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Jack Abramoff, Sans Horns

By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, February 27, 2006

Most Washington journalists view Jack Abramoff as a black-hatted symbol of corruption who disparaged his own clients even as they made him incredibly rich.

Kim Eisler says he's a decent man who has been unfairly demonized.

For six years, Washingtonian's national editor has been chatting, dining and exchanging e-mails with the now disgraced lobbyist, undeterred even by last month's guilty plea to fraud, tax evasion and conspiracy to bribe public officials.

"There's been this explosion of hatred toward the guy, far in excess of what any other lobbyist has ever been confronted with," Eisler says. "I think the level of villainy is a little excessive. . . . He has a lot of good qualities that people don't know about."

Their friendship provides a glimpse of how even a spectacular scandal can look different when someone is acquainted with the person under fire, although why Eisler remains loyal to a man who stole millions is not entirely clear.

The relationship drew public notice when Eisler told a researcher for the liberal group Center for American Progress about e-mails in which Abramoff said President Bush had met him nearly a dozen times, joked with him and discussed his family -- thus disputing the president's stance that, despite a number of picture-taking sessions, he could not remember Abramoff. The researcher, Amanda Terkel, says she clearly identified herself when she called Eisler to ask about Abramoff, later e-mailing him for permission to post the information on the center's Think Progress blog.

Eisler says he confused the organization with the American Prospect magazine and that he regrets making Abramoff's life more difficult: "I guess I considered it a private correspondence. I feel like I slipped a little bit."

Washingtonian Editor Jack Limpert was "disappointed" about being scooped, says Eisler, who then wrote an item for the magazine's Web site. The magazine took it down after Abramoff called and, says Eisler, "was just hysterical" about the possible impact on his plea agreement to cooperate with federal prosecutors. Washingtonian restored the item days later when Eisler concluded that Abramoff had overreacted.

In the piece, Eisler quoted Abramoff as saying of Bush and the White House: "They will come up with excuse after excuse as to how and why he did not know me. I could have spent four months alone with him in Bolivia and he would not know me."

Eisler, who is married to a Washington Post editor, Judy Sarasohn, got to know Abramoff while researching a 2001 book on Indian casinos, some of which were represented by the lobbyist. "He was funny, engaging, candid," Eisler says.

Abramoff has admitted defrauding four tribal clients out of millions of dollars. In private e-mails, he referred to such clients as "stupid," "moronic," "idiots," "troglodytes" and "monkeys." Abramoff faces a prison sentence of 9 1/2 to 11 years and is required to repay the government and his clients more than $26 million.

Abramoff made the remarks about having frequently met Bush after Eisler, preparing for a planned appearance on MSNBC's "Hardball," wrote him that "a lot of this is going to deal with GWB's denying he knew you." Abramoff also told Eisler that he declined a presidential invitation to visit the Crawford, Tex., ranch in 2003 because, as an Orthodox Jew, he could not travel on the Sabbath.

Eisler, who lunched with Abramoff a few weeks ago, had advised him to be more accessible to journalists. When Abramoff was planning to invoke the Fifth Amendment at a Senate hearing in 2004, Eisler wrote him, according to the e-mail he provided to The Washington Post: "You claim to be a religious man (I put it that way out of my long argued conviction that Reform Jews are just as religious as people who keep Kosher); and it's Yom Kippur. The past is past, what happened last year is sealed. This is the New Year and it's your chance to tell the whole story totally and completely and let the chips fall where they may. That will take courage. But in the long run it will save you, in more ways than one. If you refuse to answer questions, you are done."

Abramoff, telling Eisler his attorneys did not agree, took the Fifth anyway.

Eisler stresses that he has only published the e-mails in which he was questioning Abramoff as a reporter. But he sounds more like an advocate than a journalist when he describes how Abramoff is reading religious literature and expressing remorse over his crimes.

At one dinner, Eisler says in one of several interviews, Abramoff told him that " 'Bad Jack is dead.' He was acknowledging the fact that there were two Jacks. He had one Jack who ruthlessly pursued this lobbying thing. . . . His attitude toward his adversaries was squash them, destroy them."

Despite Abramoff's guilty plea, Eisler insists: "I don't fully accept the notion that he cheated his clients. He worked 24/6 for his clients. The story line of 'rich white guy steals from poor downtrodden Indians' is a little misguided in my view. . . . Let's not burn him at the stake because of a media frenzy that would rather stick to caricatures."

Caustic Commentator

Jack Cafferty, CNN's resident curmudgeon, is drawing some flak for his rhetorical bombshells.

In a typical rant, Cafferty, a New York local anchor for two decades who now delivers his short bursts on "The Situation Room," said of the Bush administration: "Who cares if the Patriot Act gets renewed? Want to abuse our civil liberties -- just do it! Who cares about the Geneva conventions? Want to torture prisoners -- just do it! Who cares about rules concerning the identity of CIA agents? Want to reveal the name of a covert operative -- just do it!"

Before any legal charges were brought against Tom DeLay, Cafferty said of the Texas congressman: "Has he been indicted yet?" He told Wolf Blitzer that if presidential adviser Karl Rove is indicted, "he might want to get measured for one of those extra large orange jumpsuits, Wolf, 'cause looking at old Karl, I'm not sure that they'd be able to zip him into the regular size one."

And when Dick Cheney, after his hunting accident, granted an interview to Fox's Brit Hume, Cafferty said it "didn't exactly represent a profile in courage for the vice president to wander over there to the F-word network." ("Get your mind out of the gutter," he says now. "The F-word is Fox.")

Responds Fox spokeswoman Irena Briganti: "Jack is about as unstable as CNN's programming lineup -- nobody pays much attention to his incoherent ramblings."

Cafferty's cutting remarks have made him a hero to some on the left. Liberal radio host Cenk Uygur called for Cafferty to get his own prime-time show, saying on http://HuffingtonPost.com that "he is a rare truth-teller on cable news." But Tim Graham of the conservative Media Research Center writes that Cafferty "has created a little career as a gruff anti-Bush commentator" in "an attempt to be the anti-Bill O'Reilly."

Cafferty disagrees, saying he was often accused of being "a Nazi and a right-winger" when he initially supported the administration's war effort. "I certainly don't picture myself as an apologist for one side of the political spectrum or another," he says. "When I see something that aggravates me or doesn't make sense or seems strange in some way, I express that."

He also picks on liberals: When Ramsey Clark, a former U.S. attorney general, turned up as Saddam Hussein's lawyer, Cafferty said: "What is wrong with this moron? . . . Why doesn't he just go live in Baghdad?"

Cafferty, 62, who invites viewer e-mail that he reads on the air, seems adept at pushing buttons. When he accused the administration of "arrogance" last week for approving a Dubai company to operate six U.S. ports, he got more than 5,000 letters in three hours.

"It doesn't matter what you say," he insists, "you're going to [tick] someone off."

Howard Kurtz hosts CNN's weekly media program, "Reliable Sources."

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