Brave Heart

Few people could accuse Susan McDougal of being laconic -- except maybe erstwhile independent counsel Kenneth Starr. A central figure during the Clinton presidency because of her and former husband James McDougal's partnership with the First Couple in an Arkansas land deal known as Whitewater, McDougal refused the independent counsel's repeated entreaties and intimidation tactics to lie under oath about Clinton's involvement. While her rock-solid determination to hold onto her integrity made her the poster girl for sticking to her guns, it also landed her in seven different jails in five states over a two-year period. Following a conviction on fraud charges, she was shuttled from a county jail to a minimum-security prison to solitary confinement in murderer's row. Ultimately she was sent to Los Angeles's notorious Twin Towers Correctional Facility, a panopticon-style structure where she was isolated in a glass cell with the lights on 24-hours a day for three months. "I had nightmares for a long time when I got out, that I was still in that glass cell," McDougal recalls on the phone from her home in Camden, Arkansas.

Oddly enough, McDougal claims that not cooperating with the government and doing time changed her life for the better. Amazingly upbeat considering her ordeal, she's now an activist for humane treatment of women prisoners. And, as luck would have it, she's sort of a movie star, if you count a key role in longtime Clinton crony Harry Thomason's latest film The Hunting of the President: The Ten-Year Campaign to Destroy Bill Clinton. Thomason's documentary, made with director Nickolas Perry, is based on the best-selling book by journalists Joe Conason and Gene Lyons. "From the beginning to the end I'm in torment," says McDougal about her role in the film, adding that she was initially reluctant to relive the bad times but was ultimately glad she participated. (The film will have its Florida premiere on Wednesday thanks to the efforts of many, including The Miami Beach Cinematheque.) "I think you'll see it and you'll say, öThey treated everything, everything, both sides with respect.' It's not a Michael Moore film," McDougal says. "It's very respectful of everyone involved -- except Starr."

And what of her nemesis Kenneth Starr, who is believed by both Republicans and Democrats to have gone over the line not just for investigating alleged wrongdoing but for staging a political witch hunt? In 2001 Clinton pardoned McDougal, but has she forgiven Starr? Well, a while ago when invited to appear with McDougal on a Larry King Live broadcast, Starr refused. But what would McDougal do if she came face to face with Starr, say, at Starbucks? Buy him a coffee? Throw a double machiatto in his face? "No, I wouldn't," she says tersely. "But it would be very hard for me not to want to lay hands on him." And if challenged to a fist-fight with the pitbull lawyer, McDougal thinks she could probably take him. Remember she's been to prison; he hasn't. -- Nina Korman