The Magazine

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
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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.