As the rhetoric of the radical right turns shrill and even violent, the stunning moral emptiness of its leadership can no longer be ignored. Pious politicians and political preachers may hope to divert attention from their disgrace by threatening judges or denouncing the media. But what has emerged from the scandals surrounding House Majority Leader Tom DeLay is a dark portrait of Washington’s conservative elite, whose behavior should repel every American honestly concerned about “moral values.”
For a moment, set aside the issues raised by Mr. DeLay’s acceptance of possibly illegal favors from foreign interests, which are now the subject of several federal investigations. Forget all his sleazy favor-mongering and bullying. Consider instead the character of the lobbyists who have risen to the commanding heights of the capital economy, thanks to their connections with him-and compare the morality of their business practices with the “family values” propaganda that keeps them and their patrons in power.
The top dog in this predatory pack, until lately, was Jack Abramoff, a super-lobbyist whose status as Mr. DeLay’s close friend, fund-raiser and golfing buddy brought him wealth and power. Known to his peers as “Casino Jack,” Mr. Abramoff and his associates have apparently conned several Indian tribes out of as much as $80 million. According to reports in the National Journal and other news sources, the Republican lobbyists played the tribes against each other as they competed for gambling permits and market share.
Among the consultants recruited by Mr. Abramoff to operate the Indian casino scheme was Ralph Reed, the famed evangelical Christian activist who founded the Christian Coalition with Pat Robertson, and who now hopes to be elected lieutenant governor of Georgia. For a sweet fee of $4 million, Mr. Reed concocted “grass-roots anti-gambling” groups that Mr. Abramoff then deployed to stifle the tribal competitors of his clients.
For a skillful hypocrite like Mr. Reed, it was simple enough to “get our pastors riled up” against yet another sinful establishment-as he boasted in an e-mail to Mr. Abramoff-because they understood gambling’s destructive effects on families. At one point, he even persuaded James Dobson, probably the most powerful evangelical leader in the country, to organize opposition to a proposed casino in Texas.
Surely Mr. Dobson, who warns against the evils of gambling in his broadcast diatribes, didn’t realize he was putting his huge Focus on the Family network to work for “Casino Jack.” (Mr. Reed also claims that he didn’t know what Mr. Abramoff was doing. Nobody believes him.) But Mr. Dobson has yet to speak out against the crooked matrix that misled him so badly, or the political leadership in Washington that profits from it.
Still uglier than the Indian gaming affair-and more directly implicating Mr. DeLay-is the story of Mr. Abramoff’s clientele in the northern Marianas Islands. The Pacific commonwealth serves as a haven for garment sweatshops that evade U.S. labor and immigration laws while legally labeling their products “Made in the U.S.A.” Nearly every big name in the American rag trade has dealt with factories there.
Several years ago, the gross abuse of the laborers in the islands-mostly young women imported from China and Thailand-drew unwanted attention from the federal government. When Clinton administration officials proposed to crack down on the Marianas sweatshops and labor contractors, the commonwealth’s ruling elite hired Mr. Abramoff to protect them. He sponsored dozens of luxury junkets to the islands for Republican politicians and commentators, spread around plenty of campaign money, and soon had Mr. DeLay pledging to defend the Marianas factories from modern labor standards.
The conditions endured by the women workers in the islands ought to have shocked any religious conscience. Swindled, starved and overworked, many of them were ultimately forced into prostitution-and when they got pregnant, they were forced to endure abortions. Young women who arrived expecting to work in restaurants found themselves suddenly hustled into topless bars, where they were coerced into drinking and having sex with customers. And they often were deprived of the money paid by the johns.
Promoted by Mr. DeLay and Mr. Abramoff as a libertarian utopia, the islands were actually a sinkhole of indentured slavery and sex tourism. Enchanted by all the easy money and free vacations, however, those Washington worthies and their friends disregarded the suffering.
With sweatshops, whorehouses and casinos as the commercial underpinnings of their little empire, and with their thuggish approach to campaigns and debates, the DeLay crew seems reminiscent of the old Cosa Nostra. Yet such unsavory parallels don’t disturb the right-wing establishment. Rallying behind Mr. DeLay are the Family Research Council, the Heritage Foundation, the Free Congress Foundation, the American Conservative Union and the rest of the “movement,” with everyone fervently declaring, amid displays of piety and indignation, that his defense is their next great crusade.
If and when the Hammer falls, their credibility will crash with him.