The Magazine

A Lobbyist's Progress

From the December 20, 2004 issue: Jack Abramoff and the end of the Republican Revolution.

Dec 20, 2004, Vol. 10, No. 14 • By ANDREW FERGUSON
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JACK ABRAMOFF IS 45. He grew up in Beverly Hills, son of a Diners Club executive, and went to college at Brandeis. A shared passion for conservative activism--not the most common passion on campuses in Massachusetts--led him to a friendship with Norquist, a Harvard graduate student. Together they organized students for the 1980 Reagan campaign in their state, which Reagan, miraculously, carried. After graduation they launched a campaign to take over a sleepy, Washington-based subsidiary of the Republican National Committee called College Republicans. Abramoff spent $10,000 of personal money winning the chairmanship. With Norquist as executive director, he transformed CR into a "right-wing version of a communist cell--complete with purges of in-house dissenters and covert missions to destroy the enemy left," as Nina Easton puts it in her useful history, Gang of Five.

Easton's sensibility may seem a bit delicate, but she well captures the revolutionary mood among the young idealists who came to Washington after Reagan's inauguration in 1981, among whom Abramoff and Norquist were the loudest and most energetic. They were soon joined by Reed, freshly graduated from the University of Georgia and looking even younger then than he does now, if you can imagine. Borrowing tactics from their leftist counterparts, College Republicans were particularly good at dramatizing the causes of limited government and anti-communism. When the Soviet Union invaded Poland, they swarmed the Polish embassy in Washington and burned the Soviet flag for news cameras. They staged counter-demonstrations to those put on by the useful idiots of the nuclear-freeze movement. At late-night gatherings they sang age-old anarchist anthems that Norquist had taught them. You could tell a College Republican by the buttons he wore: "There's no government like no government," for example.

After College Republicans, Abramoff brought the same theatricality to his other activist jobs. "His greatest strength was his audacity," says the writer and political consultant Jeff Bell, who worked with Abramoff and Norquist at a Reaganite group called Citizens for America in the mid-1980s. "He and Grover were just wildmen. They always were willing to throw the long ball. Jack's specialty was the spectacular--huge, larger-than-life, almost Hollywood-like events." As the group's chairman, Abramoff staged his greatest spectacular in 1985, a "summit meeting" of freedom-fighters from around the world, held in a remote corner of the African bush. Among the summiteers was Adolfo Calero, a leader of the Nicaraguan contras, and playing host was a favorite of the 1980s conservative movement, the Angolan rebel Jonas Savimbi, who fought bravely against the Cuban occupiers of his country but turned out, alas, to be a Maoist cannibal. In her book Easton reports that both Abramoff and Norquist, who had been hired as Abramoff's assistant, were later dismissed from CFA for "lavish spending."

As the Reagan years wound down, the conservative movement's anti-communism, and the Reagan Doctrine it had encouraged, were being vindicated by the collapse of the Soviet Empire. Abramoff left Washington to become, improbably, a movie producer. In 1989, he produced Red Scorpion, an action thriller about anti-Communist guerrillas fighting and sweating in the African jungle. ("He's a human killing machine," said the advertisements. "Taught to stalk. Trained to kill. Programmed to destroy. He's played by their rules . . . Until now.") The movie starred Dolph Lundgren, who before drifting into total obscurity was a poor man's Jean Claude Van Damme, who was a poor man's Arnold Schwarzenegger. It was later reported that Red Scorpion was financed in part by the white South African government, which had also subsidized Savimbi, as well as an international student conference Abramoff had put on in the mid-1980s. Red Scorpion was followed by Red Scorpion 2. According to jellyneckr, a reviewer on the Internet Movie Database website, Red Scorpion 2 is even better than Red Scorpion.

The Republican victory in 1994 brought Abramoff back to Washington. "A year ago," National Journal wrote in 1995, "Abramoff was an obscure motion picture producer . . . and a political activist with a reputation only in the conservative camp. But in a Washington turned upside down by the 1994 elections, Abramoff has emerged as one of the biggest winners." The way a winner knows he's won is by cashing in his chips, and the press enthusiastically listed Abramoff's chips--the newly powerful Republican officeholders with whom he had longstanding ties, including Newt Gingrich and Tom DeLay. "He has access to DeLay," DeLay's press secretary helpfully told National Journal. That's the good way of being in the news again--the kind of quote, as Abramoff was soon to discover, that's worth tens of thousands of dollars in fees.