Jack Abramoff helped break Congress, and now he's trying to fix it.
In the mid-2000s, Abramoff was earning $20 million a year selling his clients access to the Republican House leadership. He owned restaurants, flew on private jets and set up golf outings for congressmen on an obscure Pacific Ocean island chain. He was the most prominent, best-paid lobbyist in D.C.
In 2008, Abramoff saw everything collapse in a scandal that helped bring down House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, sent another congressman to prison, and exposed the nastier elements of DC's economy of influence.
Now, after three and a half years in prison, Abramoff is re-emerging as a voice for reform. In a new book about his life as a lobbyist, Abramoff argues that Congress functions as a system of legalized bribery. He writes and speaks widely about the need to radically reform our legal code to prohibit the kind of influence peddling at which he once excelled.
I met Abramoff three weeks ago at an event at Harvard Law School. (He was there to discuss his experience in Washington with Lawrence Lessig in a cool new forum called "In the Dock.") As he entered the room, a funny silence overcame the room. It was as if the entire audience was simultaneously answering the question we'd all been chewing over: how to demonstrate our distance and disapproval while maintaining the decorum appropriate to the setting? Sure, we've filled a large auditorium on a weeknight to hear what this guy has to say, but he's not getting any damn applause.
But over the next hour and a half, the strangest thing happened -- Abramoff won over the crowd. He didn't try to defend himself at all. Instead, he was almost preternaturally humble, telling in-your-face stories about the naked corruption he'd been a part of. It was all very matter-of-fact: I was able to do these things because I wanted to win, and because everyone did it, and because I didn't recognize some basic ethical rules. And then I went to prison and had some insights that all of you probably take for granted.
As the event went along, the handful of stone-throwers in the audience seemed more and more out of place. Someone would ask a barbed question -- basically, How can you be such a giant asshole? -- and you could feel the crowd sigh. He knows, buddy.
By the end, I liked him. And I wasn't alone -- not even close. Here was a guy who'd been about as bad as you can be with a tie on, and he seemed to have come around. Sure, it had taken prison to get him there, but so what? He'd been humiliated and shamed by the entire country in a way that I'll probably never fathom, and then he'd spent three-and-a-half years in a box. And instead of coming out resentful or defensive or highhanded, he'd emerged repentant. But more than that - he'd come out ready to try to right some of the wrongs he'd been a part of. Not for any financial reward, (he's under a $44M restitution order) and not in the name of reclaiming his good name (he probably knows that's not going to happen in this lifetime). But maybe, just maybe, because what else are you gonna do?
I wanted to know more. What had it felt like to live this life? How does someone like him - smart, patriotic, and deeply religiously observant (he's an Orthodox Jew) -- handle the cognitive dissonance that comes with bribing congressman for a living? How do you walk out of prison, thoroughly humiliated, and do anything other than tuck tail and hide? (The Harvard event had been titled "Lawrence Lessig Interrogates Jack Abramoff," and I'd joked with friends beforehand: it was a bit much, no? Did Harvard tell Abramoff that that's how they planned to advertise the event, or did they just go ahead and do it after he'd agreed to attend? Who agrees to submit to that kind of thing?)
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I introduced myself at the book signing. Would he give me 20 minutes? Sure, and here's my personal email. We spoke a couple of weeks later.
In the interim, I read his book and watched both the documentary and the feature film that have been made about his life. The book provided at least partial answers to many of my questions, but it opened up others. In particular: for a guy who knows the Washington bribery game better than most, how would he go about trying to reform the system? What would an actual strategy look like? When we spoke, that's where we started.
MATT BIEBER: In your book, Capitol Punishment: The Hard Truth About Washington Corruption from America's Most Notorious Lobbyist, you describe the ways that you and your fellow lobbyists used money so effectively to achieve your goals on Capitol Hill. Ultimately you propose a law for getting money out of politics. Others have suggested different approaches.
If you were still a lobbyist using all of your old tricks and you wanted to pass that law, how would you do it? Who would you talk to? How would you exert your influence?
JACK ABRAMOFF: Well, that's a great question. I can tell you I've done 300 interviews and nobody has asked me a question like that. Let me think about this. I'm not certain using the old methods I used, I'd be able to do this. I mean obviously, this points right to the problem. I really think the only way to do this, frankly, is on a public policy basis, without using the insider lobbyist stuff, but rather using elections to get, [sympathetic members elected] then creating legislation that speaks right to the issue, and then publicly forcing each of these members to confront whether or not they're willing to support it. In other words, much more of a public campaign than the normal lobbying campaign.
The complete interview is available here.