Abramoff and His Vanishing Friends
It almost makes you feel sorry for Jack Abramoff.
Republicans once fell all over themselves to get his "moolah," the term used famously by the disgraced superlobbyist, and to get his advice on dealing with that warm and cuddly entity known as "the lobbying community."
Suddenly, Abramoff enters two plea bargains, and these former friends ask, in puzzled tones, "Jack Who ?"
Over the past few days, politicians -- from President Bush and House Speaker Dennis Hastert on down -- raced to return Abramoff contributions, or compassionately sent the moolah off to charity. There's a scramble to treat him as a wildly defective gene in an otherwise healthy body politic, and to erase the past. But seeing the record of the past clearly is essential to fixing the future.
Abramoff, who used to pall around with close Bush allies Grover Norquist and Ralph Reed in the College Republicans and who has been a central figure in the rise of Republican dominance in Washington, is not a lone wolf. He is a particularly egregious example of how the GOP's political-corporate-lobbying complex has overwhelmed the idealistic wing of the Republican Party.
Scott McClellan, the White House press secretary, insisted on Wednesday that Bush does not know Abramoff personally. But the record makes clear that Abramoff was a loyal and serious player in Bush's circles.
According to an Oct. 15, 2003, story in Roll Call, Abramoff was one of a half-dozen lobbyists who raised $100,000 for Bush's 2000 campaign. When Bush was battling Al Gore's efforts to recount Florida's votes, Abramoff was there with the maximum $5,000 contribution Bush was taking for the effort. A September 2003 National Journal story noted that Abramoff was so confident he would meet his fundraising goals for the president's 2004 campaign that he was planning, as the lobbyist generously put it, "to try to help some other lobbyists meet their goals."
The administration, in turn, was open to Abramoff. As National Journal reported in its April 20, 2002, issue, "Last summer, in an effort to raise the visibility of his Indian clients, Abramoff helped arrange a White House get-together on tax issues with President Bush for top Indian leaders, including Lovelin Poncho, the chairman of the Coushattas," one of the tribes Abramoff represented.
When journalists would raise questions about Abramoff's role as a lobbyist-fundraiser just a couple of years ago, Bush's lieutenants played down his influence peddling and proudly claimed Abramoff as one of their own.
On an Oct. 15, 2003, CNBC broadcast, journalist Alan Murray asked Ed Gillespie, then chairman of the Republican National Committee, about fundraising by "people like Jack Abramoff, who represents Indian tribes here," and another lobbyist whose name I'll leave out because he has not been implicated in any scandals. "Are you going to sit here and tell us that their contributions to your party have nothing to do with their lobbying efforts in Washington?"
"I know Jack Abramoff," Gillespie replied. He mentioned the other lobbyist and insisted: "They are Republicans; they were Republicans before they were lobbyists. . . . I think they want to see a Republican reelected in the White House in 2004 more than anything."
Roll Call reported on March 12, 2001, that "GOP leaders on and off Capitol Hill are organizing a new drive to lean on major corporations and trade associations to hire Republicans for their top lobbying jobs." The article spoke of a "Who's Who of Republican lobbyists" who had held a meeting on the subject the week before. At the top of the list was Jack Abramoff.
Abramoff was always there for his party, with sound bites as well as money. In a May 2, 2001, article in the Hill newspaper (it ran under a wonderful headline: "Lobbyists Approve of Bush's Businesslike Style"), reporter Melanie Fonder noted that "Abramoff said the Bush team's careful and deliberate approach to leadership is the exact opposite of the Clinton team."
She quoted Abramoff directly: "The feeding frenzy which started even before Clinton was inaugurated, and continued to the final pardon, was perhaps best exemplified by the reckless and unprofessional handling of his responsibility to appoint honorable public servants."
This careful judge of what it means to be an "honorable public servant" had reason to prefer the Bush administration's taste in appointees. After the 2000 election, Abramoff was named to the Bush transition team for the Interior Department, which regulates the Indian casinos that paid Abramoff his inflated fees.
"What the Republicans need is 50 Jack Abramoffs," his friend Grover Norquist told National Journal in 1995. "Then this becomes a different town." Norquist got his different town. It's why the place so badly needs cleaning up.