Jack Abramoff is used to tough crowds. The Bush-era lobbyist was at the heart of a scandal that led to the conviction or plea bargains of 21 others, including White House officials, fellow lobbyists, Congressional staffers, and Representative Bob Ney. The picture of him leaving the federal courthouse clad in a Michael Corleone-style fedora and trench coat is as indelible an image of the Bush years as the Mission Accomplished banner. But if there are no second acts in American politics, Abramoff has clearly not been informed.
I am in the audience at the University of San Francisco to watch Abramoff give a talk about the sordid details of his rise to power, detailed in his new book: Capitol Punishment: The Hard Truth About Washington Corruption From America's Most Notorious Lobbyist. Up close, he has a passing resemblance to detective Elliot Stabler on Law and Order: SVU. He is wearing a boxy, dark DC suit and a red power tie. But he doesn’t look the way he talks. He makes dorky dad jokes, pretending to talk into the wrong end of a cordless microphone. He rehashes old episodes of Seinfeld in great detail. The audience, despite itself, begins to laugh. I can see why the man was good—excellent—at his job. He oozes charm as he talks about how Washington should be fixed by restricting the power of lobbyists and money.
He mixes in some red meat too. He recounts how one Southern Congressman refused to deal with him for years, holding himself up as too pure to be sullied by contact with the lobbyist. That is, until the official’s son wanted to see Michael Jordan play with the Washington Wizards. Then, all of a sudden, Abramoff—and what he calls his “Jack Nicholson” courtside seats—didn’t seem so bad after all.
When I catch up with him after the speech in the green room, I wonder how far his antipathy to the ways of Washington goes. Much of what he said tonight, I tell him, could have come from an Occupier. He laughs. “Well, I’m in favor of devolving power, because I’m a small government conservative. But I never went to an Occupy event. I’m a felon and they were breaking the law. Though I had a lot of contact with the Occupy guys—we talked over Twitter.”
I can’t imagine stranger bedfellows, but I’m intrigued. What did he tell them? “I said, look, we have a lot of agreement. But you will never become relevant unless you become a political movement. And they haven’t, and they are less relevant. The Tea Party went out and won elections. The response of Occupy was that they didn’t want to play in that realm. Well, that’s great, then you don’t have an impact.” With that, Abramoff claps and leans back in satisfaction.
Abramoff clearly relishes playing the part of the grizzled advisor. I ask him about the tech industry’s woeful attempts to lobby for passage of a favorable immigration bill. “Ineffective,” he says. “The tech industry is filled with incredibly bright people, but they find themselves intimidated because they don’t play in the political space […] They hire what they think is a powerful consultant. [But], he just happens to be famous. He wears a nice suit, a driver and a car, and he has a big firm. Is that the kind of way you built your tech firm? No. If you did, you’d be IBM. You wouldn’t be Facebook.” It’s clear to me that he’d love to go on like this all night. And I’d let him.
But then he catches himself, “All of this is a complete tangent to what I want to do,” he says. Fair enough. What are his proposals? It’s pretty simple, actually. He working—lobbying, really—to pass what he calls the American Anti-Corruption Act. It would prohibit politicians from taking money from the industries that they regulate, close the “revolving door” of former elected officials and staffers taking jobs as lobbyists, and limit the amount of money that lobbyists or their clients could give. He’s partnered up with a group of good governance types including Trevor Potter, the former Chair of the FEC (Colbert Report viewers might know him as T. Potts). “We want to force people to chose between supporting [reform] or not staying in Congress,” he says.
But is Abramoff selling us on a self-serving narrative? After all, claiming that the entire system is broken is a convenient way to elide his personal responsibility. I’m not sure. He strikes me as a deeply religious (he’s an observant Jew) and, in his way, moral man. One could make a case that his story is about an ideologically-motivated young person who falls by degrees into the temptations of power. One could consider him almost a parable.
But the state of Jack Abramoff’s soul isn't my beat. In the final analysis, his motives don’t matter much. And, for those who agree with his good governance crusade, the old Lyndon Johnson dictum applies: Better to have him inside the tent, pissing out, than outside the tent pissing in.
At the end of the night, Abramoff poses for pictures and signs a few books. Then he's heading off to the airport. His mission continues.