Protecting Miss Paula

updated 02/02/1998 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 02/02/1998 AT 01:00 AM EST

AT TIMES THERE SEEM TO BE TWO Susan Carpenter McMillans—one, the crisply coiffed Southern California millionaire who defines WASP as a person who Will Always Say Please ("We don't cry, we don't carry on"); and the other, a political pit bull, who, using language decidedly less polite, described Bill Clinton on CNN as "a man who dodges the draft, cheats on his wife and exposes his wee-wee to a stranger."

In fact, McMillan, 51, is happy to play both roles, preferably on a TV screen near you. A freewheeling activist and feisty political commentator whose passions range from show dogs to opposing abortion, McMillan has vaulted to national prominence as the outspoken handler of Paula Jones, the former Arkansas state clerk whose sexual harassment suit against Bill Clinton is scheduled to go to trial this spring. "Paula is the most delightful, naive, strong and courageous woman I know," says McMillan, who escorted her client to witness Clinton, under oath, answering questions posed by Jones's lawyers in Washington on Jan. 17. "I've become kind of her poop shield."

McMillan draws fire from skeptics who believe Jones is being manipulated for political purposes and praise from Paula's supporters. "McMillan is a leech," says Stephen Hess of the liberal Brookings Institution. "She is someone who has hooked onto Paula Jones, and it is sad." But David Horowitz, coauthor of The Kennedys and head of the L.A.'s Center for the Study of Popular Culture, defends McMillan, calling her "a credible figure among conservatives."

McMillan describes her mission as more personal than political. "I see Paula as a victim," she explains, and as a kind of soul sister. Raised in middle-class Glendale, Calif., McMillan says she herself was the victim of a sexual predator at age 6 when her father, a real estate developer with a social conscience (her mother, Emma, 83, is a onetime follower of the late preacher Aimee Semple McPherson), invited a young gang member to live at the family's home. Without her parents' knowledge, she was molested by the youth. "Out of that," she says, "comes my incredible passion for any victim."

A self-described dyslexic, McMillan went through four years at the University of Southern California as a drama student before dropping out in 1972 to marry Bill McMillan, now 49 and a medical malpractice lawyer. They live with their two daughters, Cameo, 19, and Tara, 12, in San Marino, an affluent Los Angeles suburb. For the past two decades, Bill has bankrolled Susan's media-savvy activism. Her triumphs include a new heart for Baby Jesse, a California newborn initially denied a transplant in 1986 because his young parents weren't married, and passage two years ago of a state law mandating castration (chemical or surgical) for repeat-offender child molesters.

But it was as a spokeswoman for the Right to Life League of Southern California from 1979 until the early '90s that McMillan made her biggest splash—especially after she revealed in a 1990 Los Angeles Times interview that she had had an abortion as a 21-year-old college student and later came to regret it. "I have never forgiven myself and I never will," says McMillan, who left the right to life group a year later, in part because she objected to being showcased as a victim of abortion. "There is only one victim," she says, "and that is the unborn child."

McMillan met Jones at a luncheon three years ago, shortly after Clinton's accuser went public with her charges. She began offering occasional media advice and eventually became Jones's unpaid spokeswoman before taking over the management of Jones's legal defense fund last July. Two months later, Jones's longtime lawyers Gilbert Davis and Joseph Cammarata withdrew from the case after Jones refused a proposed $700,000 settlement, reportedly because it didn't include an apology from the President. Trial is scheduled for May in Little Rock, and the contending lawyers could try to introduce into evidence details of Jones's sex life as well as Clinton's. "I told Paula not to be surprised if they have a kangaroo that says he made love with you," jokes McMillan. "And Paula said, 'I don't care, because I know the truth.' " The question of whether or not she is telling it may soon be in the hands of a jury.

JOHN HANNAH in San Marino and JANE SIMS PODESTA in Washington

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