At the height of the Tom DeLay-era, Jack Abramoff was probably Washington’s most influential and lucratively paid lobbyist. He was brash and brazen, displaying a Hollywood swagger long before they made a movie about him. Then Abramoff was exposed as a fraud, a liar and a creep of the first order–someone who effectively stole millions of dollars from Native American tribes and fueled corruption of Congress. Having recently finished a prison sentence for these actions, Abramoff is now embarking on a penitence tour, featuring a memoir which, I gather, also serves as a kind of manifesto for how to stamp out corruption in Washington. Once I get my hands on the book this week I’ll have more to say about it. But for now I’d recommend watching last night’s “60 Minutes” segment on the man, which was an unintentional testament to his wicked brilliance.
Abramoff managed to positively charm CBS News’ Lesley Stahl, whom I think of as a tough and serious journalist, but who at times seemed delighted by the dashing rogue before her. Stahl did interrupt the proceedings to declare, “I’m mad at you,” for Abramoff’s attempt to buy off members of Congress and their aides. (Abramoff had recently finished a particularly creepy riff about the way he would dangle the prospect of lucrative employment at his firm before influential Hill staffers, thereby “owning” them from that time on.) But the fact that she, the hardened correspondent, felt compelled to say as much suggested that even she realized the interview had achieved an unseemly degree of chumminess. More serious than the yukking around, Stahl’s report was light on some of the most detestable details of Abramoff’s story, like the way he called his Native American clients “monkeys” and “morons;” and she gave him a free pass when he claimed that he’d given away most of his money to charity. Never mind that millions of dollars of Abramoff”s “charitable donations” appear to have been fraudulent.
Still, it’s tough to condemn Stahl entirely. Abramoff is a force of nature. That’s how he was getting paid $750 per hour. I saw this up close when I interviewed Abramoff near the peak of his disgrace in 2005. He’s entertaining! He’s funny! He is an amazing storyteller, and I’m sure he was a blast to have beers with before he was a convicted felon. He probably still is. But as he serves up lively interviews on his contrition/rehabilitation tour, however, let’s not forget how craven the man was, and how much reason there is to treat his current apology tour as just another con job.