Stealing Our Democracy: How the Political Assassination of a Governor Threatens Our Nation (Don Siegelman)

(I received an Advance Reader’s Copy in exchange for this review.)

In 2008, Vice President Al Gore said of Siegelman: “Don is engaged in two important fights: One, for his own freedom and, the other, to save our democracy. As Americans we have a responsibility to protect our democracy from those who would take advantage of it and abuse their power.” Siegelman’s book, Stealing Our Democracy: How the Political Assassination of a Governor Threatens a Nation, recounts the story of both of these fights. To his credit, Siegelman is not shy about naming ‘those who would take advantage of [our democracy] and abuse their power.’ And in 2019, no less an authority than Congressman John Lewis explained why Siegelman was forced to engage in both fights: “Don Siegelman, as Alabama’s first progressive governor, advanced the cause of justice for African Americans and women… this drove the Republicans crazy. The coup de grace was that Governor Siegelman was going to give free college education and free early learning to ALL Alabama children through an Educational Lottery.” Even author John Grisham, best-known for his best sellers, but also a lawyer and a member of the Board of Directors of The Innocence Project, recently put it quite succinctly: “Yeah, [Siegelman] got screwed.”

Siegelman sets up his account as (no pun intended) a frame story, starting with his awaiting sentencing and then backtracking to his upbringing, his introduction to politics, and the two incidents that became pivotal in his political assassination, including the Education Lottery Lewis mentions above. When all roads turn out to lead to Karl Rove, I was not surprised. When I read Siegelman’s portrait of Rove’s despicable and dubious machinations, Siegelman was preaching to the choir. That led me to wonder about the audience for this book.

Siegelman’s purpose for writing it is clear. He wants to, in his mind, set the record straight and to tell the story of his wrongful conviction so others will be disabused of the notion that the justice system is fair (if anyone still believes that) and that his ideas about criminal justice reform (which stem from his own experience in prison) should be embraced. After all, Rove has faded from public view, and I am sure others involved in the conspiracy against him – with the exception of Jeff Sessions – are now less prominent as well. Any effort to cause trouble for them seems unlikely to succeed. There are, I imagine, a lot of people in Alabama and elsewhere who have already made up their minds about Siegelman. He was either, as Grisham so eloquently put it “screwed” or this book is all sour grapes. If there are people who are still open-minded enough to read this book to hear Siegelman’s point of view, he proves the clichéd axiom true – a lawyer should never defend himself.

I want to reiterate that I read an Advance Reader’s Copy and that there is a note near the back of it that indicates that ‘Legal Notes’ – whatever they are – are still to come. During a recent interview for a podcast, Siegelman claimed that he has everything documented. I certainly hope so. The presence of such documentation would certainly make his argument more convincing.
The main problem with this book, though, the one that will likely cause sales to stall after the initial scandal-related publicity and the rush to check the book’s index (also noted as forthcoming) is that Siegelman is not a very good writer. There are minor issues. When he used “WTF?” as an exclamation in the first chapter, I winced. His inclusion of sometimes repeated details absolutely mystified me. How many times do we need to know the process a prisoner undergoes to get searched? His desperation to demonstrate that his life is one filled with good works is excessive, especially when he chooses to identify the race of all of the African-Americans he helped and who love him, but does not name the race of others.

But the most important flaw here should have been the first one that was recognized. A writer’s first job is to tell a story clearly. That’s what they should ask their initial readers – is the story clear? Any honest reader would have told him it was not. One of the most important details Siegelman chooses to overlook concerns a check related to the Education Lottery. While he says that he prevented it from being cashed right away because he didn’t recognize its source, he never says what happened to it. Did he investigate its origins? Did he cash it? Did the discussed second check ever arrive? Though the actors working against him were myriad and complex, Siegelman is unable to untangle them enough to make his story clear. This is in part due to his questionable choices about details. It probably would have helped to read some of Grisham’s novels. In those books, the legal details are very clear.

But those problems will only be faced by those who read the book. I still wonder who the audience is, and if any casual browser catches sight of the cover, that will be more than enough to cause them to pass by. I hope the publishers chose to feature the quotations from Gore and Lewis. They would certainly earn the book more credibility than the one from Scott Horton. Siegelman’s picture on the front of the book is terrible. I only learned that his all-white clothing is a prison uniform when I asked someone from Alabama. It makes him look like a cult figure, especially because of his white hair and the contrast with the black background. The hyperbolic language on the cover – stealing, assassination, threatens, Political Prisoner #1 – makes the book seem more like a Tom Clancy knock-off than an important and true story. Political Prisoner #1 may even make the book seem like it’s the first in a series. The pictures of Rove and Sessions on the back make sense. But why Trump? He’s barely a bit player in this drama.
Late in the book, Siegelman talks about how the book’s first draft was initially 650 pages. I’d love for him to take that to someone who can write and make it an “as told to” account. Even if I am convinced that account is true, Siegelman’s poor presentation of it (and I include the cover here) undermines any chances he may have had to change the narrative about himself and to promote the reforms he seeks.

Charles Ellenbogen is the author of the teaching memoir, THIS ISN’T THE MOVIES: 25 YEARS IN THE CLASSROOM, and teaches high school English in Cleveland, Ohio. He lives in Shaker Heights, Ohio with Kirsten, his wife, Zoe, their daughter, Ezra, their son, Lincoln, their dog, and Chocolate Scales, their snake

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