Influence, and Irony, for Sale

By Michael Kinsley
Sunday, April 24, 2005

You can't entirely blame Tom DeLay for being annoyed and feeling abused. He is trapped in a Washington kabuki drama not of his own devising.

Two government investigations are looking into DeLay's relationship with a bunch of Indians he undoubtedly knew hardly at all and cared about even less. One of these investigations is asking whether he ripped off these Indians. The other is asking whether the same transactions amount to his Indians' buying improper influence in a dispute with some other Indians. So they can't even decide whether these Indians are the good guys or the bad guys (DeLay may be thinking), but Tom DeLay is the bad guy no matter what.

Lobbyist Jack Abramoff got $82 million from various Indian tribes trying to protect their gambling interests, and he kicked $4 million of it to Ralph Reed. All poor DeLay got was a trip or three to Europe, a round or two of golf, and a meeting with Margaret Thatcher. (Second prize: two meetings with Margaret Thatcher.) DeLay isn't entirely paranoid in thinking that the press is out to get him, though this is less because of any liberal bias than because (a) he's a smug, preening SOB, or at least he has chosen that public image; (b) he's the most powerful person in Congress -- the media helped Newt Gingrich bring down House Speaker Jim Wright, too; and (c) he's down and wounded, so naturally it's the moment to pile on. I don't defend these motives. I merely clarify that they're not ideological.

The water torture drip-drip-drip of daily revelations must be driving DeLay crazy. But it is not the result of an elaborate scheduling operation down in the bowels of Liberal Media Conspiracy Inc. ("Ready, Washington Post? Okay, go NOW with that third DeLay golf trip. . . .") It's the opposite: When a story is hot and competition is fierce, you go with the tiniest morsel before someone else does.

Speaking of Newt Gingrich, media high spirits can explain -- but not nearly justify -- the absurd overimportance awarded to an equivocal remark (DeLay should "lay out his case") by this discredited has-been. It's been treated like the first encyclical of the new pope. Gingrich was last seen leading the charge to impeach President Clinton over Monica, while his married self was conducting a secret affair with a congressional aide. If DeLay is thinking, "Who gives a rat's elbow what Newt thinks?" I'm with him. But DeLay can perhaps take comfort in knowing that however censorious the press may be in the heat of scandal, journalists are tolerant and forgiving in the five- to 10-year time frame. We don't really want to drive anyone interesting off the stage.

Although the scandal is real and its unreeling is very enjoyable, all of the specific issues that propel it are bogus. DeLay can't say this either, although he must think it. Did the Indians spend $82 million, and did they contribute to Republican candidates and causes that are as alien to them as they themselves are to their Republican beneficiaries, in any attempt to influence government decisions? No, not at all: The Coushatta Indians of Louisiana simply felt very strongly that the Senate majority leader needed to see Moscow firsthand and play a little golf while he was at it.

Why is it illegal to attempt to influence a specific vote but perfectly okay to attempt to influence several votes or all votes? What-on-Earth difference does it make whether the Indians, per instructions from Abramoff, sent the money for one of DeLay's golfing trips to the think tank that allegedly was paying for it before or after the trip, or whether the funds were earmarked or not? Looking for influence peddling in Washington is like looking for air. You can't see it because it's everywhere.

Bogus technicalities and press excesses aside, though, the whole Abramoff-Reed-DeLay story is pretty wonderful. You gotta love the basic plotline of a Washington lobbyist organizing a religious campaign against gambling on behalf of gambling interests trying to block competition. You gotta love imagining the scenes where Abramoff explains the white man's ways to bemused Indian tribal leaders. ("Why, yes, writing large checks to nonprofit public policy groups so that our leaders can travel to distant lands and hit a small ball with a stick until it goes into a hole is a rich tradition going back many thousands of years.") You gotta love angelic Ralph Reed piling on the whoppers. He had no idea that his $4 million to stir up anti-gambling sentiment in Louisiana came from gambling interests in Texas. Never wondered where the money came from and never bothered to ask.

The final twist is almost too neat: Abramoff goes back to the disappointed tribe whose casino he has gotten shut ("those moronic Tiguas," as he memorably called them) and offers his services to get it reopened. You can't buy that kind of irony.

Or apparently you can.

The writer is editorial and opinion editor of the Los Angeles Times.

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