The Tragedy of Bill Jefferson

By Matthew Cooper

There's something comic and familiar, of course, about a Louisiana politician going to jail. We've come to expect colorful rogues in jumpsuit orange. There's something more tragic to the fall of William Jefferson. Maybe because he was the state's first African American congressman since Reconstruction or maybe it's because he's a Harvard-trained lawyer. A lot of excitement greeted his election. After all, he took over the seat once held by House Majority Leader Hale Boggs and his wife, Lindy Boggs, the mother of  ABCNews's Cokie Roberts and venerable lobbyist Tommy Boggs. Jefferson's arrival in Congress in 1991 was another sign of the rise of biracial politics in the South even if the district had been made still blacker to all but ensure the election of an African American.

The conviction on 11 of 16 counts wasn't shocking. After all, $90,000 worth of cash in one's freezer is always tough to defend. But that doesn't make the whole episode so disspiriting in a way that it wouldn't be if it were someone else.

The hopeful sign here is the 2nd district itself. Surprising almost everyone, the longtime Democratic district elected a Republican, Joseph Cao, who is of Vietnamese origin. He's the first native of Vietnam to serve in Congress, a sign that just as corruption remains endemic in American politics so does fluidity and surprise.

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2009/08/the-tragedy-of-bill-jefferson/22817/