The Gaud That Failed: A Tour of New Jack City

When future historians of the current Gilded Age in our nation’s capital need to designate its zeitgeist-on-horseback, there’s little doubt that Jack Abramoff will be the man—or, as he was given to spell it in his voluminous collection of frat-boy-voiced e-mails: “da Man.”

Now so universally known in news reports as “disgraced superlobbyist” that it seems like his middle name, Mr. Abramoff was, in his prime, the ideal type of the Washington fixer. His business model took in just about every stretch of the rancid K Street–Capitol Hill waterfront: First, bilk money out of the wealthy D.C. ingénues who owned casino-gaming concerns on Native American lands, both by colluding with the now-indicted former Tom DeLay enforcer Michael Scanlon to artificially inflate your billing capacity and by outright fraud. Proceed to kite your big-money lobbying accounts into pro-sports skyboxes, golfing junkets, on through to your own cruise-line venture, a suburban yeshiva (spiritual self-importance being its own brand of currency in Mr. DeLay’s G.O.P.) and a dreary downtown sushi-and-steak eatery, Signatures, where clients and legislators were routinely comped for the sodden meals that would heave the great big lobbying wheel yet once more into motion. When necessary, register dummy nonprofit groups to funnel cash to culture-war inquisitors like Ralph Reed, who can’t afford to be seen soaking up gambling proceeds, but who will gleefully run interference on behalf of your clients, sending out clueless squadrons of the faithful to tamp down competing gaming concerns in the same market. (Mr. Abramoff winningly called this the mandate to “bring out the wackos.”)

Oh, and finally: Treat national legislators like high-priced rent boys, stuffing generous tribal donations in their political committees any time you need them to flip a friendly earmark or read the details of a business deal into the Congressional Record.

To capture the whole gaudy spectacle that was Washington in the high Abramoff era would require a latter-day bard of sleaze and tasteless money-lust, equal parts Rabelais and Sinclair Lewis. Unfortunately, Peter H. Stone, a reporter with the National Journal who was among the first Washington scribes to note that something was amiss in the Abramoff accounts, is not that writer. (Because the Abramoff affair is above all a scandal of undeclared conflicts and coinciding interests, I should pause here to note that I’ve had amiable phone dealings with Mr. Stone in the course of editing pieces that he wrote for some of my former workplaces; it also happens that my present employer, Congressional Quarterly, is thought by some to be locked in mortal combat with Mr. Stone’s National Journal. End of disclaimer.)

Heist provides a dutifully detailed account of how Mr. Abramoff, a fervent ideologue from the Reagan era, clawed his way into the capital’s glittering skyboxes. But Mr. Stone omits a good deal of the hothouse intrigue that made Jack Abramoff possible in the first place—not merely the G.O.P. enclosure of K Street under Mr. DeLay’s fabled “K Street project” (which gets only cursory mentions at the book’s beginning and end), but also the decades-long riot of deregulation that sparked into being such pet Abramoff projects as the Indian gaming boom and the garment industry’s sweatshop paradise on the Mariana Islands. As a result, the slender Heist feels like the opening act (or, more accurately, a kind of reference appendix) to a never-completed four-act play, leaving readers with the simple impression that Mr. Abramoff was more or less driven round the bend by his own greed, instead of being thrust forward by the leaders of a town forever on the ideological make. Even in its basest aspect, Washington is, like it or not, a city of ideas (or at least idea-makers), and Mr. Abramoff was goaded into his bingeing tour of K Street by plenty of true-believing architects of G.O.P. rule, from Tom DeLay on down.

By Mr. Stone’s account, though, it was primarily the “hunger for money—for both personal and political ends” that “explains much about the casino-lobbying heist,” as well as the signature Abramoff M.O.: to use Indian casinos “as giant piggybanks.” Even the political implications of Mr. Abramoff’s misdeeds flow out of the cash nexus, Mr. Stone writes; they point up “the often hidden ways that campaign cash and lobbying favors exert influence” over day-to-day dealings in Washington, while also dramatizing Mr. Abramoff’s “ethos of greed and deceit.”

To be sure, the sums of money involved were truly staggering. Mr. Abramoff and Mr. Scanlon, his cheerful collaborator, racked up more than $80 million in casino fees for themselves and the lobbying shops that employed them from 2001 to 2004. Yet in ideological terms, Messrs. Abramoff and Scanlon weren’t deceiving anybody. Indeed, as they accumulated greater and greater quantities of boodle, they cleaved all the more tightly to the conviction that they were on the right side of history.

How else to explain Mr. Abramoff’s early political career, which is steeped in hard-core government-hating zealotry? Mr. Abramoff was an avid college recruit to tax-cutting G.O.P. orthodoxy, and after graduating Brandeis—where he helped engineer Ronald Reagan’s unlikely 1980 win in Massachusetts by galvanizing the G.O.P. youth vote—he went on to head the College Republicans, a breeding ground for the ruling party’s leadership class that counts among its earlier powerbrokers Karl Rove and Lee Atwater. (It was, in fact, at the College Republicans’ helm that Mr. Abramoff consolidated his ties with later casino-era cronies Ralph Reed and Grover Norquist, the Americans for Tax Reform chair who was—and largely remains—the ideological godfather of the 1994 Republican Revolution.) How else to explain Mr. Abramoff’s first forays into political persuasion—as head of the anticommunist diplomacy group Citizens for America, which directed donor funds to aid the Nicaraguan contras and the civilian-slaying squads of Angolan insurgent leader Jonas Savimbi? Or his dalliance with Hollywood film-producing, which yielded the B-minus military thriller Red Scorpion, based loosely on Savimbi’s path to power?

Mr. Stone mentions these formative political episodes in Mr. Abramoff’s career, but only glancingly: When the future K Street kingpin is dismissed by Citizens for America for misallocating funds, and when he sparks feuds among College Republican leaders over his free-spending ways, it’s merely a foreshadowing of his later adventures. You do get a glimpse of his ideological makeup when he uses his College Republicans office to distribute to American campuses 900 free copies of Target America, a singularly unhinged 1980’s right-wing conspiracy tract positing complete Communist control over the U.S. media. Beyond that, the reader is left to imagine the Reagan-era bull sessions and the vintage Beltway strategizing.

It seems, at the very least, worth entertaining the notion that young Jack Abramoff’s eager appetite for full-throated anticommunist realpolitik could well be of a piece with his hard-charging assault on Capitol Hill and the casino trade. And Mr. Abramoff surely saw much genuine ideological appeal in the unregulated entities he also milked for cash—not merely the casinos, which thrive on Reagan-era interpretations of Indian national sovereignty, but also the cotton-boss playground of the Marianas, which Mr. DeLay famously dubbed a “perfect Petri dish of capitalism.”

Even Mr. Abramoff’s baronial playthings gave off an ideologically pleasing whiff of immunity from state intervention: The SunCruz line of casino ships (which Mr. Abramoff fraudulently obtained in a deal that culminated in the gangland slaying of its former proprietor) enticed its clientele by operating off the Florida coast, just outside federal jurisdiction and thus exempt from anti-gambling laws.

Of course, Heist can only give so much of the sense of Mr. Abramoff’s politics, or religious ideas, or any other feature of his thinking, since the soon-to-be incarcerated superlobbyist did not agree to an interview for the book. (Mr. Stone talked with Mr. Abramoff just once, for a 2004 National Journal profile of his practice.) But the larger tale of how Washington has shed the bonds of regulation and the last residues of the New Deal social contract is surely no secret—to this day, Grover Norquist will gladly map out to any reporter within earshot his plan to starve out the state, and will likely continue to refine it, mob chieftain style, if his Abramoff antics should ever land him behind bars.

Still, Heist does provide some illuminating background detail by homing in on Mr. Abramoff’s deal-making bravura. Mr. Stone is especially sharp in spelling out the sucker-punch “Gimme Five” plan, whereby Mr. Abramoff would pawn himself off to tribal leaders as a selfless and principled advocate of their cause, and then urge them to hire Mr. Scanlon—a freshly minted senior aide to then–House Majority Leader DeLay—as the pricey lobbyist, scheming all the while to split the proceeds right down the middle. In one case—the client was the Tigua tribe of Southwest Texas—Messrs. DeLay and Scanlon were so brazen as to charge $4.2 million while al­­­so on retainer with a rival Louisiana-based tribe, the Coushattas, and pursuing the express aim of shutting the Tiguas’ casino down. Nice one.

Mr. Stone also patiently fords the rapids of Mr. Abramoff’s oft-hilarious nonprofit activity—putatively founded to promote unfettered free enterprise under such baldly misleading rubrics as the Council of Republicans for Environmental Advocacy and the American International Center (the famous beachside Delaware “think tank” actually run by a stooge-management team consisting of a lifeguard and a part-time yoga instructor). In reality, these outfits, too, served the central aim of all Abramoff undertakings: generously lubricating government contacts and legislators with casino pelf, and sidestepping (in the case of A.I.C.) the irksome Foreign Agents Registration law in order to advocate for authoritarian free-trade utopias such as the Malaysian government.

In the main, however, Mr. Stone’s Abramoff chronology is just that—a tour of the horizon already charted in great detail by Senator John McCain’s Committee on Indian Affairs inquiry, together with background interviews with disillusioned former clients and colleagues of the high-riding Mr. Abramoff.

Mr. Stone leaves unremarked the most striking fashion in which Jack Abramoff transformed Washington: how this tremendous blizzard of cash and free-market cheerleading reduced the members of Congress—the people who, you know, allegedly wield power by making law—into virtual afterthoughts, bought off with a hastily slung fistful of P.A.C. donations, a tawdry golf tour or a turn in the skybox beside John Ashcroft. That, 12 years on, is the state of the Republican Revolution—and the slowly grinding wheels of justice and journalism alike have yet to tell the whole story.

Chris Lehmann is an editor at CQ Weekly and the author of Revolt of the Masscult (Prickly Paradigm).

The Gaud That Failed:  A Tour of New Jack City