As a longtime observer of the political process, I was intrigued to see that disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff was out of prison and had written an apparently “tell-all” book. I first heard him on 60 minutes talking about the “revolving door” – how easy it is for senior lobbyists to entice senators, congressmen, and their staff (particularly their chiefs of staff) with the prospect of a job in lobbying after they’re ready to move on. With this golden opportunity dangling before them, the powerful person on Capitol Hill was sure to do your bidding so long as they remained in power. (Lobbyists earn far more money than staffers, and the later control access to elected officials.)
In the 60 minutes segment, Abramoff sounded contrite. He now wanted to help reform the process, he said. Fight for term limits (“Washington is a dangerous place”), close the revolving door (make it illegal for public servants to later pursue K street employment), and make it illegal for lobbyists to give anything of value to power brokers (not even a glass of water, let alone campaign funds, or a lucrative job offer). All this made me want to read the book.
Abramoff is an engaging writer, and the book kept my attention, even though I didn’t have much interest about his experience in leadership with the College Republicans, or his time making movies overseas (the latter being irrelevant to the book’s theme). He described his first experience with Beltway corruption: A congressman offered to deliver him thirteen votes in exchange for getting a military base in his district. (The GOP White House immediately gave him the military base.) Later, Abramoff describes how he began to encourage his clients to reward elected officials who helped promote their causes with generous contributions:
“The quid pro quo became one of the hallmarks of our lobbying efforts….there is no question that contributions have a significant impact on the process–and that impact is not positive. What I did not consider then, and never considered until I was sitting in prison, was that contributions from parties with an interest in legislation are really nothing but bribes. Sure, it’s legal for the most part. Sure, everyone in Washington does it. Sure, it’s the way the system works. It’s one of Washington’s dirty little secrets–but it’s bribery just the same” (p. 90).
What I liked most about the book were these frank revelations, pulling back the curtain as it were and showing how pervasive money is in the garnering of influence. Specifically, Abramoff shares how he exploited tax loopholes to encourage his Indian clients to give enormous sums of money to politicians, securing influence, but also establishing Abramoff as a major player. I wish the author had more carefully explained when, precisely, his ambition led to his breaking the law. But the overall message of the book seems to be that it doesn’t really matter: the whole system is so broken, that even if many of the things Abramoff did were legal (and apparently they were), they still wouldn’t be right. They still compromise our democracy and give undue influence to those with deep pockets.
And that gets me to the biggest weakness of the book. Abramoff seems to be saying, “Yes, I technically broke the law–but only because I operated in a broken system, and, in my amazing success, just pushed a bit too far.” Abramoff devotes ample space to discussing his zealous orthodox Judaism, how charitable he was–how even when he earned obscene amounts of money, he was enormously generous (founding schools, helping others with business ventures, etc.). In other places, Abramoff touts his accomplishments in detail, and even seeks to “set the record straight”–downplaying his guilt here, explaining the purity of his intentions there. All this, I’m sad to say, makes the book come off as more of a victory lap than a bid for redemption.
The truth is Abramoff ripped off a bunch of people, over-sold and over-billed his services, and recklessly disregarded the rule of law. Why? Because he could, and because it expanded his power. He was more ambitious for himself than his country. He charged his client obscene fees because he could — after all, he “owned” the congressmen who alone could help the clients. His extravagant receipts allowed him to purchase more influence, and the vicious circle continued, ever-widening to more elected officials. Abramoff, even now, seems too high on himself, too proud of the Abramoff Empire that once was. And insufficiently humbled for how he abused his opportunity to influence the process for good. Consequently, his chapter on what reforms should be pursued–potentially the high-point of the book–had some good ideas, but was disappointingly superficial.
All an all, a worthwhile read for those interested in the political system — but take the self-aggrandizing parts of the narrative with a large grain of salt.