Our Pious Babylon

By Harold Meyerson
Thursday, April 6, 2006

Let us not think that Tom DeLay's decision not to seek reelection was prompted by merely temporal concerns. The Rev. Rick Scarborough, DeLay's sometime pastor, told the New York Times that The Hammer confided in him last Saturday that "God wanted him to get out of that race."

DeLay's apparently is the most obliging of Lords. He stuck with the embattled incumbent long enough for DeLay to give a "Texas whuppin' " to those infidels who ran against him in the Republican primary, only to counsel withdrawal when the polling made clear that a Democrat could still beat The Hammer in the fall.

The broader question is whether such a deity still rules in Washington. As gods go, He was surely more ethically flexible than most. Lesser gods might frown upon bribery, fraud, greed and the abrogation of the democratic process, but this one was willing to overlook such trifles if they strengthened the Republicans' hold on the House and were performed in a spirit of piety.

The latest in the litany of outrageous acts by pious men was revealed in Tuesday's Los Angeles Times, where reporters Tom Hamburger and Ken Silverstein documented the efforts of lobbyist Jack Abramoff to sell his services to the Sudanese government in 2001. Quoting both the Sudanese ambassador and an unidentified former Abramoff associate, they recount how Abramoff offered to improve the image of the quasi-genocidal regime among Christian evangelicals in return for a retainer of $16 million to $18 million. An Abramoff spokesman rebutted the account, insisting that Abramoff merely told the ambassador of his objections to the Sudanese government's war on its Christian population. But the very setting of this encounter -- Abramoff's skybox at FedEx Field during a Redskins game -- casts some doubt on the spokesman's account.

"This persecution has got to stop and -- say, check out that second cheerleader from the right!"

Is it even possible, in the age of DeLay and Karl Rove and the K Street Project, to satirize Washington? Doesn't reality outrun apprehension here and exceed the satirical imagination? A fine new comic film, "Thank You for Smoking," written and directed by Jason Reitman from a novel by Christopher Buckley, is putting this question to the happiest of tests in theaters this month. In the spirit of the immortal Billy Wilder, the picture recounts the exploits of a bright young spinmeister for the tobacco industry whose modus operandi is to besmirch tobacco's critics and hire scientists to blow smoke around all actual data. His only two friends are lobbyists for the gun and alcohol industries; they lunch regularly and call themselves the MOD Squad -- MOD being an acronym for Merchants of Death.

But even the MOD Squad is a pale imitation of the reality of the Beltway's most outrageous advocate, who goes by the name of Rick Berman. In recent months Berman has been in the news for placing full-page ads in major newspapers (funding sources unidentified) that gently compare America's union leaders to Fidel Castro and like authoritarians. The unionists' sin, Berman argues, is their support for allowing workers to join unions simply by signing affiliation cards rather than subjecting themselves to a National Labor Relations Act election process in which pro-union workers are frequently fired.

But Berman's salvos against unions are just the latest in a line of attacks he's leveled against drunk-driving laws, anti- smoking statutes, food safety ordinances and minimum-wage standards. He is, broadly speaking, the lobbyist for the Hobbesian state of nature.

Working chiefly under the aegis of his Center for Consumer Freedom, Berman has accused Mothers Against Drunk Driving and kindred groups (in the words of one of his Web sites) of "junk science, intimidation tactics, and even threats of violence to push their radical agenda." Another Berman Web site was devoted to dismissing the dangers of mercury levels in fish.

Berman's center was jump-started in 1995 with money from Philip Morris, and, thanks to memos that were made public in the discovery process during the lawsuits against Big Tobacco, his strategic vision is now plain for all to see. "The concept," he wrote Philip Morris at the time, "is to unite the restaurant and hospitality industries in a campaign to defend their consumers and marketing programs against attacks from anti-smoking, anti-drinking, anti-meat, etc. activists." The industries apparently have appreciated Berman's work. According to the Center for Media and Democracy, a former Berman associate has produced documents showing that Coca-Cola, Wendy's, Tyson Foods, Cargill and Outback Steakhouse are among Berman's largest donors.

The law may have hauled Abramoff off the stage, and DeLay may be huddling with his counsel and his Creator to plan his next move. But Rick Berman rolls merrily along, an inexhaustible source of material for the Reitmans, Buckleys and all who aspire to chronicle our depravities.


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