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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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.