You Don't Know Jack

What a new documentary gets wrong about Jack Abramoff and the lobbying-industrial complex

When the lights went down at the Washington premiere of Casino Jack and the United States of Money, a new documentary about disgraced super-lobbyist Jack Abramoff, I was a bit gratified to see that the film begins by quoting something Abramoff once said to yours truly.

Among his many vocations, Jack had once been a film producer. And appropriately enough, the quote was “Why would you want to make a documentary? Nobody watches documentaries. You should make an action film.” Of course, lately there's been a documentary renaissance, in large part due to the popularity of liberal celluloid polemics aimed at disparaging corrupt conservatives. Meanwhile, Jack is currently residing in a minimum security prison. Who says irony is dead?

Before I say anything more about Casino Jack, I should explain. Abramoff once bought me dinner at his restaurant. At the time I was a chronically underemployed writer, and all I knew was that some wealthy K-street type was looking for help writing a book.

Jack pitched me on a book he wanted to write about his days as an anti-communist activist during the Reagan administration. These activities led to various adventures in Africa, culminating in his dalliance as a movie producer. Abramoff had written and produced Red Scorpion, a thinly veiled anti-communist tract masquerading as a Rambo rip-off, starring Dolph Lundgren and filmed in Namibia.

For one evening, I sat slack-jawed as Abramoff regaled me with stories about everything from spastic Afghani warlords to Lundgren's rocky relationship with one of O.J. Simpson's ex-girlfriends. Suffice to say, when the evening was over I, like everyone in Washington at that moment, wanted to get into business with Jack.

But after that evening, I never saw him again. Jack was too busy making money to work on a vanity project. Some years later, how Jack made his money became national news and I wrote up my recollection of the evening. It landed me my first magazine cover story, making me perhaps the only person in Washington to have honestly profited from an association with Jack Abramoff.

Given this baggage, I approached Casino Jack with a weird mixture of anxiety and anticipation. I'd spent a lot of time reflecting on that evening and for a while had followed Abramoff's story obsessively. I knew it could be amazing; what he'd told me only covered a few years of his life and could have quite easily been turned into one hell of a book.

And therein lies the problem for a documentary. Telling the Abramoff story without leaving a lot of interesting stuff in the cutting room would be exceedingly difficult. First, there's his ascent into national politics as part of the Reagan-era College Republicans—imagine Animal House as envisioned by Richard Hofstadter. From there, Abramoff forged ties to the apartheid South African government and began getting involved in anti-communist causes from Angola to Afghanistan. Eventually he births Red Scorpion.

Finally, he returned to Washington to become the biggest lobbyist in town. Abramoff bilked $82 million in lobbying fees from six Indian tribes operating casinos before people started asking questions. And while all this was going on he was part of a group trying to buy some mobbed-up casino boats in Florida. Eventually, the Abramoff scandal forced the resignation of Speaker of the House Tom Delay (R-Texas), and sent Rep. Bob Ney (R-Ohio) to prison.

Director Alex Gibney, whose last film, Taxi to the Dark Side, won the Oscar for best documentary, does a decent job laying all this out in two hours. It helps that the film incorporates a wide array of interviews with principle players in the events, including Delay and Ney. The production values are top notch (note the voiceovers by Stanley Tucci and Paul Rudd). But it's the research that is mind-blowing. I had previously investigated an event Abramoff organized in Jamba, Angola almost 30 years ago. I could get little information beyond a Time magazine article and the recollections of a few people involved. Gibney somehow found a cameraman who was there with 10 hours of unused footage from the event, used to great effect in the film.   

So in that respect Casino Jack tells the story of Abramoff admirably. But what's the moral? Ultimately, Gibney has to sell this film to liberal audiences, and I'm not sure the left-liberal worldview can adequately explain the lobbying-industrial complex.

To do the wet work here, Gibney leans heavily on liberal writer Thomas Frank to blithely explain how Abramoff and Delay's cronyism is the inevitable result of the Reagan revolution. Watching the film you might think Frank is another journalist, rather than a straight-up ideologue, best known for What's the Matter with Kansas? and other critiques of what he calls “market populism.” Perhaps a more accurate term for Frank's obsession would be “straw men dressed up to look like Milton Friedman.”

As it happens, Frank's last book, The Wrecking Crew: How Conservatives Rule, was itself a lobotomized exegesis of the Delay-Abramoff scandals. According to Frank, conservatives believe that government is evil and confiscatory. Thus, they're honor bound to demonstrate such evil when they get elected. Or something.

The Wrecking Crew does, however, have one of the most unintentionally hilarious blurbs I've ever seen, culled from a New Yorker review: “Frank captures a quality of exuberant bullying in those of his conservative subjects he knows well enough to identify individually, rather than categorically.” So Frank knows the names of the conservatives he criticizes, but that's about it.

The problem for Frank is that Democrats took control of Congress in 2006 and instituted some not insignificant lobbying reforms. (Frank's book was published in 2008.) But in the post Abramoff era, we've seen the government buy General Motors for $57 billion to prop up the United Auto Workers union; Wall Street feasting at the $700 billion TARP trough while Goldman Sachs is leaving a toothbrush in the West Wing; and Big Pharma paying the White House $100 million under the table to carve themselves an exemption in the $1 trillion dollar insurance company giveaway known as health care reform. Meanwhile, the current White House political director is the former top lobbyist for the Service Employees International Union, which spent $60 million getting Obama and various Democrats elected in 2008. Lobbyists are greasing the skids more than ever—on both sides of the aisle.

In retrospect, Abramoff’s over-billing of an Indian tribe whose casino clears $300 million a year seems like a delightful escapade compared to the taxpayer trail of tears we've endured under Democratic rule.

But have no fear gentle viewer, none of this keeps Frank from popping up at the end of the film to breezily explain how the Abramoff saga is responsible for various carbuncles on the body politic, particularly today's economic crisis. “They finally got what they wanted,” Frank intones. “They got their deregulated financial markets and the whole thing came crashing down.”

Who exactly “they” is isn't entirely clear. Republicans? Lobbyists? Dastardly free marketeers? Is there a difference? (Perhaps Frank shouldn't speak so categorically.) And looking at the financial crisis from a different vantage point, I'm also not sure how, say, government-sponsored entities effectively nationalizing the mortgage market in response to congressional directives constitutes the state of deregulation that Frank so vociferously deplores.

As it stands, lobbyists currently spend about $10 million a day in D.C. We could approach this problem of influence with vague calls for more regulations governing campaign cash, labor markets, and Wall Street, which is what Casino Jack ends up doing. But, to put the problem in economic terms and thus ensuring that Frank will have no idea what I'm talking about, the surest way to eliminate the supply of corruption is to dry up the demand. Each new opportunity for regulation means somebody has a financial stake in what the government does, and those affected will happily pay to influence where the regulatory chips fall. Smaller government is cleaner government.

Though the documentary makes him out to be a kind of larger-than-life buffoon, I spent just enough time around Abramoff to know full well how wily and intelligent he is. I have no doubt he carefully analyzed Washington's weaknesses and exploited them to the hilt, racking up eager accomplices along the way. And aside from forging a wire transfer and a few other comparatively niggling details, it's still not clear that the vast majority of what Abramoff did was even illegal. He was convicted under the “honest services fraud” law—a notoriously ill-defined statute currently under review by the Supreme Court.

The story of Jack Abramoff is a cautionary tale, to be sure, just not in the way this documentary would have you believe. If you think that more lobbying rules and more market regulation are preferable to transparency and limited government—well, you don't know Jack.

Mark Hemingway is an editorial writer for the Washington Examiner. This column first appeared at Reason.com.





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