Susan Carpenter-McMillan

Susan Carpenter-McMillan

Susan Carpenter-McMillan

Taking stock of people and ideas in the news.
Sept. 21 1997 3:30 AM

Susan Carpenter-McMillan

The woman who ate Paula Jones.

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Here's a cure for Washington's doldrums: Susan Carpenter-McMillan, Paula Jones' new chief counselor, spokeswoman, and all-around Svengali. Her manic, sarcastic, vitriolic TV performances have been the summer's best entertainment. In recent weeks, Carpenter-McMillan has called Bill Clinton a "slimeball" on Meet the Press and announced on Crossfire, "I do not respect a man who dodges the draft, cheats on his wife, and exposes his wee-wee to a stranger." She has also called the president "un-American," a "liar," and a "philanderer." (Watch Carpenter-McMillan in action with CNN Crossfire co-host Bill Press, in either the Windows or the Mac format.)

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For most of the last year, the case of Jones vs. Clinton has flirted with respectability, considerable progress from its ugly early days. Stuart Taylor Jr.'s article in the American Lawyer (click here to see the shorter version that appeared in Slate last October) and a cover story in Newsweek lent credence to Jones' claim that the president had propositioned her. The Supreme Court ruled strongly in her favor, foiling Clinton's stalling tactics. And Jones, once the willing mascot of the loony, Clinton-loathing right, was recast as a charming, nonpolitical naif. Well, so much for that. Thanks largely to the slash-and-burn Carpenter-McMillan, the Jones case has degenerated again into a media circus and an ideological crusade.

Appalled by the way liberal women had dismissed Jones, conservative activist Carpenter-McMillan met and befriended her two-and-a-half years ago. Now they talk "10 times a day," according to Carpenter-McMillan, who says that Jones is like her "younger sister." Actually, Jones seems more like her ward. In the past two months, the 49-year-old Californian has engineered a full-scale takeover of Jones and her case.

Carpenter-McMillan was instrumental in the withdrawal of Jones' lawyers, Gilbert Davis and Joseph Cammarata. They quit last week after Jones rejected a reported $700,000 settlement offer from Clinton. Carpenter-McMillan encouraged Jones to nix the offer because it didn't come with a Clinton apology. Carpenter-McMillan's husband, personal-injury lawyer William McMillan, has now taken over as Jones' chief negotiator.

As for Carpenter-McMillan, she serves as Jones' spokeswoman; chairs Jones' legal fund, which has raised more than $250,000; and runs Jones' fund-raising Web site. And she is a one-woman media tornado. In recent weeks, she has championed Jones on Meet the Press, Crossfire, Equal Time, Larry King Live, Today, The Geraldo Rivera Show, Burden of Proof, Hannity & Colmes, and Talkback Live, among other shows. Jones, says Dick Morris, has become a "wholly owned subsidiary of Carpenter-McMillan."

David Plotz David Plotz

David Plotz is the CEO of Atlas Obscura and host of the Slate Political Gabfest.

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Carpenter-McMillan has spent the last 20 years preparing for this moment on the national stage. She is a type: the Professional Political Celebrity. She isn't a lawyer or a journalist or a politician or a consultant or a PR agent. But she is a first-class media hound, blessed with a savage wit, good looks, and--as one enemy put it--"the tact of a bulldozer." The child of a wealthy religious Southern California land developer, Carpenter-McMillan studied drama at U.S.C. before dropping out to put her husband through law school. He has since made a fortune as a plaintiff's attorney, leaving his wife free to pursue conservative causes.

She launched her activist career in the late '70s as an opponent of abortion. Her gift for sound bite (RU-486 is "human insecticide") and spectacle (she arranged a memorial service for 16,000 aborted fetuses) quickly made her Southern California's most flamboyant pro-lifer. Her image was tarnished when she admitted that she had had an abortion when she was a college student, but she was not deterred for long. She made headlines by petitioning the Los Angeles district attorney to seek the death penalty against O.J. Simpson. More recently, she drafted California's draconian law (signed by Gov. Pete Wilson in September 1996) that mandates chemical castration for paroled child molesters. Carpenter-McMillan is now pushing a bill that would require child molesters to wear a single handcuff for the rest of their lives. (What's next? Scarlet letters?)

Carpenter-McMillan has been locally famous for years--she's done TV commentaries for Los Angeles' ABC affiliate and writes columns for the Los Angeles Times. But now she's made the big leagues. "This is probably nirvana for Susan," says California attorney Gloria Allred, a longtime sparring partner. "She loves being on television, and she's probably happier now than she ever has been in her life. To be out there and attack the president is the height of joy for her."

In a way, Carpenter-McMillan's ascendance serves both sides of the Jones case, and harms only America's dignity. Clinton's defenders are delighted by her emergence. Funny and charming in person, she seems strident and edgy on television. You get the feeling she's about one second away from decking the cameraman. Her ad hominem attacks on Clinton discredit her and Jones (and distract from the ad hominem attacks on Jones by Clinton lawyer Bob Bennett). She confirms the Democratic view that the Jones case is driven by kooky right-wing ideologues. "The more she's out there on television, the happier I am," gloats James Carville, who clashed with her in a memorably vicious Larry King Live. Every time Carpenter-McMillan opens her mouth--and she opens her mouth a lot--the credibility Jones has won during the last year slips away. But Jones and Carpenter-McMillan may be better off than they seem. While it's inconceivable that Jones will win as much at trial as was offered, rejecting the $700,000 settlement offer has a certain logic to it. The case continues as an open, public controversy. Clinton still faces the prospect of a humiliating trial. Jones remains an attractive subject for inevitable book and movie deals. And Carpenter-McMillan has the happiest fortune of all: She can look forward to months and months of talk-show appearances.