I may never forgive Don Siegelman. His election as Alabama governor in 1998 raised hopes for our demoralized state’s future — hopes that were plainly and movingly expressed in an essay that I’ve saved for nine years. It’s called “Selma, Alabama at 4 A.M.,” and it’s by a guy named Will Bevis from Gadsden. (I’m glad to find them both online.)
In a word, Siegelman dashed all those hopes. I worked for a non-profit in Montgomery during his term in office, and I’ll spare you the experiences that generated my lasting antipathy toward Siegelman. It’s enough to say that Siegelman’s only virtue was his intelligence, and he used that to compound his vices. He was most comfortable keeping secrets and operating in back rooms, and he both mistrusted and feared the electorate — especially after the voters rejected his warmed-over lottery scheme, copied from Georgia’s Zell Miller.
I remain convinced that Siegelman regarded the governor’s office as a stepping stone to the U.S. Senate. Here, too, he was just copying Miller, and once that train went off the tracks, he lost interest in Alabama’s affairs. He understood how the state government is structurally flawed in ways that every other former Confederate state has repaired, and that Alabama desperately needs to repair. But because governing well was less important than his own career prospects, he just couldn’t give a damn. Even Guy Hunt, the country preacher who was elevated to the governorship by a political fluke back in 1987, had been able to stir himself to attempt more in the way of reform than Siegelman dared to. Don’s do-nothing ways compare with those of his immediate predecessor, the clownish Fob James. It was his Republican successor, Bob Riley, arguably our most conservative governor in modern times, who persuaded the legislature to pass an income tax reform bill backed by Alabama Arise — a bill that “liberal” Siegelman wouldn’t even read.
So I often dispute with my liberal friends over the conspiracy theory that Siegelman’s conviction for bribery and mail fraud was a set-up arranged by Karl Rove and his henchmen. (The Wikipedia article on Siegelman is devoted to little else.) Siegelman’s character is fully capable of this kind of misconduct, the evidence for a conspiracy is thin, and I believe the reaction in his favor is due far more to suspicion of anything coming from the Alberto Gonzales Justice Department than to the actual merits of Siegelman’s case.
Seems likely that it’s bad news for Siegelman that a Democrat will head the next presidency, as he won’t be able to credibly play a martyr to federal power for much longer. But I admit that my feelings are biased against the man and I’m pleased to see him jailed, whatever the reason. I believe he squandered his time in office, and betrayed the hopes of millions, in a vain attempt to make the governorship serve his personal ambitions.