As I drove up U.S. Highway 280, swerving in and out of traffic and making my way from suburban Birmingham toward the city’s center, I thought about the events of the past year that had led up to this moment.
For many months the hottest rumor in Alabama politics was that Governor Robert Bentley had engaged in a long-running extramarital affair with his senior political advisor Rebekah Mason, a married mother of three. At first the idea seemed so absurd I dismissed it as politically motivated nonsense. Now, here I was, driving toward an obscure Birmingham gas station to obtain the indisputable evidence that it was all true.
For the week prior to this midnight meeting, I had been in discussions with confidential sources who claimed to be in possession of secret audio recordings of Governor Bentley and Mrs. Mason. The recordings, I was told, had been made by Governor Bentley’s then-wife, Dianne, and contained explicit details of the Bentley-Mason affair. The sources were wary of their identities being revealed, and one of the sources expressed concerns about the Bentleys’ grandchildren having to endure such embarrassment.
But they agreed on three key points:
Number one, that Robert Julian Bentley — the husband, father, church deacon, dermatologist and now governor — had allowed his once sterling character to be corroded by power.
Number two, that Rebekah Caldwell Mason — the local TV news anchor, small-time communications consultant and now senior advisor to the governor — had willfully destroyed the Bentleys’ marriage of 50 years while simultaneously consolidating near-full control of the executive branch of Alabama’s state government.
And number three, that the evidence they held could spark a seismic event in Alabama politics and bring the Bentley-Mason house of cards crumbling down.
In spite of their reservations about releasing the recordings, it was Governor Bentley’s arrogance, one of the sources said, that was too much for them to endure. While Mrs. Bentley struggled to understand what all had happened and mourned what she felt like was catastrophic damage to her “Christian witness,” her former husband continued to give his mistress unfettered access to every part of his life.
As he walked down the center aisle of the Old House Chamber after delivering the State of the State address, Mrs. Mason was by his side. When he was photographed at a swanky Washington, D.C., gala typically reserved for only governors and first ladies, she was his date. And when any meeting in the Capitol was concluded, she was always the last one left in the room with him.
The frustration and anger simmered for months, but it was now boiling over.
I pulled behind the gas station to find a thumb drive exactly where I was told it would be.
I jumped back in the car and rushed home, plugged the drive into my computer, opened the file, and within a few minutes I knew Governor Bentley’s legacy would forever be defined by what I was hearing.
Rebekah, I just, I miss you. I wish I was with you right now… You know, I worry about sometimes I love you so much, I worry about loving you so much… You’d kiss me? I love that. You know I do love that. You know what? When I stand behind you and I put my arms around you, and I put my hands on your breasts, and I put my hands on you and pull you in real close. Hey, I love that, too.
I cringed throughout the roughly 45-minutes of conversations between the two lovers, but also felt a strange sense of sadness about what had happened and what was surely to come. Families would never be the same. The Bentley and Mason children would endure undeserved ridicule. And the state would weather yet another torrent of embarrassing headlines.
I texted Rebekah Mason, “I know it’s late, but we may need to talk tonight.”
THE DE FACTO GOVERNOR
My relationship with Mrs. Mason had been up and down over the last several years.
In 2012, Mason, who was at the time the administration’s communications director, sought my advice on the administration’s plans to bolster its online presence. We met for lunch in Birmingham and I offered some thoughts on what later became the Governor’s NewsRoom.
In early 2014, Mason again asked for my thoughts on language in the Governor’s State of the State address, which she hoped would put to bed rumors that he was planning to expand Medicaid after getting re-elected.
But several months later we had a falling out when Yellowhammer published a story pointing out that they were once again refusing to say the governor would not expand Medicaid “under any scenario.”
Tensions rose again in 2015 when Yellowhammer ran a series of stories on Governor Bentley’s decision to go back on his campaign promise to not raise taxes, capped off by an April Fools headline declaring, “Bentley makes it official, switches to Democratic Party,” which caused the phone lines in the Capitol to melt down.
But Mrs. Mason expressed appreciation last year when Yellowhammer criticized other media outlets for publishing tabloid-style stories on the affair rumors, which at the time were unsubstantiated. I told her at the time that I thought the coverage by other outlets had been unethical. I still believe it was.
I decided I was not going to drop the story on the recordings until I had given her a chance to comment.
But I did not hear back until the following morning.
Last fall, I called Governor Bentley on his cell phone on a Saturday afternoon.
I know it was a Saturday because we were both watching college football — me at my suburban Birmingham home, him at the Governor’s Mansion in Montgomery. He was sick and had almost completely lost his voice, but was in good spirits, in spite of the controversy swirling around him.
I told him I was not calling about anything in particular, but just wanted to tell him I had been praying for him and his family.
We spoke for about 10 minutes, but it was not until we got off the phone that I had a revelation.
While the rest of Alabama was engulfed in a typical college football weekend and likely surrounded by friends and family, the state’s governor was home alone, estranged from his family and an outcast in his own party.
It would be several months before more details of his moral and ethical failures would go public, but there was already a very real sense that he was on an island — that all he had left was the office he holds and that he would not give it up voluntarily and relegate himself to an early retirement of obscurity.
MASON’S CHANCE TO COME CLEAN
The morning after I obtained the audio recordings I spoke on the phone with Rebekah Mason for almost an hour. It was a roller-coaster conversation that made it abundantly clear that, in spite of Mrs. Mason’s communications background and the obvious dangers of carrying on an affair with the governor, there had not been much thought given to what they would say if they were ever caught red-handed.
She wanted to hear the recordings. I told her that was not possible.
Then came the excuses.
Sometimes when you’re a woman working in politics, she said, you have to just let inappropriate comments roll off of you like water off a duck’s back.
I stopped her from continuing and told her the recordings did not support that narrative. I could feel her anxiety growing.
“What should I do?” She asked.
My advice was very simple: Tell the truth.
It became clear that she was deeply conflicted. She did not want her children to hear what must be on the recordings. She did not want to be a front page headline and the butt of every joke in Montgomery, like Goat Hill’s version of Monica Lewinksy. But she also did not want to give up just yet. Her unlikely rise from small town television anchor to the most powerful political operative in the state had not come easy, and she was not convinced the ride was over.
She asked for an hour to think. I agreed.
She texted me several times asking for more details about the recordings. She said she and the governor were meeting about what to do.
One hour turned into several hours, and I texted her one last time saying I could not wait any longer to run the story, even though I wanted to include a comment from her or the governor.
I hit “publish,” closed my computer and sat back in my chair.
My phone buzzed a few minutes later. It was Mrs. Mason.
“I’m sorry,” she texted.
The story was international news within the hour.
— Cliff Sims (@Cliff_Sims) April 18, 2016