Abramoff Is a Curable Symptom

Every great cause, said longshoreman-philosopher Eric Hoffer, begins as a movement, degenerates into a business and ends up as a racket. So it went with the labor and civil-rights movements. And so it goes with the conservative movement and the Republican "revolution," for which Jack Abramoff is mirror and metaphor.

As an assistant to President Reagan, I met Abramoff when he was a fresh, brash, smart, energetic man anxious to aid the anti-Communist causes in Afghanistan, Angola and Nicaragua. But the Jack Abramoff who walked out of federal court after pleading guilty to felonies that can put him away for a decade looked like a Mafia don with nothing more on his mind than letting out the contracts on those who had sent him there.

While Abramoff is being painted as the embodiment of evil, he is only an exaggerated example of what Washington has become, a souk where the U.S. government is bought and sold at auction.

Bribery is hard to prove, so the body count of legislators who fall beneath a prosecutor’s sword may be few. But careers will be cut short and reputations ravaged, most of them deservedly so.

For unlike the NSA eavesdropping charges against President Bush, congressmen who turned tricks for favors received cannot say they acted to protect the national security. Unlike the "Scooter" Libby affair, this is a scandal Middle America can understand and one that will cause even tired blood to boil.

Saturday, Jeffrey Smith of The Washington Post reported that a "public advocacy group," the U.S. Family Network, with ties to Tom DeLay, took in $1 million from a now-defunct London law firm whose partners have had a memory loss as to who gave them the check.

One of the operators of U.S. Family Network, an ex-chief of staff to DeLay, reportedly says the signers of the check were a pair of Russian oil executives with ties to Abramoff. After the check landed, DeLay led the charge to reimburse the IMF for a bailout of Russia, an unfamiliar front for a right-wing Texas Republican to be fighting on.

DeLay denies a connection. Fine. But the agenda of the Family Network was to advance "moral fitness." Yet, it received a check for $500,000 from the owners of textile companies operating in the Marianas and $250,000 from Choctaw Indians in Mississippi, two big Abramoff clients. And DeLay turned up in the vanguard of the fight to defend the right of the textile boys not to raise the peon wages of their workers and in the battle to prevent U.S. taxation of the gambling income of the Choctaws.

DeLay denies any link between the fat contributions and his official actions. But such stories are going to be pouring out of the prosecutor’s offices, and the stench in this city will be detectable by even insensitive nostrils far, far away from Washington, D.C.

For what the Abramoff story is all about is the pandemic and endemic corruption of an imperial capital that spends one in every five dollars of an economy of $12.5 trillion and holds the power to reward, punish, tax and destroy. Honey attracts flies.

To influence the 535 members who decide where the trillions are spent and how the power is used, 35,000 lobbyists prowl the halls of the Senate and House office buildings and Capitol. Former Cabinet and sub-Cabinet officers, congressional representatives, senators, White House aides and congressional staffers endlessly work ex-colleagues to influence decisions on behalf of clients. No company is too corrupt, and no regime has so unsavory a reputation on human rights, that it cannot find, for a fat-enough fee, a famous friend at court.

What Abramoff dispensed — skybox tickets to Redskin games, trips to St. Andrew’s for golf, junkets, steak dinners at Signature’s and the directed contribution of tens of millions in campaign cash to friends who did his bidding — will be revealed. This nervous town knows it. Already, from the White House to the Capitol, a bipartisan stampede is underway to return, with appropriate indignation, any contribution that can be traced back to Jack and his Indians.

Democrats call it a Republican scandal redolent of a "culture of corruption." Republicans note how many good liberal Democrats also got perks, gifts and campaign contributions.

Prosecutors will investigate and leak. Journalists will expose and editorialize. Pundits will pontificate. Politicians, survival at stake, will rat one another out. This is a case where self-interest and an instinct to survive will work to cleanse and cauterize the infection before another is discovered, as it surely will be, for the virus of corruption is ineradicable from the capitals of decadent and declining empires.

Abramoff is a curable symptom. Abramoff is not the disease from which the republic is dying.