McCain's Day to Crow

By Richard Cohen
Thursday, January 5, 2006

John McCain had a very good day this week. It was Tuesday, when superlobbyist Jack Abramoff pleaded guilty to various charges of corruption and when, across town, the Department of Homeland Security announced it would henceforth depart from its customary procedure and award its anti-terrorism grants on the basis of merit. Here, in a single day, was Washington as McCain always said it was. It could make you sick.

Abramoff, of course, is the personification of the Washington McCain has long railed against. Not elected, appointed to no government office and unknown to all but a handful of Americans, he nonetheless was at the center of a vast influence-peddling apparatus that took in and distributed the sort of money that, in a more innocent era, compelled the cartoonist Thomas Nast to render Tammany Hall's Boss Tweed with a moneybag for a head. Abramoff, as had the equally rapacious Columbus before him, discovered Indians.

From one Mississippi tribe, the government charged, an Abramoff associate took in nearly $15 million, of which Abramoff got a $6.4 million kickback. From a nearby Louisiana tribe, an Abramoff associate got $30.5 million, of which he kicked back $11.5 million to Abramoff. The numbers are astounding, and, even more astounding, sometimes they bought the tribes nothing at all. In one instance, Abramoff and his guys took money from competing tribes in Texas and Louisiana, one for reopening a casino in Texas and the other for keeping it and others closed.

What's stunning about Washington -- as opposed to, say, Las Vegas in the bad old Mafia days -- is how open the whole process was. Abramoff had his own restaurant, a place called Signatures, and supplied skyboxes for sporting events the way old-time political bosses used to send over coal in wintertime. Abramoff could send a cooperative and worthy congressman on a golfing trip to Scotland or to a day at the beach in Florida. He liked to quote from "The Godfather," but Don Corleone was a model of discretion compared with Abramoff. The Godfather's olive oil business was a front. Abramoff skipped that step. His fake business and his real business were one and the same -- influence peddling.

A similar, although inadvertent, acknowledgment of the sheer squalor of things was on display over at Homeland Security, too. There, Secretary Michael Chertoff announced that grants would be awarded by merit. This was a stunning admission that, up to now, they had not been. In other words, states like Wyoming -- not exactly high on anyone's list of terrorist targets -- got a piece of the money, along with such past targets as New York and Washington. Chertoff, a good man made to play the fool by a system not of his making, said, "We've looked at what happened over in London with the terrorist attacks on the rail lines, and that has reinforced the idea that we have to consider consequences, vulnerabilities and threats." Imagine that! Homeland Security considering "vulnerabilities and threats."

Back to McCain. For years now, he has been fulminating against the system -- the outsized role and influence of lobbyists and the parochialism of senators and representatives who, like the ridiculous Ted Stevens of Alaska, have turned selfishness into a matter of high principle. But more important, McCain has tried to rein in campaign spending, which is a root of the problem. The sad fact is that the average member of Congress has his hat out for campaign funds most of the time. Lobbyists know that. They go see a member and in a heartbeat they are hit up for a donation.

It does the heart good to note, as I must, that some of those implicated in the Abramoff mess were among the foremost faux moralists of the Clinton years. Two of those are former Tom DeLay aides Tony Rudy and Michael Scanlon, both of whom went on to become satellites of Abramoff, sharing in his largess and, now, his infamy. It was Scanlon who wrote a poetic e-mail to Rudy during the Clinton impeachment proceedings beginning, "God bless you Tony Rudy," and suggesting that instead of mercy, Bill Clinton be beaten "over the head with a baseball bat." The bat's now in other hands.

So much needs to be done: campaign finance reform, an ethics committee with teeth, the insistence that lobbyists report whom precisely they are lobbying -- the name, please, not merely this entity called "the House of Representatives." But what's needed most of all is indignation on the part of the public, a cold fury about being ripped off and taken for granted. This, as it happens, has been the grimaced and often solitary face of the indignant McCain. He hardly had a mention in yesterday's newspapers, but it was his day nonetheless.

cohenr@washpost.com


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