Jack Abramoff, the infamous lobbyist, was slumped over a table in a dimly lit Clear Channel studio on a recent Sunday evening when a voice came crackling over his headphones. “I’m going to play ‘Hot Blooded’ coming out of the break,” his producer said. “I want you to live the song and give me some hot blood!” Soon, jagged guitar riffs from Foreigner’s 1978 hard-rock anthem began blaring over the airwaves (I got a fever of a hundred and three …). Abramoff swigged some iced tea and leaned into his microphone: “Welcome back to The Jack Abramoff Show, live from Washington, D.C.!”
Billed as an insider’s view of Washington, the program focuses on the nexus between lobbying and politics. This episode’s main target was Barack Obama. “We have a president who came into office pledging to wipe out lobbyists,” Abramoff said, before reeling off the ways Obama had fallen short of his promise. “Americans are sick of the special interests,” he added. “They’re sick of everything I used to be.”
Abramoff—the man at the center of a sprawling corruption scandal that led to 21 convictions and tarred large swaths of the Republican establishment—is hardly the first person you might expect to be scoring the president’s ethics, much less on his own radio show. But, then, American life is littered with unlikely redemption stories. Since 2010, when Abramoff was released from prison (where he served three and a half years for fraud, conspiracy, and tax evasion), he has refashioned himself as a reformer, and emerged as one of the most visible faces of the good-government movement. He is a frequent cable-news commentator, with a best-selling book (Capitol Punishment: The Hard Truth About Washington Corruption From America’s Most Notorious Lobbyist), the radio program (on XM Satellite Radio), and a pair of reality-TV-show concepts in development.
Abramoff is also tearing up the speaker’s circuit, where he collects fees as high as $15,000. Harvard Law School has hosted him, as has an FBI training center. The morning after I met him at the Clear Channel studio, I joined Abramoff on a train ride to New Jersey, where he had yet another speaking engagement. As we hurtled past crumbling smokestacks and barren parking lots, he filled me in on his latest project: a proposed law called the American Anti-Corruption Act, put together by a bipartisan team, including former Federal Election Commission Chairman Trevor Potter. The law aims to curb the influence of special interests by, among other things, barring lawmakers from taking money from industries or entities they regulate. Abramoff said his role was to push for the toughest possible standards. “I was basically the Mikhail Suslov of this effort—the member of the politburo who was the strictest Marxist,” he told me, chortling. “It’s an obscure reference that few of your readers will get.”
A few hours later, we arrived at the Morris Museum, a stately brick building on the outskirts of Morristown. Abramoff’s talk, which was part of a local university’s public-affairs series (past lectures have included “Fixing the Economics of Medicare” and “Turkey: Its Role in World Affairs”), had attracted an overflow crowd of mostly senior citizens. Threading his way through the crowd, Abramoff, who was wearing a silver Rolex and a baggy gray suit that bunched around the ankles, smiled and shook hands like a politician working a rope line. Then, after a fawning introduction, he stepped to the podium. His face lit up and his soft, raspy voice dropped several octaves. “Thank you so much, Len, for that very kind introduction,” he began. “Especially for someone who, for far too long, was used to the introduction of: ‘Will the defendant please rise?’ ” The audience burst into laughter. Abramoff then launched into his life story: His early foray into politics. His detour into moviemaking (he co-wrote and produced the 1989 action film Red Scorpion, starring Dolph Lundgren as a KGB agent). His fateful plunge into lobbying. Every chapter was peppered with self-effacing humor, which made him seem gracious and humble, even when he was bragging—which he did with some regularity.
At one point, Abramoff recalled how he had wowed a top partner at his former lobbying firm with his unbendable ethics. He then boasted of his lobbying prowess: “We could overpower any opponent on any issue by the sheer power of our resources, and our persuasive arguments, and our ability to strategize.” Abramoff claimed that his win-at-all-costs ethos grew out of his deep commitment to the issues and clients he represented. “The people who were hiring us, some of them were very fine folks who had been trampled on for years—Indian tribes and others,” he said. “So I took great pride in not losing.” It was in his zeal to win, he added, that he accidentally stumbled over some “very murky lines in the sand in lobbying and in politics.”
It is this tidy story line, which blurs the distinction between Abramoff’s crimes and standard lobbying practice, that gives his reform campaign credibility. He’s not to blame, the system is, and now he’s seeing to it that the system is repaired. In reality, though, the legal lines Abramoff crossed were not particularly murky, or sand-covered: the man conspired to swindle clients out of tens of millions of dollars, partly by billing for phantom services, and defrauded the financiers of a casino-boat venture by faking a $23 million wire transfer. His e-mails to colleagues, meanwhile, brimmed with greed (“Can you smell money?!?!?!”) and scorn for the “fine folks” who enlisted his services—among other things, he referred to his Native American clients as “monkeys” and “morons.”
Besides playing down his misdeeds, Abramoff wields the cudgel of “reform” to bash old foes. He regularly assails the character and ethics of veteran Republican Senators John McCain and Chuck Grassley, both of whom chaired committees that investigated his dealings. Abramoff is more forgiving when it comes to what many reformers see as one of the more corrosive forces in politics: corporate special interests. He argues that corporations usually meddle in politics only because Big Government is threatening to smother them with regulation, and he opposes measures that would curb their political clout, such as disclosure requirements for independent groups that spend money to sway elections.
All of which has raised suspicion among Abramoff’s former colleagues. “This guy scammed the system while he was here in Washington as a so-called lobbyist, and he’s playing the system now,” Howard Marlowe, a past president of the American League of Lobbyists, told me. But some good-government groups have welcomed him into the fold—partly because he draws attention to their cause—and pundits across the political spectrum have showered him with praise. Michael Moore, for example, has commended him for “coming clean” and “saying what needs to be said.” And audiences generally receive him warmly. This may be partly an outgrowth of our collective appetite for redemption stories—Americans love a reformed sinner—but it is also a testament to Abramoff’s knack for channeling the public’s mistrust of government.
As he wrapped up his speech, Abramoff touted his proposed law and threatened to oust any lawmakers who stood in the way. “I have yet to encounter anybody outside the Beltway of Washington who thinks this system’s working,” he said. “Maybe together with others who care about this, we can move the needle a little bit.” The audience applauded loudly. A slender, elegantly dressed woman, with tortoise-shell glasses dangling from her neck, turned to me and said, “He’s terrific. And charming! He could charm the birds out of the trees.” People then lined up at the podium to thank Abramoff. “I think it’s very brave, what you’re doing,” said one elderly man, touching his hand to his heart. “What can we do to help you clean up Washington?” Abramoff smiled graciously, then hustled toward the exit, where he climbed into a waiting limo and sped off toward his next engagement.