That Poor Jack Abramoff, A Victim of Bad Timing

Posted October 6, 2008 at 3:59pm

Central casting couldn’t have asked for anything more perfect than Jack Abramoff.

The classic super lobbyist, he has been criticized for his flair and overzealous ambition as well as for perpetrating a fraud of epic proportions.

But now we have a sympathetic take on the man who came to epitomize Washington greed. Boston reporter Gary Chafetz tries to disprove the common belief that Abramoff bilked Native Americans and other clients out of hundreds of millions of dollars in his new book, “The Perfect Villain: John McCain and the Demonization of Lobbyist Jack Abramoff.”

Cataloguing Abramoff’s rise and fall, Chafetz scored unprecedented access to the former uber-lobbyist, using Abramoff’s own words at times to retell events.

With all this access, Chafetz comes to what might seem to some to be a surprising conclusion: Abramoff has been cast as a modern-day Othello, a twisted and wicked man with no positive characteristics. Chafetz determines that Abramoff is a tragic character who was a victim of sorts, hit by the perfect combination of a Senator looking for revenge and media always in search of a good story.

In the book, Chafetz appears to be trying to convince Abramoff of his supposed innocence. However, Chafetz reasons that because Abramoff refused to defend himself, he must be suffering from Stockholm syndrome, identifying with those who have put him away.

Chafetz provides an exhaustive retelling of Abramoff’s every move, closely tracing his early days as head of the College Republicans to his movie days, and then all the way to his epic rise as one of Washington, D.C.’s most infamous power brokers.

His downfall, Chafetz argues, were three Achilles’ heels: money woes caused by excessive spending, a desire to bend the rules that led to a creative interpretation of laws and regulations, and an almost frenetic lifestyle.

Chafetz weaves the parallel narrative of the life of Abramoff’s business associate, Adam Kidan. In fact, Chafetz ultimately determines that Kidan is the main reason for Abramoff’s demise. Kidan is the associate with whom Abramoff ultimately pleaded guilty for wire fraud and conspiracy relating to the SunCruz gambling operation.

Unlike previous investigative stories into Abramoff’s life, Chafetz’s access to Abramoff allows for a deeper telling. In researching for the book, the author gave the former lobbyist carte blanche to rebut the public record on everything from the time when he first met Kidan to the facts involving one of the most widely reported stories about the “Gimme Five” scheme that he and his associate Michael Scanlon set up.

A kickback system for referral fees for clients, Gimme Five has been portrayed as one of the ways that Abramoff and his associates skimmed money from tribal clients. Abramoff rebuts the way Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and others described Gimme Five, saying that rather than a crooked scheme, it was meant only as a “synonym for a brilliant idea.”

While it is certainly interesting to hear Abramoff’s side of the story, at times the excuses that Abramoff gives Chafetz for his bad behavior seem far-fetched at best. For example, Abramoff defends his e-mails calling Native Americans derogatory names by saying that he calls his own kids “troglodytes.”

Chafetz, a liberal former Boston Globe reporter, has been twice nominated for a Pulitzer Prize. Though he had in-depth interviews with Abramoff, Chafetz asserts that he independently came up with his thesis of Abramoff’s supposed innocence.

Throughout the book, Chafetz jumps back to his main thesis that the media and McCain had ulterior motives for not releasing or reporting certain details that would make the Abramoff story seem much less salacious. This back-and-forth style is jarring and at times tedious.

Additionally, Chafetz takes aim at most of the media coverage that has, in his opinion, skewered Abramoff, detailing every trip and shady interaction with President Bush’s former right-hand man Karl Rove to Christian activist Ralph Reed and anti-tax crusader Grover Norquist, while leaving out details that would have made the stories more accurate.

In particular, Chafetz finds fault in the Washington Post coverage of Abramoff. He asserts that investigative reporter Susan Schmidt (now at the Wall Street Journal) was in search of a good story and left out important details in order to make a bigger splash.

The timing of the book’s release this fall seems an attempt to try to influence the upcoming presidential election. Critical of the way McCain ran the Senate hearings in which Abramoff testified, Chafetz details how McCain was embittered by the GOP’s smear campaign in South Carolina during his 2000 presidential bid. And one has to wonder whether this indeed is Abramoff’s biggest lobbying campaign yet — a stealth way to start to rebuild his reputation or, at the very least, set the record straight.

Chafetz repeatedly tells readers how Abramoff refuses to buy the theory that he isn’t guilty, but it is a bit suspect that the first book written with Abramoff’s cooperation is indeed an indictment of McCain and the media.

Chafetz, after all, spends much of the book trying to convince readers that Abramoff isn’t guilty.

While Chafetz doesn’t go as far as calling Abramoff a hero, he surmises that the only thing he was guilty of is playing the influence-peddling game better than everyone else.