I wasn’t sure what to expect when reporter Tom Gordon, photographer Steven Atha and I sat down to lunch with Don Siegelman last Friday. It’s a hell of a thing, preparing for a conversation with a man who’s about to report to federal authorities to begin a six-year prison stretch. And that’s regardless of one’s feelings about the person — or, other than acts of violence, the crime of which they were convicted.
My own feelings about the former Alabama Governor — who goes to jail on September 11, six years after his conviction on charges of bribery along with Richard Scrushy, the founder and former CEO of HealthSouth Corp. — have always been ambivalent. Siegelman spent more than a quarter-century in elective office, the only person ever to hold each of the state’s four constitutional offices (governor, lieutenant governor, attorney general and secretary of state). I usually voted for him, but I never warmed up to him. He struck me as a man of enormous political talents who had the potential to be a transformational figure in the history of Alabama but seemed more interested in simply moving up the ladder to the next office. Plus, I didn’t buy then and do not buy now the notion that a state-run lottery is the answer to all of our prayers (irony intended) for improving education in Alabama.
On the other hand, Siegelman was not without significant accomplishments in each office he held, as he was quick to point out last week while we dug into our entrees. You can read more about those in Tom Gordon’s absorbing account that begins on Page 6. I’m holding most of what I took away from the conversation for a longer piece on the demise of the Democratic Party in Alabama that will run later this year. For now, I’m compelled to use my space this week to try and synthesize some of my thoughts during and since our two hours with the former governor.
One image that stands out in my mind is that of Siegelman explaining the dynamics of disputed vote totals in Baldwin County in the 2002 gubernatorial election, when a late-night swing of 5,000 votes gave the victory to Republican Bob Riley and denied Siegelman a second term — during which, he said Friday, he would have pushed casino gaming through the legislature and attacked the daunting and long overdue tasks of reforming the 1901 Alabama Constitution and the egregiously regressive state tax system.
Pulling a pen from his shirt pocket, Siegelman sketched a Bell curve on the paper tablecloth as he spoke, casually displaying his instinctive nuts-and-bolts knowledge of what historic voting patterns mean relative to a given result. Of course, this was all tied into his insistence that the ’02 election was stolen and that his plan to reclaim the office from Riley in ’06 was derailed by a politically-motivated, highly selective prosecution whose origins ran all the way to the George W. Bush White House.
“They spent a lot of time and a lot of money in Alabama,” Siegelman said, “and it wasn’t because they wanted good government.”
The thing of it is, Siegelman’s conspiracy theory — pulling the likes of Karl Rove, Jack Abramoff and the United States Attorney’s office into his talk of selective prosecution, governmental misconduct, the critical difference between implied and explicit agreements, the idea that his case is a model argument for judicial reform — has about it an air of plausibility. Do I believe it? I’m pretty sure I don’t. Do I think it is possible that it went down the way Siegelman wants us to believe? Yes, I do — not because I believe everything Siegelman says, but because I know how politics works in general, and I sure as hell don’t have any trouble believing that Karl Rove would go out of his way to help send an innocent man to jail if it benefitted his side politically.
More than anything else, though, I was struck by Siegelman’s general demeanor. He was outwardly serene but with a nervous intensity in his eyes and voice that betrayed some unease about his immediate future. He is steadfast in his proclamation of innocence, driving his points home not with forceful language, but with the “on-message” persuasiveness of the professional politician. Tom, Steven and I talked about that on the way back to the Weld office, how maybe, at bottom, Siegelman has approached all of this — the effort to have his conviction overturned, the looming date of his incarceration, his intention to press his case for a Presidential pardon — as his last campaign.
Maybe it’s all he knows how to do, look for one more victory. He said he doesn’t regret not just taking his medicine when he was convicted and serving a sentence that would be up by now, that all of the emotional and financial expense of the appeal process was worth it regardless of the outcome.
As we were close to wrapping up, I asked Siegelman about his legacy, which regardless of any accomplishments he may fairly claim, is undeniably tarnished. Responding, he first fell back on the recitation of those accomplishments, but then stopped himself short.
“My legacy is what’s in my heart and mind, and how my kids feel about me,” he said. “The rest of it doesn’t matter, frankly. I enjoyed every minute of my public service, and I think the folks in Alabama benefitted from it.”
Mark Kelly is the publisher of Weld. Write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org.