The rehabilitation of Jack Abramoff began on November 6, with a sympathetic 60 Minutes profile, and climaxed on November 15 with a book party thrown in his honor at the home of Daily Caller editor Tucker Carlson. Abramoff is the former GOP lobbyist who spent three and a half years in prison after pleading guilty to conspiracy, bribery, mail and wire fraud, and tax evasion in 2006. He was released in June 2010. His reputation in tatters, his former millions consumed by legal fees, Abramoff has fallen back on what he knows best: running a scam.
This scam is not like the others. Abramoff is not overbilling and defrauding Indian casinos of $25 million. He is not using his connections to close the Tigua Indian casino, then convincing the Tigua to hire him and his friends to arrange for it to open again. He is not forging a $23 million wire transfer to secure some $60 million in cash for the purchase of the SunCruz Casino company.
This time, Abramoff’s con is to blur the distinction between his crimes and the everyday business of Washington, so that instead of looking like an unabashed felon he comes across as a brave truth-teller. In his book, Capitol Punishment: The Hard Truth About Washington Corruption from America’s Most Notorious Lobbyist, television appearances, newspaper interviews, and op-eds, Abramoff argues that he was put in prison for stuff that happens on a daily basis. In a recent attack on Newt Gingrich in Reuters, Abramoff wrote, “My forte was creating strategies and game plans, which my minions would implement. How is this much different from what Newt and almost every Democrat and Republican former congressman and senator claim to do in lieu of actual lobbying?” Like the criminologists who blamed “social deprivation” for rising crime in the ’60s and ’70s, Abramoff attributes his malfeasance to the surrounding environment. If everyone is guilty, what he did is nothing special. It wasn’t him—it was “the system.”
Some people are happy to agree. At the book party, Abramoff mentioned his new allies. “I used to be a right-wing guy who sort of disdained the New York Times, 60 Minutes, and Michael Moore,” he said, according to press accounts. “Now, I’m happy to be on 60 Minutes, I love the pieces in the New York Times, and Michael Moore is my new best friend.” Abramoff met the left-wing propagandist on the set of MSNBC’s Last Word with Lawrence O’Donnell. Moore told him, “God bless you. Keep up the great work. It’s fantastic.” Abramoff was floored.
He shouldn’t have been surprised. There is an industry of writers and activists devoted to the idea that the American government is fundamentally corrupt. They cite instances of actual illegality to draw the farfetched conclusion that the entire city has been compromised. They like to portray all politicos as mini-Jack Abramoffs to foster cynicism and subvert faith in our representatives and institutions. They have helped to weave the blanket of distrust, bitterness, and hopelessness that smothers the capital. According to the website Talking Points Memo, for example, Tucker Carlson wrote in an email: “I can’t stand to listen to one more self-righteous windbag denounce [Abramoff] as evil when, as anyone who lives here knows, what he did is hardly out of the ordinary for Washington.”
But to say that Abramoff’s crimes were “hardly out of the ordinary” is to insult him. The Abramoff scandal was unique in its breadth and depth: not only in the number of lobbyists, legislators, and aides involved in the wheeling and dealing, but also in the size of the sums—tens of millions of dollars—that passed through their fingers. Even before his arrest Abramoff had a reputation for extravagance that made his fellow lobbyists cringe. Whatever his apologists may say, there really aren’t many lobbyists in Washington who defraud clients, create shell entities from which they can pilfer at will, and brazenly conflate gambling with the goals of the American conservative movement. There aren’t many lobbyists who so greatly contributed to the Republican party’s loss of Congress in 2006.
The ideological damage Abramoff caused was great. What made him such a slippery character was that he and his friends lambasted the federal government even as they profited from it. They were part of a generation of conservative activists who came to Washington with revolutionary dreams and stayed to cash in. Their libertarian politics didn’t prevent them from manipulating the administrative state to their advantage.
Today Abramoff is less skeptical of government power. He proposes to ban political contributions from lobbyists, contractors, and all those taking public dollars. He wants a lifetime ban on lobbying by elected officials and their staff. Having already sullied the conservative movement with his vulgar thievery, he is now saying the only way to stop people like him is to restrict political speech and further regulate the interactions between representatives and those they represent.
We have progressed so far in exiling the language of morality from politics that it never seems to occur to the likes of Abramoff that what is needed is a sense of decency and shame. The right to petition the government for a redress of grievances—the right to lobby—is embedded in the Bill of Rights not to protect lucrative consulting contracts but to ensure that no faction or interest predominates in government. But this right presupposes that individuals will try to act justly, behave honestly, and keep in mind the common good. The widespread belief that everyone in politics is a crook has become an explanation and an excuse for self-dealing. Yet the Jack Abramoff scandal would never have happened if those involved had been able to distinguish right from wrong and had acted as if the distinction mattered.
Tinker with the rules that determine the relations between government and the influential all you want. As long as Congress and the regulatory agencies insert themselves into every nook and cranny of American life, individuals and firms will try to protect their interests and influence outcomes. It’s revealing that Abramoff, in his new guise as public scold, does not emphasize the connection between the size and scope of government and the growth of the lobbying industry. In a system where government was limited to its enumerated powers, and where citizens and their representatives aspired to virtue, the list of Abramoff’s potential clients would be short. There would be few opportunities for him to use the government to lie, cheat, and steal—and pretend to instruct the rest of us how to live after he is caught.
Matthew Continetti is opinion editor of The Weekly Standard and author of The K Street Gang (2006).