The notorious former lobbyist and convicted felon is on a well-received rehabilitation tour. But what, exactly, does he think he did wrong?
Since being released from prison in 2010, Jack Abramoff -- "One of the world's most famous lobbyists and former Washington power players," as his Twitter bio puts it -- has been back in the public eye. First there was his work-release stint at a kosher pizza parlor. Then, last month, he released a memoir, Capitol Punishment: The Hard Truth About Washington Corruption from America's Most Notorious Lobbyist, in which he details his sordid career of influence-peddling and calls for reforms to clean up a system he has belatedly concluded is corrupt from top to bottom.
Abramoff's reincarnation has brought the longtime Republican some unlikely allies, from campaign-finance reformers to Michael Moore. But while he says he's totally repentant, it was harder to tell, in a recent conversation, what precisely he regrets. The following interview has been condensed and edited.
How is the book tour going? Seems like you've been pretty well received.
I thought I would get attacked, and some people certainly are unhappy what I'm saying, and they should be. But the support I've been getting is surprising too. My encounter with Michael Moore was inspiring and extraordinary. I bumped into him on the Lawrence O'Donnell set and was surprised to hear his incredible support for what I'm trying to do, the message I'm trying to get out.
Are you still a Republican?
I don't know if I'm a Republican. I can't vote again ever, so political party is not a relevant thing for me. I'm certainly a conservative, with the same libertarian instincts I had before. My philosophy's probably remained fairly the same. Maybe on criminal justice I have some different approaches -- most people who have been through this do. Certainly it's changed my outlook in terms of the role of special interests and how they play -- how I played -- in the system.
You say you have libertarian instincts, but aren't the congressional ethics reforms you're now advocating an increase in government regulation?
I said 'instincts.' I'm not a complete libertarian. There is a proper role in some areas of the government to have rules and regulations -- I'm not an anarchist. This particular space I'm focused on now is that it's essential that the rules be changed to be certain that people not be allowed to do what I did.
I don't want to say I have the exact answers. As I paced the track in prison, I started thinking these things through. One thing I know from experience is the devil is in the language, the devil is in the details. I have a 30,000-foot analysis of these things. I do have some specific ideas, like barring people from passing through that revolving door that is so dangerous, from public service to private cashing-in-on-things. That's one area I'm fairly adamant that, if one wants to go after the corruption I engaged in, one has to go after. The cooling-off period is a joke. If you make a choice to serve the public and your country, do it and go home.
There's no one silver bullet that would have stopped someone like me or could stop someone like me. Another [element] would be term limits -- I was against them as a lobbyist and I fashioned my opposition in conservative terms. We said we were against them because people should be allowed to vote for whoever they want to, but the truth is, when people are in the system too long they ultimately fall to its lures.
None of this is necessarily things only I thought of. For example, Congress shouldn't make laws that apply to everybody but them, like with this insider-trading business [that's now in the news].
All of the proposals you're talking about would restrict what members of Congress can do, not what lobbyists can do. Do you not think lobbyists are the problem?
A lot of it has to do with Congress. The truth is, the lobbyists are just the tool in the system. They're seen as an invidious tool, but they're just a tool.
One [restriction I'd propose] for people who are lobbyists like I was is that people seeking favors from government should not be allowed to give any political contributions. Cut them off entirely. In essence, it's a bribe -- as are the meals, the tickets, the golf, the travel. All that needs to be cut off entirely.
In blaming 'the system,' though, and in putting the blame mostly on the lawmakers rather than the lobbyists, aren't you sort of absolving yourself?
I am 100 percent at fault for what I did. I absolutely own up to my perfidy, 100 percent. The system is also involved. But I am 100 percent at fault and ashamed of what I did. I crossed lines, I broke laws, I went to prison and I suffered immensely -- I lost my dear mother during this time. In no way am I backing away from the fact that I was wrong.
What, in your view, did you do that was wrong?
What I pled to at the end of the day was that I didn't inform my clients -- who I tried to serve well -- that I was sharing in half the profit of the companies servicing them in the important task of protecting their market share. I pled guilty to that. I also diverted funds into charities that I was supporting, and by doing that I evaded taxes, so I pleaded guilty to tax fraud. Finally, I provided a stream of gifts -- movies, tickets, travel -- basically bribes to members of Congress, and that was honest services fraud. I pled guilty to that as well.
That was illegal and I pled to it and I served a lot of time in prison for it. It was a horrible, horrible time in my life. Having said all that, the big problem in Washington isn't that Jack Abramoff crossed the line and Jack Abramoff got punished. Most of what I did was not illegal. It should have been -- it certainly was wrong, and I should have known it.
I'm having trouble understanding what exactly you regret. You say you crossed lines, which makes it sound like a technicality. I've seen in other interviews you've said you don't agree with the prosecutors who say you ripped off your clients. Who do you think was hurt by your actions?
That's probably for others to conclude. I've admitted to what I've pled to. That I well served my clients I think is evident in the numerical analysis of the results I achieved -- for the $80 million we charged, we delivered about $6 billion of value to them.
The deal I had with my clients was dissimilar to that of other lobbyists. Most lobbyists you hire on a contract for one or two years at a time. My deal was, no contract -- at any time if you don't like me, fire me. They never did, until [it became politically toxic]. Ultimately, my work for them was recharacterized as fraud and harmful. But clearly while I was there, we were protecting their market share and gaining immense value for them on Capitol Hill.
What do you think it was about your personality that drew you to the life you had?
I'm a hypercompetitive individual. I got into a business that was constant warfare, which I loved, on behalf of clients who I loved their issues, I loved fighting for them. We started winning battles and we won virtually every battle -- in fact, there was only one we lost [when Abramoff failed to convince Sen. Chris Dodd to slip language favoring the gambling interests of a Texas Indian tribe, the Tiguas, into an election reform bill]. Even after I was already destroyed and out of lobbying, I was still trying to find a way to wrangle that language into legislation from the tables at my restaurant, it so galled me to have this defeat on my record.
That kind of attitude, while hilarious in retrospect, was deadly in terms of my practice. This win-at-all-costs mantra or ethos leads you down paths where you shouldn't go. And while I was winning all these victories for my clients, we were making them a lot of money, saving them tons of money, I'm making a lot of money and giving 80 percent of it to charities and needy people, so I think this is great. We had seven kids living in our house beyond our five, kids who needed a place to live. At every turn I was saying, 'This is good,' instead of being able to pull back and say, 'Wait a minute.'
It kind of sounds like you're still justifying yourself and what you did. You're still lobbying, in a way, and still seeking attention and validation for your latest cause.
It would have been a lot easier for me to stay hidden. These attacks on me hurt. I don't like it when people say what they do about me. I made a conscious decision to take more heaping opprobrium on my head -- which has come, by the way. The positive response of a number of people doesn't [make up for] the attacks of a whole different group.
People ask me why they should believe I'm sincere, and my answer is, I'm not trying to gain friends or become popular again. That was very important in those days. It's not important to me now. I couldn't care less. People ask, 'How do we know you're being honest now?' I say, you don't know. What does it matter? I'm not telling you things about me, I'm telling you things about the system so you understand the system. How do you possibly undo the reputation that I have? I could be Mother Teresa and I couldn't undo it. At least I have the liberation of knowing that I set about trying to do the right thing.
Congress's approval ratings are in the single digits, though. Isn't it a pretty easy sell, telling people Congress is all screwed up? Everybody hates Congress.
Congress doesn't hate Congress. I have a lot of friends, even people who stuck by me, who are upset at me right now.
Orr: “It’s a pleasure to meet you, Your Grace. My name is Tyrion Lannister.”
At last! I know I speak for quite a few book readers when I say that pretty much the only thing that kept me going through the eleventy thousand discursive, digressive pages of George R. R. Martin’s fifth tome, A Dance With Dragons, was the promise of Tyrion finally meeting up with Daenerys Targaryen. And, of course, after eleventy thousand pages, it never happened. So on behalf of myself and everyone else who sacrificed sleep, work, family, and friends waiting for this moment, let me say thank you, David Benioff and D. B. Weiss. Bonus points for what seemed to be a cameo by Strong Belwas (a book character who was written out of the show) as the nameless fighter who freed Tyrion from his chains.
Some fans are complaining that Zack Snyder’s envisioning of the Man of Steel is too grim—but it’s less a departure than a return to the superhero’s roots.
Since the official teaser trailer for Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice debuted online in April, fans and critics alike have been discussing the kind of Superman Zack Snyder is going to depict in his Man of Steel sequel. The controversy stems from Snyder’s decision to cast Superman as a brooding, Dark Knight-like character, who cares more about beating up bad guys than saving people. The casting split has proved divisive among Superman fans: Some love the new incarnation, citing him as an edgier, more realistic version of the character.
But Snyder’s is a different Superman than the one fans grew up with, and many have no problem expressing their outrage over it. Even Mark Waid, the author of Superman: Birthright (one of the comics the original film is based on), voiced his concern about Man of Steel’s turn toward bleakness when it came out in 2013:
The Islamic State is no mere collection of psychopaths. It is a religious group with carefully considered beliefs, among them that it is a key agent of the coming apocalypse. Here’s what that means for its strategy—and for how to stop it.
What is the Islamic State?
Where did it come from, and what are its intentions? The simplicity of these questions can be deceiving, and few Western leaders seem to know the answers. In December, The New York Times published confidential comments by Major General Michael K. Nagata, the Special Operations commander for the United States in the Middle East, admitting that he had hardly begun figuring out the Islamic State’s appeal. “We have not defeated the idea,” he said. “We do not even understand the idea.” In the past year, President Obama has referred to the Islamic State, variously, as “not Islamic” and as al-Qaeda’s “jayvee team,” statements that reflected confusion about the group, and may have contributed to significant strategic errors.
New research confirms what they say about nice guys.
Smile at the customer. Bake cookies for your colleagues. Sing your subordinates’ praises. Share credit. Listen. Empathize. Don’t drive the last dollar out of a deal. Leave the last doughnut for someone else.
Sneer at the customer. Keep your colleagues on edge. Claim credit. Speak first. Put your feet on the table. Withhold approval. Instill fear. Interrupt. Ask for more. And by all means, take that last doughnut. You deserve it.
Follow one of those paths, the success literature tells us, and you’ll go far. Follow the other, and you’ll die powerless and broke. The only question is, which is which?
Of all the issues that preoccupy the modern mind—Nature or nurture? Is there life in outer space? Why can’t America field a decent soccer team?—it’s hard to think of one that has attracted so much water-cooler philosophizing yet so little scientific inquiry. Does it pay to be nice? Or is there an advantage to being a jerk?
Changing neighborhoods may be a class issue, but in America, that means it's also a racial one.
Ask city-dwellers to describe what, precisely, gentrification is you’ll get an array of answers. The term is a murky one, used to describe the many different ways through which money and development enter poorer or less developed neighborhoods, changing them both economically and demographically.
For some, gentrification and gentrifiers are inherently bad—pushing out residents who are often older, poorer, and darker than the neighborhood’s new occupants. For others, a new group of inhabitants brings the possibility of things residents have long hoped for, better grocery stores, new retail, renovations, and an overall revitalization that often eludes low-income neighborhoods.
Rebel groups that employ terror in civil wars seldom win or gain concessions—but they tend to prolong conflicts, a new paper finds.
Nearly 14 years into the war on terror, there are signs of terrorism all around us, from Memorial Day tributes to the victims of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan to the raging congressional debate over reauthorizing the Patriot Act.
Yet some of the most basic information about terrorism remains surprisingly elusive. For example: Does it work?
There have been some attempts at answering the question, but many of them are either largely anecdotal or geographically constrained. Other studies have focused on international terror. But as political scientist Page Fortna of Columbia University notes, the vast majority of terrorism isn’t transnational—it’s localized, utilized in the context of civil wars and fights for territorial control. Many of the intractable conflicts the U.S. is involved in today fit this definition: the fighting between ISIS, Jabhat al-Nusra, and other groups in Iraq and Syria; the Boko Haram insurgency in Nigeria; al-Shabab’s terrorism in Somalia and Kenya; Yemen’s civil war; the Israel-Palestinian conflict. Is terrorism an effective tool when used in those conflicts?
In an interview, the U.S. president ties his legacy to a pact with Tehran, argues ISIS is not winning, warns Saudi Arabia not to pursue a nuclear-weapons program, and anguishes about Israel.
On Tuesday afternoon, as President Obama was bringing an occasionally contentious but often illuminating hour-long conversation about the Middle East to an end, I brought up a persistent worry. “A majority of American Jews want to support the Iran deal,” I said, “but a lot of people are anxiety-ridden about this, as am I.” Like many Jews—and also, by the way, many non-Jews—I believe that it is prudent to keep nuclear weapons out of the hands of anti-Semitic regimes. Obama, who earlier in the discussion had explicitly labeled the supreme leader of Iran, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, an anti-Semite, responded with an argument I had not heard him make before.
“Look, 20 years from now, I’m still going to be around, God willing. If Iran has a nuclear weapon, it’s my name on this,” he said, referring to the apparently almost-finished nuclear agreement between Iran and a group of world powers led by the United States. “I think it’s fair to say that in addition to our profound national-security interests, I have a personal interest in locking this down.”
Think that these odd finger-shoes are "bullshit"? Think again.
I gather that there is much gleeful stomping on the grave image of Vibram and the weirdo/chic "finger shoes" it has popularized, because the company has settled a suit claiming the shoes offered no health benefits. That's me and one of my sons, modeling Vibram shoes, in the picture above. I'll let you figure out the extremities.
That picture comes from four years ago. I'd been running regularly for many decades before that, but since the early 2000s I'd been vexed by one wear-and-tear problem after another. Never involving the knees, miraculously; most frequently afflicting the Achilles tendons.
Then, as I shifted to Vibram shoes, I also shifted to what has been (again miraculously) a multi-year stint of injury-free running. True, my change of footwear coincided with some other injury-buffering changes: Always taking at least a day off between runs. Opting for rubberized tracks rather than hard paved roads. Stopping as soon as something started to hurt, rather than "running through" the distress; and generally acting like a senior-status wimp.
Advocates say that a guaranteed basic income can lead to more creative, fulfilling work. The question is how to fund it.
Scott Santens has been thinking a lot about fish lately. Specifically, he’s been reflecting on the aphorism, “If you give a man a fish, he eats for a day. If you teach a man to fish, he eats for life.” What Santens wants to know is this: “If you build a robot to fish, do all men starve, or do all men eat?”
Santens is 37 years old, and he’s a leader in the basic income movement—a worldwide network of thousands of advocates (26,000 on Reddit alone) who believe that governments should provide every citizen with a monthly stipend big enough to cover life’s basic necessities. The idea of a basic income has been around for decades, and it once drew support from leaders as different as Martin Luther King Jr. and Richard Nixon. But rather than waiting for governments to act, Santens has started crowdfunding his own basic income of $1,000 per month. He’s nearly halfway to his his goal.