Riley Protests Too Much | Harper's Magazine

Sign in to access Harper’s Magazine

Need to create a login? Want to change your email address or password? Forgot your password?

  1. Sign in to Customer Care using your account number or postal address.
  2. Select Email/Password Information.
  3. Enter your new information and click on Save My Changes.

Locked out of your account? Get help here.

Subscribers can find additional help here.

Not a subscriber? Subscribe today!

Get Access to Print and Digital for $23.99.
Subscribe for Full Access
Get Access to Print and Digital for $23.99.
[No Comment]

Riley Protests Too Much


HAMLET: Madam, how like you this play?
QUEEN GERTRUDE: The lady protests too much, methinks.
HAMLET: O, but she’ll keep her word.

William Shakespeare, Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, act iii, sc ii (1599)

Deep in the heart of Shakespeare’s longest (if not his greatest) work lies a play-within-a-play which provides the code by which the entire work can be deciphered. At Elsinore castle, Hamlet works with a troupe of actors in a production of “The Murder of Gonzago,” which Hamlet later calls his “mousetrap.” The play is a vehicle to do what social convention forbids, namely, explore the guilt of the king for high crimes. It has been constructed to parallel Hamlet’s understanding of the true events which have transpired about him. He believes that he has been betrayed by his mother and his stepfather. And as he stages the play, he enters into a dialogue with them, measuring their reaction carefully to judge their guilt or innocence. And through this process he divines their guilt. There are two key passages: the first, when the king rises and departs when the player-king’s acts of betrayal are staged. And the second, set out above, in which the queen tells us that the uncalled-for protestations of innocence of the player-queen give her guilt away.

Hamlet has endured as a dramatic powerhouse, in spite of its length, in spite of its complexity, because it delivers profound psychological insights.
And in the gothic novel now unfolding in Alabama, Hamlet lives again. The core of this drama is an unnatural and overhasty climb to power by a man of very modest abilities, but determined and ruthless ambition, who has now ascended the throne, as it were. Up to this point, the name of this focal character has rarely been mentioned. He of course knows his role and understands fully that as the tightly wound ball of yarn unravels, it will inevitably be exposed.

On Thursday, the organ of the Alabama Republican Party, the Birmingham News, published a highly contrived interview between two of the principal actors behind the scenes in the Siegelman drama, Governor Bob Riley and Brett Blackledge. Here are Riley’s comments, as transcribed by his faithful bootlicker:

“When it gets to the point where he says he believes that the governor of Alabama went to Washington, met with the Justice Department, convinced them to put the resources into a conspiracy to get Don Siegelman, that is so far-fetched, that is so totally wrong that I’m disappointed that someone like Artur Davis could possibly believe that,” Riley said in his first extended interview on the Siegelman case. “What he is doing is impeaching the testimony of two prosecutors, with people that he has known for years, he is impeaching their credibility based on no facts, only using political concerns to do so. . .”

“For anyone, including Artur Davis, to think that the governor or the governor’s office played a part in that is absurd,” Riley said. “It not only will change my relationship with Artur Davis, it’s going to be hard for me to have the respect I have had for him in the past in the future, because now he is accusing me, he is accusing the governor of something that I think in his heart he knows never happened.”

Of course, the “no facts” to which Riley alludes include the 143-page deposition of one of Riley’s campaign acolytes, an attorney whom he sought repeatedly to enlist in dirty tricks, a small mountain of documents which back her up, and the corroborating testimony of a half dozen further witnesses. And her testimony matches perfectly with the otherwise established facts, including Karl Rove’s dealings with the head of the Public Integrity Section, Noel Hillman, who was then campaigning with Rove and Harriet Miers for a judicial appointment.

But the real show-stopper in the Riley-Blackledge story is the suggestion that Artur Davis claimed “the governor of Alabama went to Washington, met with the Justice Department, convinced them to put the resources into a conspiracy…” Davis, of course, neither said nor insinuated any such thing at any point during the hearing. So what leads Riley to say this?
I have a theory. It’s because Riley knows that he did travel to Washington and pursue using the Justice Department as a cat’s paw to secure his own hold on the Montgomery statehouse. In fact, the entire play surrounding the Siegelman prosecution is unmistakably tied to Alabama electoral politics, and to Riley’s concerns about his grip on power.

Here’s still another dead give away. Examine the chronological record of Bob Riley’s approval numbers over the critical time period at this SurveyUSA website.

In the first quarter of 2005, as candidates start their initial overtures for the 2006 election campaign, Riley’s approval number stood at 36%. The received wisdom among political advisors is that an incumbent seeking reelection needs to have an approval level in excess of 55%; a candidate in the forties is viewed as highly vulnerable. An incumbent candidate below 40% is generally viewed as likely to go the way of the Dodo bird.
In short, Riley was in deep trouble. His advisors were telling him that (a point I have now confirmed with several sources). They were telling him he needed to do something fairly dramatic to turn the ship around, or he was going to be a one-term governor. Also not much question as to who his opponent would be. At this point, the money was on a Siegelman-Riley rematch. And indeed, a significant part of the electorate were not convinced that Riley really won the race in 2002.

Now let’s parallel this to the timeline of the Siegelman prosecution. Just as Riley’s polling numbers turn sour, the prosecutors in Montgomery are being told that their conclusion that the case is a nonstarter is unacceptable to Noel Hillman, head of Public Integrity, aspirant to the bench, and man with established track record of meetings in this period with Karl Rove and Harriet Miers. Hillman and possibly other political operatives at Justice above Hillman want them to “take another look at the case.” (Let me translate that for you. It means: Nail this sucker. Find something! We’re not letting him off, no matter how innocent you may think he is.)

Next let’s consider the testimony of Riley’s campaign operative, Jill Simpson. According to her sworn testimony, this is when Rob Riley discussed the reinvigorated and politically directed Justice Department assault on Siegelman. It was, for the Riley camp, their political “ace in the hole.”

Trace the Riley numbers forward to May 2005, when the sealed indictment is handed down, and then to October 2005 when the indictment was announced with much fanfare in Montgomery. Just prior to the unsealing of the indictment, Riley’s approval was at 48%–that is still in the serious danger zone. At the same time, SurveyUSA has Siegelman emerging as Riley’s adversary in the coming election—leading his Democratic rival by thirty points on the primary tally.

These numbers and this timeline make clear that the indictment and prosecution of Siegelman had a determinative effect on the Alabama gubernatorial election–precisely as was intended by their authors. The timing was keyed to the election process, with the intention of rescuing Bob Riley. And it achieved its purpose perfectly. Riley owes his re-election and second term to the indictment and prosecution of Don Siegelman. His political operatives not only followed this with the greatest care and attention, they were deeply engaged in it at every point. They exploited the culture that Karl Rove introduced to the Justice Department, namely its use and direction as a political instrument to accomplish the objectives of the Republican Party. And they exploited the Alabama G.O.P.’s key asset in Washington: Karl Rove.

Funny. The Rileys used to brag to their friends and acquaintances about their wonderful rapport with Karl Rove. Today they are busy telling everyone that they hardly know the man. It’s as if their friend Karl developed a bad case of leprosy. Truth is, Big Bob owes his make-over to Karl. Rove was the man who stressed to Riley the value of his physical stature and Reaganesque appearance. Did you ever wonder how it is that Riley came to wear $3,000 crocodile boots and be carefully photographed riding a horse? Before the make-over, Riley used to wear hushpuppies and pennyloafers. But I’m getting ahead of the story. That chapter is yet to come.

Now of course, Bob Riley wants all the good citizens of Alabama to pray for rain and not bother their busy heads with these facts. He has very wisely kept out of any public discussion of the controversy, even while our sources indicate it has been his absolutely obsessive concern for over three months. There’s a reason for the worry. Riley knows that the unraveling has begun. And his interview with the Birmingham News is the dead give away.

More from