Fixing Congress and Finding Peace: An Interview with Jack Abramoff

by Matt B. on December 30, 2011

[Update: a podcast version of this interview is available here.]

Jack Abramoff helped break Congress, and now he’s trying to fix it.

In the mid-2000’s, Abramoff was earning $20 million a year selling his clients access to the Republican House leadership. He owned restaurants, flew on private jets, and set up golf outings for congressmen on an obscure Pacific Ocean island chain. He was the most prominent, best-paid lobbyist in DC.

In 2008, Abramoff saw everything collapse in a scandal that helped bring down House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, sent another congressman to prison, and exposed the nastier elements of DC’s economy of influence.

Now, after three and a half years in prison, Abramoff is re-emerging as a voice for reform. In a new book about his life as a lobbyist, Abramoff argues that Congress functions as a system of legalized bribery. He writes and speaks widely about the need to radically reform our legal code to prohibit the kind of influence peddling at which he once excelled.

I met Abramoff three weeks ago at an event at Harvard Law School. (He was there to discuss his experience in Washington with Lawrence Lessig in a cool new forum called “In the Dock.”). As he entered the room, a funny silence overcame the room. It was as if the entire audience was simultaneously answering the question we’d all been chewing over: how to demonstrate our distance and disapproval while maintaining the decorum appropriate to the setting? Sure, we’ve filled a large auditorium on a weeknight to hear what this guy has to say, but he’s not getting any damn applause.

But over the next hour and a half, the strangest thing happened – Abramoff won over the crowd. He didn’t try to defend himself at all. Instead, he was almost preternaturally humble, telling in-your-face stories about the naked corruption he’d been a part of. It was all very matter-of-fact: I was able to do these things because I wanted to win, and because everyone did it, and because I didn’t recognize some basic ethical rules. And then I went to prison and had some insights that all of you probably take for granted.

As the event went along, the handful of stone-throwers in the audience seemed more and more out of place. Someone would ask a barbed question – basically, How can you be such a giant asshole? – and you could feel the crowd sigh. He knows, buddy.

By the end, I liked him. And I wasn’t alone – not even close. Here was a guy who’d been about as bad as you can be with a tie on, and he seemed to have come around. Sure, it had taken prison to get him there, but so what? He’d been humiliated and shamed by the entire country in a way that I’ll probably never fathom, and then he’d spent three-and-a-half years in a box. And instead of coming out resentful or defensive or highhanded, he’d emerged repentant. But more than that – he’d come out ready to try to right some of the wrongs he’d been a part of. Not for any financial reward, (he’s under a $44M restitution order) and not in the name of reclaiming his good name (he probably knows that’s not going to happen in this lifetime). But maybe, just maybe, because what else are you gonna do?

I wanted to know more. What had it felt like to live this life? How does someone like him – smart, patriotic, and deeply religiously observant (he’s an Orthodox Jew) – handle the cognitive dissonance that comes with bribing congressman for a living? How do you walk out of prison, thoroughly humiliated, and do anything other than tuck tail and hide? (The event had been titled “Lawrence Lessig Interrogates Jack Abramoff,” and I’d joked with friends beforehand: it was a bit much, no? Did Harvard tell Abramoff that that’s how they planned to advertise the event, or did they just go ahead and do it after he’d agreed to attend? Who agrees to submit to that kind of thing?)

*     *     *

I introduced myself at the book signing. Would he give me 20 minutes? Sure, and here’s my personal email. We spoke a couple of weeks later.

In the interim, I read his book and watched both the documentary and the feature film that have been made about his life. The book provided at least partial answers to many of my questions, but it opened up others. In particular: for a guy who knows the Washington bribery game better than most, how would he go about trying to reform the system? What would an actual strategy look like? When we spoke, that’s where we started.

MATT BIEBER: In your book, Capitol Punishment: The Hard Truth About Washington Corruption from America’s Most Notorious Lobbyist, you describe the ways that you and your fellow lobbyists used money so effectively to achieve your goals on Capitol Hill. Ultimately you propose a law for getting money out of politics. Others have suggested different approaches.

If you were still a lobbyist using all of your old tricks and you wanted to pass that law, how would you do it? Who would you talk to? How would you exert your influence?

JACK ABRAMOFF: Well, that’s a great question. I can tell you I’ve done 300 interviews and nobody has asked me a question like that. Let me think about this. I’m not certain using the old methods I used, I’d be able to do this. I mean obviously, this points right to the problem. I really think the only way to do this, frankly, is on a public policy basis, without using the insider lobbyist stuff, but rather using elections to get [sympathetic members elected], then creating legislation that speaks right to the issue, and then publicly forcing each of these members to confront whether or not they’re willing to support it. In other words, much more of a public campaign than the normal lobbying campaign.

MB: Your friend Grover Norquist has used the idea of a pledge to great effect over the last couple of decades. Do you think a pledge along these lines would be effective? A document that legislators might sign, say, when they’re running for office, in which they pledge not to take money from certain sources or perhaps to restrict their fundraising in some way.

JA: Yes, yes. In fact, I think I write that in book, but I have certainly spoken about it since. I truly believe that that’s the way to do this, to force people to take a public stand. Are they willing to forgo all of this nonsense and stand up and change the rules or are they not? Are they willing to sponsor legislation? Are they willing to vote, every vote, whether it’s committee or on the floor, or on the Rules Committee, whatever it is, to make sure that this kind of bill goes through unadulterated? I think that that’s what’s going to be required.

MB: When you spoke with Lawrence Lessig at Harvard Law School on December 6th, one of the most striking things that you described was the process by which newly elected members of Congress become involved with lobbyists. You talked about how new members usually arrive in DC with campaign debt. They meet with their party leadership, and the party leadership introduces them to lobbyists who will raise cash to help retire their debt and prepare for the next election. You suggested that some members might hold out for a year or two, but most eventually come to rely on lobbyists to raise cash for their campaigns.

Imagine a member who arrives in DC determined to stay free of that culture. What resources, if any, are there to support her when she gets to Congress?

JA: Well, I think there probably is space for them. They probably have a few members there who totally stay away from this. I don’t agree with him on all issues but Ron Paul, I think, is probably an example. But barring having their own wealth or raising money from their friends and their communities, it’s very hard. It’s very hard right now.

They just came out with a study. Among candidates for Senate or House (not sure which one it was), 95% of candidates who had more money won their race. And in the other chamber it was 94%, something like that. And so, how do you compete with the special interest money? That’s why we have to get rid of it. It’s a disease that’s affected nearly everybody.

MB: At the end of the book, you’re deeply ambivalent about the possibility of rallying the public to the cause of getting money out of politics. You’ve now been on a book tour, and you’ve shared your experiences with people across the country. How have people responded to your arguments? Have their responses changed your feeling about the likelihood that we can actually achieve some of these changes?

JA: Well, I’m more optimistic than when I wrote the book. There’s a lot more depth of support out there for this approach than I thought, on both the right and the left. And the question in my mind is – a few things. First, finding a formula for fixing it that can be supported enthusiastically by the right and by the left, ‘cause you’re not gonna build it without both sides.

Number two, putting the resources together to rally the troops is going to require money, as all things do in politics. Will people of good will and people who care about the country on the right and on the left who have money step up and say, “You know what? We better do something about this” and come forward with their funds?

And then, third, we got to wind up having our generals running the war. Right now, with respect to them, I just don’t know that the advocates to date are necessarily the best folks to run political efforts and lobbying efforts to get things changed.

MB: What about them makes them less than ideal candidates for those roles?

JA: I think that they’re used to losing, for openers. You know, they’re too used to losing. They don’t know the system; a lot of them have never been inside it (to their credit, by the way). And frankly, I think that they also don’t understand how to play political hardball with people. They don’t understand the Grover Norquist model, which is instructive and something that I think could be put to better effect here. So, ‘til those things start happening, I’m not certain what will transpire.

MB: How do you conceive of your own future and your own involvement in this effort?

JA: Well, I’m trying to advise some of these groups to encourage them to pursue an active and aggressive approach right now and to really go for it. Basically when I was a lobbyist, it was very bottom line-oriented. What’s the legislation we either want to pass or beat? How do we get it drafted if we need to pass it? And let’s go do it. And I’ve encouraged them to do that. I’m meeting with them and I’ll do everything I can to add what I can add. And I’m gonna keep thinking about it – it’s not gonna go away anytime soon. And we’ll see what happens.

MB: Which groups are you advising at this point?

JA: I think I’d probably need to chat with them to see if they’re all okay with me saying it. I’m sure they would be but I’d want to do them the courtesy of doing that.

MB: One last question. You fell from grace pretty precipitously, spent some time in prison, and reflected quite a bit about your life as a lobbyist.

At this point, do you hold out hope that you’ll be able to achieve a kind of public redemption? Or do you not think about it in those terms? Are you aiming for a more private, personal form of redemption?

JA: You know, I don’t think it’s either. I mean, first of all, I don’t know that I’ll be able to get any public redemption and frankly, I’m not sure how much I can try to even do it. I’m going to try speak what the truth is and let things fall where they may, at least as I see it. And privately, I’ve reconciled myself to what happened, to what I suffered through, and am hoping to do better and good things. I feel like I am right now and, you know, taking it a day at a time just to see where things go. But I’m not thinking in terms of grandiose redemptive outcomes. I’m just thinking of, you know, just take it a day at a time and just try to do the right thing and it ends up where it ends up.

{ 8 comments… read them below or add one }

Chris December 30, 2011 at 11:38 am

Great interview!  I went to the Lessig event too, and wrote up some thoughts afterwards:  http://blog.printf.net/articles/2011/12/11/lawrence-lessig-interviews-jack-abramoff

Matt Bieber December 30, 2011 at 7:52 pm

Thanks so much, Chris.  Really appreciate some of your commentary, particularly about the need for more of this raw, vulnerable, public ethical inquiry.

Marg Mayer January 3, 2012 at 11:59 pm

Wonderful interview Matt.  Exceptionally well done!

Matt January 4, 2012 at 10:30 am

Thanks so much!

Anonymous January 4, 2012 at 12:34 pm

Don’t be a rube. If charm wasn’t part of his repertoire, he never would have excelled at his craft. His sad eyes and self-effacement are all carefully practiced affectations. Mere tools of the trade. He deserves our continued scorn precisely because he knew he was working to destroy our democracy for profit. His Character is still base, he just takes greater pains to hide it now.

Matt January 4, 2012 at 4:25 pm

I hear you, UV.  And part of me wants to be deeply skeptical too.  Another part, however, thinks that his sincerity doesn’t matter much.  What matters more, I think, is the brokenness of the system – if he can help tell stories and help move people to see just how badly broken it is, then that seems to me a good thing.

A friend of mine suggested that he should serve as a kind of watchdog, calling out every lobbyist who does the sorts of things that he used to do (including, as my friend put it, “naming names and dollar figures”).  I wonder whether he wouldn’t actually be more effective at that than some of the good government advocacy groups, precisely because he’s both a former player (and thus credible in that sense) and a media lightning rod.

Anonymous January 4, 2012 at 7:32 pm

I’m very distrusting of these powerful men who will make money on either side, it just depends on who’s paying them.  Instead of concluding that he has “seen the light,” I’d say it’s more likely he’s just been kicked off the insider’s team so now he’s going over to play for the enemy — and sell them books and, soon, get speaking fees and make money off of them.  He’s more somebody who has no conscience at all.  I remember hearing Jeffrey Sachs proclaim his great commitment and passion for the people of the third world who he spent his life exploiting on behalf of corporations.  When he got fired, he threatened to go public until the corporations gave him a lot of money — half a million as I recall.  He took the money and stayed silent.  Then a few years later he again threatened to go public, this time they didn’t offer him money, so he wrote his book.  Now he makes money on the other side.  I don’t believe these people.  If they truly have repented, go live in poverty instead of seeking the limelight, selling books, and trying to get back into a position to make lots of money again.  I don’t buy it, and I don’t buy his religion as anything more than just another cover for his greed and unethical behavior.

Matt January 5, 2012 at 9:42 am

Yeah, I’ve heard similar skepticism from some other folks.  It’s possible you’re right, Nab.  Given the tens of millions of dollars Abramoff owes in restitution, though, I’m not sure he’ll be getting rich anytime soon. More generally, I kind of want him in the fight on the good side, you know? Even if his motives aren’t pure, wouldn’t we want to benefit from the knowledge of someone who knows the system well?

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