Banter With the Beast
Jack Abramoff on His New Talk Radio Show, Lobbying Reform & More
Two years out of jail, the ex-lobbyist is telling his story on a new radio show. He talks to Lloyd Grove.
If patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel, then maybe talk radio is the first refuge of felon.
Thus “Casino Jack” Abramoff, who got out of prison two years ago and then did a halfway-house stint toiling for a kosher pizza joint in Baltimore, is following the lead of G. Gordon Liddy, Chuck Colson, and former Ohio Rep. Bob Ney, among other ex-cons, and reinventing himself as a tribune of the airwaves.
Abramoff is the newest talk jock on XM Satellite Radio. (It would be nice to compare notes with fellow radio host and old friend Ney, who broadcasts from West Virginia, but the terms of Abramoff’s probation forbid him from having contact with felons.)
The former lobbyist’s self-reinvention has gone many steps further in the suspension-of-disbelief department. Since his release, he has been trying to rebrand himself as a good-government reformer and sworn enemy of the corrupt system that, before his illicit decline and fall, helped line his pockets.
“People ask me, ‘How can we believe you?’ And my answer to you is, first of all, I am a changed man,” says Abramoff, who served 43 months in the federal pen as the central figure in last decade’s Washington corruption scandal involving Indian tribal gaming establishments and influence peddling. “But I am not going to be able to convince you I am changed any more than somebody can convince you that they love you. You have to look at people’s actions.”
Abramoff was the subject of two splashy movies, a documentary by Oscar-winning filmmaker Alex Gibney and a Hollywood feature starring Oscar winner Kevin Spacey—and he met with Spacey in prison. “The director wanted to bring Spacey in to see me, and I made it a condition that I would read the screenplay beforehand,” Abramoff tells me. “And then I asked Spacey to come first and see me alone. He said: ‘How did you like the screenplay?’ I said: ‘I don’t think it was that good.’ He said: ‘Well, Jack, we can’t make you into a hero.’ I said: ‘Look, I know that, but why not make me at least an interesting villain?’”
Two Dobermans bark intermittently in the background as Abramoff speaks from his home in the Maryland suburbs. He says he’s helping to craft tough legislation to clean up Washington with blue-chip lawyer Trevor Potter, an expert in the regulation of the political system, with advice from Harvard law professor Lawrence Lessig. The new law would call for a 10-year ban on lobbying after leaving government employment, Abramoff says, and a $100 annual limit on campaign contributions for lobbyists. Working with United Republic, a nonprofit whose mission is “to get the money out of politics,” Abramoff vows to use his lobbying expertise to push the reforms through Congress. And he plans to spotlight the issue on his three-hour Sunday program, The Jack Abramoff Show, which also will deal with politics and pop culture.
“The reason I am excited about radio is that it gives me a chance to talk to people,” the 53-year-old Abramoff tells me. “Writing a book or being on TV, you don’t really get any feedback. With a radio show you really do. I have sort of a unique take on things because of my history and experiences. And I can bring to discussions some stories from my past.”
And what a past! Today a father of five whose long-suffering wife, Pam, stuck by him in adversity and helps support the family as an educational administrator, Abramoff grew up in a rare conservative family in the wealthy liberal enclave of Beverly Hills. As a teenager, he decided to become an Orthodox Jew—another rarity for his time and place. At Brandeis University, hardly known as a hotbed of right-wing activity, he worked his way up to national chairman of the College Republicans, forming alliances with brass-knuckled operatives Grover Norquist and Ralph Reed to purge the organization of squishy dissidents and drum up acolytes for Ronald Reagan. (Norquist and Reed later benefited from, but weren’t criminally implicated in, Abramoff’s lobbying adventures.)
Among other pursuits, Abramoff and his friends actively backed a global catalog of anticommunist rebels, not all of them paragons of democracy—everyone from the Nicaraguan contras to Afghanistan’s mujahedin to Angola’s Jonas Savimbi, who hosted them all at a notorious 1985 conference in Jamba, Angola, that resembled a scene from Team America: World Police. After that, there was a lengthy sojourn in Hollywood—where Jack and his brother Robert wrote and produced the 1989 anticommunist thriller Red Scorpion, starring Dolph Lundgren and financed through a front group by South Africa’s apartheid government—and in due course Abramoff became a brilliantly connected, handsomely compensated Republican lobbyist.
The rest, of course, is a cautionary tale.
“I know a lot of things, unfortunately. I wish I didn’t know these things,” Abramoff says, attempting to explain his journey from the dark side. “When this [the scandal] first started, I thought, This will blow over. This is Washington. Big deal. What’s this all about? Then it didn’t blow over. And so immediately I kicked into the ‘Why are they picking on me?’ mode—which is fairly typical of somebody who is under attack. What did I do that was so different? So instead of giving two tickets to the Redskins game, I gave away 72 tickets. What is the big deal?”
Abramoff had a lot of time to ponder these matters in prison, the minimum-security federal correctional facility in Cumberland, Md., but even before that, he decided that it was a big deal. “I made a decision to look honestly at myself,” he says. “I started going through my emails and I realized, you know what? I was wrong. I wasn’t who I thought I was. I didn’t do the things I thought I did in life ... I had made serious errors.”
Just “errors”—and not a character flaw?
“Obviously, character came into play,” Abramoff quickly agrees. “I basically became somebody where the ends justified the means. I believed the ends of what I was doing were so great and important. And I was just an ideological zealot who basically believed that whatever the costs, whatever the amount of eggs we have to break to make the omelet, we break them and then say, ‘Let’s go get that omelet. It is more important.’ That arrogance, combined with stupidity and shortsightedness, is what caused me to continue to veer off course. So that definitely is a character flaw, and by the way, it is one that I still work on.”
He pleaded guilty to conspiracy, fraud, and tax evasion, but it’s not hard to see why Abramoff was such a successful lobbyist. In contrast to the grim-looking heavy in the black fedora that photos of his perp walks portrayed, Abramoff is likable, self-deprecating, witty, and good company—hamish, in the Yiddish expression. One can easily imagine how a member of Congress might be charmed, indeed happy, to vote Abramoff’s way on a tiny technical amendment, especially when the lobbyist was generously offering such perks as golf trips to Scotland and piles of campaign cash.
Abramoff scoffs at the lobbying reforms that were enacted in the aftermath of the scandal, in which 21 additional figures also were convicted or pleaded guilty, and others—including Abramoff’s buddy, powerful House Majority Leader Tom DeLay of Texas—were forced to resign in disgrace.
“I read the reform based on my scandal, and I thought to myself, these guys have such nerve,” Abramoff says. “This is such garbage. I could run through this in 10 minutes if I was still lobbying.” Abramoff initially wanted to live an obscure post-prison life, but “as I paced the track in prison, I thought about this, and I realized that maybe I shouldn’t just disappear. Maybe I should go out and talk about what really goes on. Maybe it’s impossible to do anything, but you know what? It is part of the recompense that I did so much wrong and partly to make myself feel a little bit better about myself.”
And, let’s not forget, also to make some money. Abramoff—who has little hope of paying the $23 million in court-ordered restitution to his victims, especially the Indian tribes that were his ill-treated clients—wants to generate income by giving paid speeches. Having written one book, he’s working on another. And he’s dreaming of applying his screenwriting knowledge (having taught the subject in prison) to various projects in Hollywood.
“I wrote two films before I went to prison. One is sort of like Shrek, and one is kind of like Lord of the Rings. Movie projects take a long time so ...” he trails off. “I got 15 irons in the fire, working as hard as I can to get myself stabilized financially as best I can. I’m never going to be financially stable, but at least I can make a living.”
Meanwhile, Abramoff has lost touch with Norquist and Reed, once close friends, but still speaks occasionally to DeLay and, without mentioning names, a few sitting members of Congress. He missed DeLay’s performance on Dancing With the Stars—which took place when he was still incarcerated: “As you can imagine, Dancing With the Stars was not a big choice on television in prison.”