In a column last May headlined “Gods of politics must be crazy,” I touched on the sex scandal swirling around then Governor Robert Bentley of Alabama, United States. It is only fitting that I comment on the ending, that the swirling scandal suddenly reached a vortex and swept the governor out of office. Falling from grace has become a routine of political life. Yet, there is much about this Aesop-like morality tale that sets it apart as a lesson of life, not just of politics.
We might blame what happened on Adam of the Garden of Eden fame. Had the fellow resisted the temptation of the biblical snake, we might have been spared of the treacherous burden of the libido. Adam could have just said no or taken a cold shower. (There must have been lots of cold water in that lush garden.)Instead, he took the forbidden fruit from the sly snake and ate it. And thousands of years later, a good governor just paid the political price for Adam’s lack of will power.
But we mustn’t blame it all on Adam. There is also the matter of the intoxication of power, which has nothing to do with the curse of the forbidden fruit. President George Bush the elder once declared that one of the perks of becoming president was that he didn’t have to eat broccoli anymore. And we readily him conceded that privilege. We also conceded the lesser perks of living in the White House, commanding the world’s most powerful military, disbursing trillions of dollars, and above all flying in Air Force One. Yet the wise Bush knew that with every power to do, there are several don’ts.
Not so with many executives, from presidents to governors, from mayors to corporate executives. The aura of power tends to warp judgments. In the case of Bentley, it is in not understanding that a governor shouldn’t use state money to buy the forbidden fruit and if caught eating it, should whimper like a mouse and not roar like a lion.
Perhaps the most significant lesson of the Bentley saga still is what it says about the tenuousness of human existence. Life is tenuous, along with everything associated with it: status, reputation, wealth, power. In the journey of life, there are so many ways that things can go wrong. And it can happen at any time. One can drive safely for 300 miles only to doze off, crash and die three miles away from home.
When Bentley first ran for the governorship in 2010, the dermatologist presented himself as a good Christian and family man and was widely regarded as such. With his looping gait and willowy look, I didn’t think he had a chance in this television age. But his message of virtuous and ethical government resonated among voters.
Amidst a depressed economy and high unemployment — in the state and nationwide — Bentley pledged to forego his salary as governor until the state attained full employment, that is, 5.2 per cent unemployment, according to economists. The state’s unemployment rate was about 11 per cent at the time. As of this January, it is about 6.2 per cent.
Bentley maintained that pledge into his second term. Having served for over six years, and using his 2013 annual salary of $120,00 as the base, Bentley in effect gave up at least $720,00 in salary. That’s no little sacrifice for someone whose annual income at the time was reported to be about $373,000.
The 74-year-old Bentley’s downfall stems from a love affair with his political adviser, an attractive married woman who is 29 years younger. When word first got out about the affair, Bentley denied it, claiming that he had merely “said something inappropriate” to the adviser.
But investigators were soon to determine that it wasn’t a matter of what he said. It was a matter of doing something inappropriate, using campaign funds for the purpose, and then intimidating or firing staff members who would reveal it.
There are number of ironies about it all. To begin with, for an affair that he would deny, Bentley wasn’t exactly discreet about it. When a governor routinely blocked off chunks of time with a female adviser during which he practically hung a “Do Not Disturb” sign on the door, there are not too many ways to interpret it, except perhaps that they were reprogramming the U.S. nuclear code. And even when his wife got wind of the affair and reportedly urged him to call it off, he continued.
Bentley complicated matters by digging into campaign funds to assist his adviser-lover. The laws are strict on the use of those funds, and using them for personal purposes is outright forbidden. The irony is that the salary the governor gave up would have paid the expenses a thousand fold. But that’s besides the point.
And so with impeachment looming and a chorus of voices urging him to resign, Bentley did exactly that, less than a week after he had defiantly said he wouldn’t. “I love this state and all the people in it,” he said in a brief resignation speech. It wasn’t just public relations rhetoric. He had demonstrated it. Problem is that he apparently loved one state resident perhaps too much, and that’s what did him in.
Incidentally, with Governor Bentley’s resignation, the state of Alabama just completed a clean sweep of the leadership of all three branches of government. The Speaker of the House was convicted of corruption and removed from office last year. Then the state chief justice was suspended from office after he issued an order to trial judges that was contrary to a U.S. Supreme Court ruling. And now Bentley’s resignation has completed the sweep. This all happened in a span of less than one year.
The Alabama government could well be the most cleansed anywhere. Perhaps, South African President Jacob Zuma should pay a visit to the state. He might subsequently think twice about defying calls to bring an end to his corruption-ridden administration.
Nugget of wisdom
Kay Ivey, Bentley’s successor as Alabama State governor, commenting at her inauguration on her approach to governance: “The Ivey administration will be open, it will be transparent, and it will be honest.”