Book Review

David’s Book Club: ‘Capitol Punishment’

Much of the interest in Jack Abramoff’s 'Capitol Punishment' comes from figuring out the author’s political purposes.

Unsurprisingly, Jack Abramoff’s Capitol Punishment is a thoroughly political book, and much of the book’s interest comes from figuring out the author’s political purposes.

Some of those purposes are obvious enough. Abramoff clearly has come to cordially despise his old associate Ralph Reed—and repeats story after story intended to damage him. Here’s Abramoff’s account of Ralph Reed in 1999 promoting George W. Bush’s candidacy for president:

He said that, as conservatives, the Bush presidency would be everything we ever wanted. In classic Ralph Reed overselling fashion, he then went further, saying that Bush personally told him that his presidency would make all of us rich.

Ouch. Then—double-ouch—Abramoff proceeds to suggest that Reed is not only a hypocritical greed-head, but also a liar:

I thought that an odd comment, and discounted it immediately. If Bush had said this, then he wasn’t very wise. I imagined this was Ralph’s hard sell.

By contrast, another Abramoff old friend, the “reserved and sagacious” Grover Norquist, drops out of the narrative sometime about 1986, resurfacing only for the briefest cameo appearances thereafter. You’d never know from the text of Capitol Punishment that Abramoff and Norquist ever had any business relationship at all, much less that large amounts of Abramoff money cycled through Norquist’s tax-exempt enterprises.

Yet despite the political caution, some seemingly sincere emotion does show through Abramoff’s book. Abramoff is a man with a temper, and it flares at remembrance of past grievances.

Abramoff derides Senator John McCain as a “classic narcissist.”

He chides lobbyist rival Scott Reed for arrogance and insensitivity to Indian concerns: “My initial reaction was outrage that anyone—especially someone not a Native American—could espouse a goal to become ‘king of Indian gaming.’”

Journalists who reported on labor conditions on the Marianas Islands represented by Abramoff are accused of “vitriolic attacks.”

And when it comes to his own actions as well, Abramoff’s more genuine feelings bubble to the surface through the politic expressions of regret:

I tried not to judge her [Imelda Marcos] by the standards of her detractors—a tolerance I would later regret others did not extend to me.

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Abramoff wants the reader to understand that while he recognizes he did wrong, those wrongs arose from an excess of zeal on behalf of his clients.

His now-notorious emails mocking his Indian gaming clients, arose (he explains) from his desire to motivate a depressed colleague to work harder:

Faced with a steady stream of complaints and trying to keep Mike in the game, for the sake of winning these fights, I took a tack with him which worked, but which later came back to haunt me. I started to act as though I, too, was upset with the clients, and that, in fact, I was even more upset than he was. I started to use inappropriate language to show my angst was as great, if not greater, than his. I was using reverse psychology on my friend, hoping that, instead of continuing his threats to leave the clients, he would spend his spare energy to buck me up, and keep us both in the fight. It worked, but the juvenile, jocular and, at times, insulting and repulsive language I employed in my emails to Mike would later be thrown in my face by the press. I will regret that unfortunate strategy for the rest of my life. It was colossally stupid, but with the tribes at risk, and no way to imagine that these pronouncements would one day be aired publicly, I felt I had to try it.

The “inappropriate language,” in case memory fails, included comments like these about Abramoff’s clients:

These mofos are the stupidest idiots in the land for sure.'

[W]e need to get some $ from those monkeys!!!!'

As Abramoff explains, he needed the “$” not for his own sake, but to support his compulsive philanthropy. He says he gave away upwards of 80% of his income. If true, that claim raises fascinating psychic questions, questions I won’t grapple with here.

But there’s another set of issues that do fit in this space.

Abramoff repeatedly stresses his commitment to conservative principle. He interprets conservatism as a philosophy of limited government, low taxes and free enterprise. Yet Abramoff’s own enterprises were almost purely products of government.

In his mid-20s, he produced movies financed by the government of South Africa. He graduated to a career as a lobbyist, where he specialized in manipulating government regulation for the benefit of clients. Abramoff describes his lobbying career as an expression of his zeal to keep government “off the back” of private enterprise. But the reason Abramoff could collect such huge fees to keep government “off the back” of his clients was that he simultaneously ensured that government remained “on the back” of his non-clients. His most lucrative work for his tribal clients, for example, was to organize covert campaigns to prevent the authorization of competing casinos, oftentimes by hiring Ralph Reed to mobilize evangelical Christians into joining opportunistic anti-gambling initiatives—anti-gambling by Abramoff non-clients that is.

Or consider Abramoff’s work on behalf of the Commonwealth of the Northern Marianas Islands. In the 1990s, Chinese investors discovered a fascinating loophole in U.S. trade law. As a territory of the United States, the Marianas could freely sell into the U.S. market. But as a self-governing commonwealth, the Marianas were exempt from U.S. labor standards and even immigration laws. What this meant in practice was that an entrepreneur could open a textile factory in the Marianas, import contract labor from China, pay that labor less than the U.S. minimum wage—and then sew a “Made in USA” label onto the garment and sell it into the U.S. as if it had been made in North Carolina. In the 1990s, some individual members of Congress tried to adjust this anomaly by requiring the Marianas territory to comply with mainland labor and immigration laws. Abramoff was hired to beat back Congress.

But now consider this: If we lived in a world of unrestricted free enterprise, there would have been no work for Abramoff to do on behalf of the Marianas territory—because there would have been no factories in the Marianas. The factories would have stayed in China. The Marianas needed Abramoff only because the U.S. placed restrictions on Chinese textile exports into the U.S. markets. Abramoff earned his living selling exemptions from the normal rules. Do away with the rules, and who’d need Abramoff?

Far from a champion of limited government, Abramoff made his living as an arbitrager of big government. He didn’t fight big government. He sold the right to ignore big government. But the more people gained that right, the less valuable it became.

I moved to Washington in 1996. When I arrived, I discovered something very strange. Washington was then consumed by a series of huge battles between firms and industries: Microsoft v.Netscape; AT&T v. Verizon; cable TV vs. legacy telephone companies. And there’d always be somebody to inform you that “our team”—the conservatives—had signed up with one side or another. Who had made this decision? That was never very clear. On what basis? That was rarely very compelling. But what was impressive was how people who had no stake in the issue—not even any glancing intellectual interest in the issue—would fall into line. “Movement conservatives” favored Microsoft over Netscape, everybody understand that. When former Solicitor General Robert Bork broke ranks and went to work for Netscape, there was a certain mood of indulgence—nobody wanted to criticize Judge Bork—but also strong sense that with that one move, Bork had used up his lifetime’s allowance of heterodoxy.

That was something else Abramoff sold his clients: the right to inscribe their corporate concerns into the central doctrines of movement conservatism. Nice work if you can get it. Abramoff got it. He did not keep it. He was felled by an unlucky turn of events, broken and ruined. Where is he now? I don’t know, and his book does not tell. But his disappearance from the Washington firmament does not mean that the work he used to do is being left undone. It’s just divided among more hands.