The lobbying scandal that may lead to the downfall of Republican House Majority Leader Tom DeLay — a conservative evangelical Christian purportedly sabotaged by his friendship with an Orthodox Jewish lobbyist, Jack Abramoff — is of interest for what it says about the value of honesty in the political and media elite.
Abramoff is depicted as the epitome of the mendacious, greedy Washington influence peddler. Two Senate committees are investigating him, and he may go to prison — for breaking laws, the precise nature of which remains largely unclear..
Accounts of Abramoff’s sins center upon reports that he wildly overcharged Indian tribes that hired him in the hope of advancing their gambling businesses, and that he directly paid for junket trips for politicians, notably DeLay — a technical violation of Congressional rules. He was later reimbursed by groups that, had they paid for the trips initially, would have been entirely within the bounds of what’s legal.
Meanwhile his e-mails have been leaked to the press. Abramoff, who conducted his business affairs electronically, used coarse words such as “monkeys” and “troglodytes” in discussing some Indians. He exulted in his earnings in a somewhat undignified way: “Can you smell money?!?!?!” He also directed clients to contribute to his favorite political and other causes.
His humiliation is nearly complete. Yet who among us would not be humiliated if a decade’s worth of our email were leaked by Senate investigators to be dissected by journalists eager to carve us up like a Thanksgiving roast?
One Associated Press report honestly admitted, “A shorthand summary of Abramoff’s alleged dealings tends not to sound too shocking: collecting big checks from American Indian tribes for whom he performed limited work; steering clients’ contributions to outside groups in which he had a personal interest; sending politicians on junkets to curry favor.”
How mundane Abramoff’s activities really are becomes clear when you consider that, as the conservative magazine National Review’s Rich Lowry notes: “House rules prohibit travel funded by lobbyists. That would be unconscionable. But they permit travel funded by corporations, trade associations and nonprofits, with lobbyists allowed to accompany lawmakers for the trip…. Golly. It almost appears as if Congress has created a system with an enormous loophole to satisfy its members’ lust for all-expense-paid luxe travel.” Abramoff, it seems, was not careful about respecting the finer points of the loophole.
Yet this unshocking litany has driven some in media and political circles to excesses of their own: predictions that the damage caused to DeLay could spark antisemitism and torpedo the alliance of conservative Jews and Christians.
Don’t get me wrong; I’m under no illusions. Is Abramoff a saint, the John Paul II of junkets, the Lubavitch Rebbe of lobbying? No.
As one close friend and ally of his put it to me, “Jack is not a choir boy. It’s funny, though, that there are no Ferraris, women, yachts or mansions in this story, and yet it keeps going.” Why it keeps going is a question worth pondering.
Abramoff’s guilt does not rise to the level of serious wrongs and crimes that would merit the intense personal scrutiny he has received. I am not going to shed any tears if those purer-than-spring-rain Indian gambling moguls got overcharged.
In a spirit of honesty, however, I admit that I’d like to see Abramoff left alone in large part because, instead of spending the millions of dollars he raked in on Ferraris and yachts, he lavishly spent it on causes that I think are good and important: an Orthodox high school he founded in the Washington, D.C., area, headed by a rabbi whose taped lectures I have long listened to with admiration; kosher restaurants (that lost a fortune but provided a public service); political organizations and candidates whose conservative philosophy I share, and so on.
Yes, I have a conflict of interest — and such conflicts, arising from one’s political or moral value system, can be more powerful than conflicts that arise from the scent of money. I wish Abramoff’s tormentors would be similarly honest. Let them admit their own wish to see the political consequences of the Abramoff affair that they, simulating disinterest, now predict — like, for example, the implosion of the Jewish-Christian alliance and the fall of Tom DeLay.
In considering the unfolding of Abramoff’s fate, it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that he has been singled out because, as a Washington Post writer with a Jewish name snidely said of him, he is “an Orthodox Jew who seemed to flaunt his piety (the Christian right loved it) the way other lobbyists flash their Rolexes.” Another Jew who delighted in Abramoff’s downfall, Frank Rich of The New York Times, referred to this “Orthodox Jew who in his salad days wore a yarmulke to press interviews.”
If Abramoff were a secular Jew who directed streams of money to left-wing candidates, to liberal think tanks, to charitable causes like Planned Parenthood and PETA, do you think we ever would have heard his name? I don’t.
David Klinghoffer is author of the recent work, “Why the Jews Rejected Jesus: The Turning Point in Western History” (Doubleday).