Is Abramoff the New Monica?
By FRANK RICH
THERE'S nothing this White House loves more than pictures that tell a story - a fictional story. And so another mission was accomplished when President Bush posed with the 13 past secretaries of state and defense he hustled into the Oval Office 10 days ago: he could pretend to consult on Iraq with sages of all political stripes - Madeleine Albright, yet - even if the actual give-and-take, all 5 to 10 minutes of it, was as substantive as the scripted "Ask the President" town hall meetings of the 2004 campaign.
But this White House, cunning as it is, can't control all the pictures all the time. That photo op was quickly followed by Time's Jack Abramoff cover and its specter of other images more inopportune than op. Mr. Bush's aides, the magazine reported, were busy "trying to identify all the photos that may exist of the two men together." Translation: Could a Bush-Abramoff money shot as iconic as Monica on the rope line be lurking somewhere for a Time cover still to come?
This much is certain: 1) The Abramoff scandal, so far anyway, boasts plenty of cigars but no sex. 2) It has almost everything else, including the "Miami Vice"-style rub-out of a Florida casino-cruise-ship mogul who'd had contentious business dealings with Mr. Abramoff. Not without reason is the White House on a frantic search-and-destroy mission to root out any potential embarrassments. Mr. Bush's expert stage managers are smart enough to know that this scandal may metastasize from a cancer on Congress to a cancer on the Republican Party in general and this presidency in particular.
Washington's jaded conventional wisdom will tell you otherwise. It says that Mr. Abramoff's bribing of congressmen to do his clients' bidding is the same old generic Capitol Hill scandal dating to Grant and Harding, differing only in the sheer scale of the numbers (of politicians implicated, of moolah changing hands). The many conservative pundits now deploring Tom DeLay take a similarly reductive line. "Washington power can corrupt absolutely," explained the Wall Street Journal editorial page while bemoaning that "people like Mr. Abramoff" came "to Washington to clean up Washington" and then were corrupted by the capital's evil ways. The DeLay Republicans, you see, are merely repeating the history of the decadent, power-fattened Democrats who preceded them, most especially Jim Wright, the speaker of the House who resigned in 1989.
If it's all Washington's fault, of course, it's not the G.O.P.'s fault; the scandal can be quarantined to a few (or a dozen) bad apples who were seduced by a lobbyist's skyboxes and not-so-petty Indian casino cash. But that theory of the case conveniently denies the quarter-century-old provenance of Mr. Abramoff. This scandal's particular greedy, power-crazed ethos wasn't created by Washington - it was imported to Washington by him and two pals destined to rise to the top of the G.O.P. establishment, Ralph Reed and Grover Norquist. These ruthless three musketeers first converged in the College Republicans hierarchy in the early 1980's, long before they obtained the Washington power that could corrupt them (and years before the Wright scandal).
They preached a take-no-prisoners strategy and a specific ideology - do away with taxes, privatize government, free business from any regulation - that changed Washington far more than Washington changed them. Their triumph can be found everywhere today, from Halliburton's no-bid contracts in Iraq to the K Street project, a Norquist-championed and DeLay-sanctioned operation to intimidate corporations with business before Congress into hiring exclusively Republican lobbyists like Mr. Abramoff.
But it's not only the genealogy of the Abramoff scandal that separates it from its predecessors. So does the distinctive odor of its possible criminality. In its financial shenanigans and some of its personnel, the Abramoff affair doesn't so much echo Teapot Dome as the business scandal that engulfed Mr. Bush's former No. 1 corporate patron, Enron, in our new century. The Abramoff scandal's pious trappings are sui generis as well. They adhere to the Karl Rove playbook that wraps every hardball White House tactic in godliness and exploits "faith based" organizations as political machines to deliver the G.O.P.'s religious right base.
To see these similarities and synergies you don't need to know the difference between the Choctaws and the Marianas. Look instead at the Alexander Strategy Group, the lobbying outfit that is ground zero for the scandal (and that went kaput last week). Founded by Mr. DeLay's former chief of staff and personal pastor, an evangelical minister named Edwin Buckham, its early big client was Enron. And like Enron, which laundered money through sham financial entities with "Star Wars" names like Chewco and JEDI, it benefited from a shell organization with a fanciful, albeit faith-based, name: the U.S. Family Network.
The U.S. Family Network was formed by Mr. Buckham on the side, ostensibly as a grass-roots advocacy organization to promote, among other virtues, "moral fitness." As The Washington Post discovered last month, its financial backers were amoral, favor-seeking Abramoff associates, from casino operators to Russian oil businessmen. The U.S. Family Network's contribution to moral fitness and U.S. families, meanwhile, was close to nil - except for the DeLay family. The Post reported that hundreds of thousands of the network's dollars were siphoned into Mr. Buckham's lobbying shop, which in turn put Mr. DeLay's wife on salary. U.S. Family money also purchased a Washington town house used by Mr. DeLay for fund-raising. Enron's Andrew Fastow couldn't have drawn up a more imaginative flow chart for distributing dubious gains to a favored few on the q.t.
The U.S. Family Network was only one of several phantom Enron-style shams spawned or fronted by Mr. DeLay, Mr. Abramoff or their sometimes clerical cronies, from Celebrations for Children (a "charity" whose good works remain a mystery) to the American International Center (a "think tank" manned by a lifeguard in Rehoboth Beach, Del.). The Capital Athletic Foundation, supposedly set up to provide sports programs for needy urban kids, underwrote a 2002 golf outing to Scotland for Mr. Abramoff, Congressman Bob Ney of Ohio, Ralph Reed (an Enron consultant in his post-Christian Coalition days) and David Safavian, the Bush administration's top procurement official, who resigned in September just before being indicted on charges of lying and obstruction of justice in the Abramoff investigation.
Abramoff & Company pursued a "careful cultivation of relations with Bush's political team as far back as 1997," according to The Associated Press. One contact was J. Steven Griles, a mining industry lobbyist who, topically enough, tried to weaken mine regulation during his government tenure as No. 2 in Mr. Bush's Interior Department. The department also handles Indian affairs, but Mr. Griles has said he does not "recall intervening on behalf of Mr. Abramoff's clients ever" when in government.
Mr. Abramoff himself served on the Interior Department's transition team after the 2000 election. Perhaps it's this steady drip of revelations, including those about his White House access as a "Pioneer" delivering at least $100,000 to the Bush campaign, that has frightened the administration into suddenly speaking out about the scandal. Scott McClellan is now also using that helpful verb recall - as in the president does not "recall" ever meeting Mr. Abramoff (an artful dodge if photos surface). Mr. Bush has disingenuously explained that the lobbyist had been an "equal money dispenser" to those "in both political parties." (To both, yes, but never equally.)
If this all sounds a little familiar, that's because it replays the White House game plan after the Enron meltdown. Mr. Bush then suggested that he had inherited his relationship with Ken Lay from Ann Richards, his Democratic predecessor as Texas governor, and suddenly took to referring to the backer he had once nicknamed Kenny Boy as Mr. Lay. You'd never guess that Enron brass had helped pay Mr. Bush's campaign expenses for the Florida recount, contributed $300,000 to the inaugural gala and attended four meetings of Dick Cheney's secret energy task force.
As fate would have it, the court appearances of Mr. Lay, Mr. DeLay, Jeff Skilling, Mr. Safavian and Mr. Abramoff could all overlap on 24/7 cable in the months ahead. There will surely be much talk of God along the way. Mr. DeLay's pastor, Mr. Buckham, and Mr. Reed were not the only prayerful players in the Abramoff casino. So were the Rev. "Lucky Louie" Sheldon of the Traditional Values Coalition and the right-wing Rabbi Daniel Lapin, whose Toward Tradition organization received a $25,000 check (in all innocence, we're told) from the Abramoff client eLottery. In 2002, the good rabbi welcomed the lobbyist onto the board of his American Alliance of Jews and Christians, along with Jerry Falwell and the man who loves Israel literally to death, Pat Robertson.
In between Mr. Abramoff's guilty pleas in Washington and Florida, he let it be known that he was busy writing Torah commentary. What is the inspiration for all this religiosity? Though raised by an unobservant family, Mr. Abramoff has said that he resolved to become an Orthodox Jew at the age of 12 after seeing "Fiddler on the Roof." Now that he's ratting on all his cronies to reduce his own sentence, they, too, will learn what it means to journey from the vainglorious fantasies of "If I Were a Rich Man" to the hard time of "Sunrise, Sunset."