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.