06/06/2007 01:49 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

The Temptation of William Jefferson

Getting indicted on corruption charges is, of course, an ignominious end to a political career. But for William Jefferson, it's full of ironies as well. Jefferson doesn't quite match the blustery stereotype we all have of the corrupt congressman (which Duke Cunningham and Bob Ney embodied particularly well). Jefferson's tenure in Congress is a more complex beast, marked by a sharp tension between Louisiana politics-as-usual and Washington wonkiness.

I covered Jefferson for several years in the 1990s for The Times-Picayune, and interviewed him from time to time after that. He is a shy man, not a glad-handing pol in the manner of others from the state. He's also an intelligent man, a graduate of Harvard Law School with a command of policy arcana unusual in a congressman, especially tax, fiscal and trade policy. While in Congress, he attended graduate school in tax law at Georgetown University to school himself for his (now surrendered) seat on the Ways and Means Committee.

If only he'd stayed on the wonkish path and stuck with tariffs and tax progressivity, he would have built a solid reputation, been a role model - and finally cashed in, like many a member before him. But for some reason, that wasn't enough.

Jefferson lost two runs for New Orleans mayor and a run for governor. He had clearly gone as high as he'd ever go in politics. And what he really wanted in lieu of higher office was drearily predictable: to be not just a rich man, but to wield money and power, be a kingmaker.

He was very much a backroom wheeler-dealer representing a place with more back rooms per capita than any other city in America. He has his own political organization, the Progressive Democrats, that specialized in getting out the vote, and dynastic ambitions for his children (a daughter is a state representative).

So, he (allegedly) used his knowledge of trade and his leverage as a congressman to set up a complex telecom deal between Nigerian officials and an American company that would pay him and his family off handsomely - and ended up instead with that indelible image of $90K in his freezer. In the process, he let down New Orleans when it needed him the most. What a waste.