A fascinating social trend in our country today is watching the life of a pariah unfold. Think Michael Vick: He paid for crimes for which he was convicted, yet in many circles he is still a loathsome character.
Certainly, people can and do commit vile acts. Yet, whatever happened to the American capacity to recognize and respond to redemption?
Ask Jack Abramoff; he’ll tell you.
Who can forget the tight-jawed Abramoff getting in and out of vehicles outside a federal courthouse? The country’s most famous lobbyist was caught several years ago in a corruption scandal and spent several years in prison. He’s out now, and with a memoir that is … realistic. It isn’t a 300-page apology, yet Abramoff is clearly sorry. He has an edge to him in “Capitol Punishment” and recognizes the cultural thirst to demonize a transgressor into eternity.
The first thing is, Abramoff’s tell-all is fascinating! I mean, really fascinating.
Right away, he describes in excruciating detail the terror he felt walking into a Senate hearing in September 2004: “I was scared. Real fear – the kind that paralyzes – had taken over. I was about the experience the same pain I had helped inflict on others.”
The chickens had come home to roost.
Born into a wealthy Atlantic City family, Abramoff was the kind of guy who would turn anything he touched to gold. His varied career has seen him write and produce films, joined Citizens for America (to build support for the Nicaraguan Contras) and earn a law degree.
It was his lobbying skills, though, that will ever define him.
Over time, Abramoff became involved in a dizzying number of initiatives, from gambling interests to a Russian energy company.
“Capitol Punishment” begins with Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell asking Abramoff repeatedly if he referred to clients as morons and monkeys … and Abramoff answered by taking the Fifth.
One can almost imagine being with Abramoff his first moments in prison; he was first asked where he’d like his body shipped, should he die in prison. Talk about a cold glass of water in the face! How did he get to such a hideous place?
Well, “Casino Jack” Abramoff was born into a respectable family, although a glimpse into his makeup comes from his description of family traits: “Mom’s family included scientists, mathematicians, concert pianists, artists and authors. Dad and his brother were the toughest street fighters in Atlantic City. I guess I got my genes from both sides.”
From his “raucous activities” with the College Republicans, to modest film producing efforts (“Red Scorpion 2”), Abramoff used his brains and his street-fighting instincts to move up the ladder. Eventually, though, he wanted to be closer to his family, so he went into another business. He would go on to become perhaps the most famous lobbyist in American history.
While Abramoff was carving out a career and balancing it by becoming involved in his children’s private schools, he drifted to a place where – as the title of Chapter 9 tells us – he was “in bad company.”
The reader will have to explore this for himself (but, trust me, it will be worth it!), but Abramoff stepped onto the slippery slope the day he decided to buy a partnership in a cruise casino company. As the negotiations dragged on for months, and Abramoff’s initial investment mushroomed, he became desperate. I won’t reveal the outcome, but suffice to say, things are not always as they seem. Jack Abramoff didn’t wake up one day and decide to become a dirty player.
In this account, various figures come off badly, such as Ralph Reed and congressional leaders who had been happy to accept campaign money from Abramoff, but treated him like a pariah when the swirling sewer of corruption charges ruined him. “Capitol Punishment,” I think, is a marvelous cautionary tale for anyone involved in high-level business deals. In fact, Abramoff does a superb job of pointing out in exacting detail the moments he made mistakes that would come back to haunt him.
In fact, his moment of “utter despair” came in federal prison. For a man who had golfed with national leaders, Abramoff was reduced to a certain number of telephone minutes per month. When his mother passed away, he asked to call his father – even though he was out of minutes. No prison authority was going to be seen coddling Casino Jack, so even this simple request was denied.
Such experiences can shape a person, even in mid-life, and Jack Abramoff is obviously different than he was a decade ago. He deserves a second chance in the court of public opinion.
In the meantime, this astonishing and riveting memoir will serve as a sobering caution to others. Pride is man’s greatest downfall, but grace on the other side leads to redemption.