My Dinner with Jack
The Jamboree in Jamba, the making of 'Red Scorpion,' and other tales of the Abramoff era.
Apr 3, 2006, Vol. 11, No. 27 • By MARK HEMINGWAY
JACK ABRAMOFF NEEDS MY HELP. Facing a March 29 sentencing deadline for fraud, tax evasion, and conspiring to bribe public officials, the disgraced lobbyist sent out a blast email, which says, "My attorneys have advised me to seek help from friends in the form of letters to the judge on my behalf." Abramoff says this will help counteract the "harsh media caricature" of him--he claims 2,100 negative articles have been written about him--and will encourage lenience from the judge presiding over his trial.
Jack probably doesn't remember me, but I met him three years ago. I'll try my best to help salvage his reputation, but even he must realize that's not an easy thing to do. Take this classic remark from Ed Rogers. The GOP lobbyist appeared on Hardball in January to defend his profession and downplay Abramoff's misdeeds, almost forgetting that one of Jack's business partners is connected to a mob hit down in the Sunshine State:
Look, this is going to come out. Nobody is going to keep it a secret. Jack Abramoff is so radioactive--I've got Jack Abramoff fatigue already. I mean, good grief, he didn't kill anybody. Maybe that one guy in Florida. [emphasis added]
Oops. Of course, thus far Abramoff doesn't appear to be directly linked to the murder, even if he's certainly guilty of being so drunk with greed that he wasn't at all discriminating about who he did business with. Unfortunately, the one image the public holds of Abramoff is the infamous photo of him leaving the federal courthouse--a shifty-eyed crook clad in trench coat and black hat, bridging the sartorial divide between Al Capone and Boss Tweed. But calling a smooth political operator such as Abramoff a gangster is just too easy.
Unlike the hordes of politicians rushing to disavow their relationship with him, I have no problem saying I knew Abramoff. For three glorious hours, I was his captive private audience at his now-defunct restaurant, Signatures. And I can tell you, he is handsome, hugely entertaining, and even self-deprecating at times. I'd wager Abramoff's success was largely the result of his charm (though as Saul Bellow warned, charm is always a bit of a racket). He's likable and inspires those around him, and given that, most everyone in Washington who denies their association with him was probably a willing accomplice.
I know because I was almost one of them.
THREE YEARS AGO I received a totally unexpected phone call.
"Hemingway! You have a clean suit?"
I was a little embarrassed, really. I barely knew "Frank"--as we'll call him--and he'd already sized me up as one of a few dozen professionals in town that would have to think before answering that question. Frank was a "Republican media strategist"--one of those unique Washington creatures who draw a paycheck out of the ether without anyone having a clear idea of what they actually do.
Such people usually make me wary, but I liked the guy, and given my asymptotic career trajectory I was happy to take his call. I was even happier to find out he was offering me work. I just had to print out a résumé and clips and be at some restaurant on Pennsylvania Avenue later that night to meet with Jack Abramoff.
I had no idea who he was, much to Frank's incredulity. Abramoff wasn't just a lobbyist. He was The Lobbyist. He was rich. Really rich. Frank wasn't sure, but he thought he might be worth $100 million or so. In retrospect I think it says a great deal about Washington that I did not immediately wonder how a lobbyist could become that wealthy. Instead, I went home and ironed a shirt.
When I arrived at Signatures, Frank was already there. It was a weeknight, and the restaurant was almost empty. Frank and I exchanged pleasantries, but he was most concerned with making me understand how big a deal this meeting was. That made me feel slightly nervous, worried that some ill-timed wisecrack on my part would deflate Abramoff's ego, and I'd never work in this town again.
When Abramoff finally did arrive, every employee in the place snapped to attention. He couldn't have better embodied any notions I had about what fat-cat lobbyists look like. He was immaculately groomed and wearing a shiny suit worth about twice my monthly salary. The outfit seemed calculated to project an image of power rather than style. What was impressive was the way he filled out his suit. Abramoff has gained 50 pounds or so since then, no doubt from the stress of his legal difficulties. It was a slimmer Abramoff I met that evening, but it was obvious he had been something of a weightlifter when he was younger. Beverly Hills-bred fat cat or not, he had the strong presence of someone you can count on in a bar fight. That is truly an oddity in Washington, where weaselly countenances are as common as calluses and scars are rare.
As he shook my hand and sat down, the tension dissipated. He started talking and was friendly and interested in me. The staff was understandably attentive, but he hardly bossed anyone around. As relaxed as he seemed, though, it was his joint and he knew it. Frank and I ordered off the menu, while Abramoff waited until the sushi chef came to the table. The chef stood to the side and offered up his recommendations, explaining the varying degrees of freshness of the available fish. Jack listened intently while the chef awkwardly tried to avoid too much eye contact with the boss man. He warmly accepted the sushi chef's suggestion, and as the food arrived, we got down to business.
"HAVE YOU EVER SEEN the movie Red Scorpion?"
Now a lot of people might have stared blankly when Abramoff asked that question, but I had actually seen the movie one bleary night in high school. I think TBS aired it as a chaser to its 10,000th showing of The Beastmaster. It was a bottom of the barrel Rambo rip-off, mildly redeemed by its novel conceit:
Dolph Lundgren--a six-foot-five Swedish B-movie action star, best known for his role as the evil Ivan Drago in Rocky IV--plays an elite Soviet Spetsnaz officer named Nikolai. Nikolai is sent on a mission by his superiors to infiltrate rebel forces opposing the Soviet occupation of a fictional African country, clearly modeled after Angola.
After his infiltration attempt is thwarted by the African rebel leader (a character based on Jonas Savimbi, the anti-Communist cause célèbre who spent much of the '70s and '80s fighting the Soviet-backed Angolan government), Nikolai is brutally tortured by his Soviet superiors for his failure. He escapes to the desert, where he nearly dies, before being nursed back to health by an African bushman who teaches him how to survive in the unforgiving landscape. His eyes are eventually opened to the Soviets' heartless slaughter of whole African villages, and he joins the rebels to destroy the Soviet base of command and drive them out of the country.
The movie is mostly a series of mindless explosions, but it does contain this classic exchange after Lundgren indiscriminately shoots up a bar: "Are you out of your f--ing mind?" "No, just out of bullets." Red Scorpion has all the standard '80s action film trappings, and it hardly occurred to me when I first saw it that the film was really an anti-Communist tract masquerading as a shoot-'em-up.
So when Abramoff told me he was the writer and producer of Red Scorpion, I almost laughed at the absurdity of it all. What's more, he wanted to write a book about the making of Red Scorpion and was looking for a ghost-writer. I almost laughed again. Abramoff was piling vanity on top of absurdity. A book about a forgotten action flick? Surely he was joking. I reached for my tape recorder, but it was politely refused, so I hope Jack will forgive me if I don't get the details precisely right or do the story the justice it so richly deserves.
ONE OF ABRAMOFF'S REDEEMING QUALITIES is that he was an unrepentant Cold Warrior. His story that night began when he was a young activist obsessed with ending communism. According to another unrepentant Cold Warrior, former Reagan speechwriter Dana Rohrabacher, who now represents Orange County in Congress, Abramoff back in those days was "a young idealist with so much energy that it just bubbled over. He was irrepressible during the Cold War and in trying to end the threat of communism."
In the summer of 1985 Abramoff helped plan and organize an event that, as Abramoff told me, inspired Red Scorpion. Abramoff joined forces with Jack Wheeler, another anti-Communist activist, to create the "Jamboree in Jamba"--known more formally as the Democratic International. The pair approached Lewis Lehrman, a conservative benefactor who made a fortune off his Rite-Aid drugstores, with the idea: For years the Soviets had been sponsoring what amounted to supervillain summits, where Sandinistas, African Communist insurgents, and representatives of the PLO and Cuba convened presumably to stroke their fluffy white cats and update their arms-dealer Rolodexes.
Abramoff convinced Lehrman that this put the "good guys" at a comparative disadvantage--the Nicaraguan contras, the Afghan mujahedeen, Savimbi's rebels in Angola, and other freedom fighters needed a meeting of their own. Congress was in the process of cutting off aid to the contras, and anything that could be done to bolster the group's public reputation would be politically helpful to Reagan. Lehrman agreed to fund it, and Rohrabacher was brought in to help muster support from inside the White House. Abramoff and Wheeler would handle the details on the ground.
According to Abramoff, the event was a goat rodeo from the start. Hardly a government in the world was enamored of the idea, and simply deciding where to hold the event was no small affair. Only two governments were publicly supportive: South Africa and Israel, and for PR reasons it was quickly decided that neither country was a suitable venue.
So they settled on Jamba, Angola, the home base of Savimbi's UNITA movement (National Union of Total Independence for Angola), which was fighting the Cuban troops that propped up the Soviet-backed Angolan government. Not exactly the most hospitable locale.
Logistically, the event was a nightmare. Simply trying to get the attendees into the Angolan hinterland provoked international incidents. Pakistan blocked some Afghan rebels from leaving, and skittish Thai officials almost stopped Laotian anti-Communist leader Pa Kao Her from departing Bangkok.
Facilities consisted of little more than grass huts and an airstrip, and managing the various cultures and egos proved challenging, as demonstrated by Abramoff's deft and hilarious impersonation of a frenzied Afghan warlord who insisted on ranting and raving for 45 minutes, long after the translator who had been procured on his behalf proved worthless. Not only was Abramoff's mimicry compelling, he gestured wildly with his hands in a way that caught me totally off guard, making me laugh harder. He clearly wasn't afraid to embarrass himself, a quality that was endearing, considering I had started out the evening somewhat intimidated. I also became aware of how carefully he was gauging my reaction to his tale. He didn't care about impressing me; it was obvious he had little to prove. But he did tell his story in a generous way--he wanted me to enjoy it, and I did.
The final insult in Jamba was running out of food. Abramoff, who keeps kosher, had packed all his own provisions into the African jungle. Upon leaving the event early, he stood on the stairs of the plane auctioning off his remaining cans of tuna for as much as $20 to ravenous members of the press who had yet to leave.
The jamboree itself ended up being largely ceremonial. Everyone pledged to share intelligence, and Lehrman read a letter Rohrabacher had drafted on Reagan's behalf, expressing solidarity with those struggling against the Soviet empire. The Time reporter on the scene concluded that the meeting marked the beginning of "a new lobby to urge Congress to support the Nicaraguan contras and other anti-Communist guerrillas." Considering the improbability of the thing coming together at all, everyone involved considered it a success.
But for Abramoff, the pivotal moment in Jamba came when he was approached by someone trying to secure funding for a documentary about Savimbi. Abramoff scoffed. Rambo: First Blood Part II had just been released in theaters three weeks earlier, becoming the first film to open on more than 2,000 screens. "Why would you want to make a documentary? Nobody watches documentaries," he told me. "I said to the guy, 'You should make an action film.'"
YOU CAN ALSO SAY THIS for Abramoff--the man has a gift for making wild ideas a reality. Jack revisited his movie idea in an entertainment law class he took while finishing his degree at Georgetown a few years later. He sketched out a story based loosely on what he knew about Savimbi's plight and the Soviet operations in that part of Africa.
After graduating, Jack moved home to Beverly Hills and enlisted his brother in the movie project. Things started falling into place. With Lundgren attached to star, they secured a few million in funding. They scouted locations in Africa, figuring they could film cheaply over there, eventually settling on Swaziland. What Jack didn't tell me was that he had strong ties to South Africa's apartheid government at the time, and was counting on using tanks and helicopters from their defense forces in crucial battle scenes.
As in Jamba, Abramoff's plan got off to a rocky start. Shortly after he'd dumped hundreds of thousands of dollars into sets and pre-production in Swaziland, the once cooperative and enthusiastic government suddenly decided to kick them out of the country.
According to Jack, this was because someone in the government was told that a Western camera crew had been involved in a coup attempt in another African country some years earlier, and they balked at allowing the film to continue. I'd also conjecture that a plan to invite South African tanks and helicopters into the country, even as props, might have made them a wee bit nervous.
Abramoff made a last-ditch attempt to keep the film from being ejected from Swaziland, a move that would cause the investors he had lined up to pull out. He had a series of absurd encounters with different government ministers that were straight out of an Evelyn Waugh novel. Each kept referring him to a different minister they said was responsible for the matter, and yet somehow each minister was physically related to the previous one.
Again, he told this tale employing dead-on impersonation, nailing the heavily accented patois of the African bureaucrats. Considering how Abramoff put himself at the center of every story that evening, he struck me at the time as being very self-aware--not exactly something he has subsequently been well known for. He told the story with an understanding of the futility of attempting to get anything done in corrupt African ministries. Of course, that only made it more amusing. He understood that the Swaziland officials' "What, me worry?" attitude was likely a more rational response at the time than the young Jack Abramoff's desperation to protect his investment. And he didn't mind your laughing at him because of it.
His attempts to pacify the government of Swaziland were to no avail. They were kicked out, and the film's investors pulled out. So Abramoff threw a Hail Mary, and it worked.
The film was still being written, and there wasn't so much as a script to show potential backers. They didn't even have a title. (Jack and his brother--being first and foremost politicos--would commission a poll; Red Scorpion emerged as the winner.) They had one ace in the hole, though. Dolph Lundgren was still attached to star and, as improbable as it sounds today, was still a bankable name in the action-film heyday of the 1980s. So Abramoff mocked up a poster of Red Scorpion with Lundgren's picture on it and took off for the Venice film festival. In an impressive feat of salesmanship, he returned to Africa with $16 million in funding from various distributors.
They were now filming in Namibia, but things hadn't gotten any easier. They had star trouble. Lundgren was wildly erratic on the set. Abramoff and the other producers felt physically intimidated by the onetime karate champ. Lundgren spent his downtime carousing up a storm in Johannesburg, and he did not want his girlfriend back home to find out. It became the producers' responsibility to keep him out of the South African tabloids. (For bonus points, Abramoff casually let it drop that the girl back home whose delicate sensibilities Lundgren sought to protect was none other than Paula Barbieri, the Playboy Playmate who moved on to dating O.J. Simpson, only to break up with him the day Nicole Brown was murdered.)
Then there was the problem of the film's other star--the authentic African bushman they had cast in a pivotal role. In Jack's opinion, he's the best actor in the film. Most people who've seen the film agree. Regopstaan, the very spry 95-year-old bushman, agreed to do the film only if his entourage, er, tribe was allowed to follow him around. Then there was the small matter of payment. Regopstaan's terms included the condition that the producers find him a wife. By this point in my evening with Abramoff, I was expending all my energy keeping my jaw off the floor, so I never did hear how that particular problem was solved. But I trust Jack found a way.
Red Scorpion was finally released in 1989, the same year the Cubans withdrew their last soldiers from Angola and the Soviet Union collapsed. It made $40 million on its $16 million investment. In one fell swoop, Jack had done his part to win the Cold War and made himself a millionaire. Nobody would call Jack a visionary artist, but he didn't care. He took his money and moved back to Washington to become a lobbyist shortly afterward.
BY THE END OF THE EVENING, I was trying to maintain my composure while I did everything short of shoving my résumé down Abramoff's throat. I wanted to write this book. It would be a pleasure to write, and it was obvious Abramoff could pay me handsomely for it. But more than that, I wanted to work with him. For a guy whose two most visible writing credits are a B-movie screenplay and a series of subpoenaed emails (e.g., "lets get some more $ from those monkeys!!!"), the man could tell a story like few people I have encountered. Of course, I have no way of knowing how much of what I heard that night was exaggerated. But I never got the sense that anything Abramoff told me that evening was strictly for the purpose of self-aggrandizement. Little did I know that Abramoff's legend was already secure, and it would have nothing to do with the incredible story he told me that evening.
Alas, I was dispatched with a handshake and a nod while Frank and Jack stuck around to talk more business. I called Frank repeatedly over the next couple of weeks and was told Jack had decided he was just too busy to write the book. What seemed like the story of a lifetime to me was business as usual for Jack.
From that point on in my nascent career, I viewed the encounter with Abramoff as The One That Got Away. Unlike a lot of his clients, I count myself richer for the experience of having met him. I learned more about how Washington works in a single evening with him than some people pick up in a lifetime. Of course, friends have suggested that I was lucky not to get tangled up with Abramoff, but to them I say he's going to have a lot of time on his hands in prison, and I hope he still has my résumé.
So if Jack is going to petition the press for more positive media portrayals, let me throw in my two cents. And if the judge presiding over his trial reads this, let me say on his behalf that Jack Abramoff is highly charismatic and I doubt any of his crimes were committed by unfairly twisting the arms of others. And for what it's worth, he's a gracious host and excellent storyteller. Anyone would feel lucky to sit down and have dinner with him.
Well, except maybe that one guy in Florida.
Mark Hemingway is a writer in Washington.