OK, this is a detail guy.' "

She sings country songs with a strong, plaintive voice. We can feel her pain. She does a hilarious send-up of "Coal Miner's Daughter," giving an impromptu performance one night in a limo in San Francisco: "Ah might be ignorant, but ah ain't stupid." She has a thing for Elvis, Loretta Lynn and karaoke. Raised a Baptist, she now counts a rabbi and a priest among her advisors.

She always orders dessert.

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