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.
“Here is what I would like for you to know: In America, it is traditional to destroy the black body—it is heritage.”
Last Sunday the host of a popular news show asked me what it meant to lose my body. The host was broadcasting from Washington, D.C., and I was seated in a remote studio on the far west side of Manhattan. A satellite closed the miles between us, but no machinery could close the gap between her world and the world for which I had been summoned to speak. When the host asked me about my body, her face faded from the screen, and was replaced by a scroll of words, written by me earlier that week.
The host read these words for the audience, and when she finished she turned to the subject of my body, although she did not mention it specifically. But by now I am accustomed to intelligent people asking about the condition of my body without realizing the nature of their request. Specifically, the host wished to know why I felt that white America’s progress, or rather the progress of those Americans who believe that they are white, was built on looting and violence. Hearing this, I felt an old and indistinct sadness well up in me. The answer to this question is the record of the believers themselves. The answer is American history.
In Sunday’s referendum, voters firmly rejected Europe’s plan to bail out the country’s economy. What’s next?
Updated on July 5, 2015 4:57 pm
On Sunday, Greek citizens took to the polls in a controversial referendum asking them whether they support a plan calling for continued economic austerity in exchange for debt relief. Their answer—with more than 70 percent of the votes counted—was a resounding “no.”The outcome means that next steps for the nation, which has fallen into arrears with the IMF and imposed capital controls to prevent a run on the banks, is largely uncertain. According to reports from Reuters, the country may next attempt to secure financing by asking for more emergency funding from the European Central Bank.
The referendum—which had asked Greeks to vote “yes” or “no” on a proposal from Eurogroup leaders to extend financing to the deeply indebted country— was called for by Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras amid meetings of Eurozone leaders trying to come up with a deal to allow the country to avoid default. The call for the referendum effectively ended those discussions.
In 1992, the neuroscientist Richard Davidson got a challenge from the Dalai Lama. By that point, he’d spent his career asking why people respond to, in his words, “life’s slings and arrows” in different ways. Why are some people more resilient than others in the face of tragedy? And is resilience something you can gain through practice?
The Dalai Lama had a different question for Davidson when he visited the Tibetan Buddhist spiritual leader at his residence in Dharamsala, India. “He said: ‘You’ve been using the tools of modern neuroscience to study depression, and anxiety, and fear. Why can’t you use those same tools to study kindness and compassion?’ … I did not have a very good answer. I said it was hard.”
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.
As the world frets over Greece, a separate crisis looms in China.
This summer has not been calm for the global economy. In Europe, a Greek referendum this Sunday may determine whether the country will remain in the eurozone. In North America, meanwhile, the governor of Puerto Rico claimed last week that the island would be unable to pay off its debts, raising unsettling questions about the health of American municipal bonds.
But the season’s biggest economic crisis may be occurring in Asia, where shares in China’s two major stock exchanges have nosedived in the past three weeks. Since June 12, the Shanghai stock exchange has lost 24 percent of its value, while the damage in the southern city of Shenzhen has been even greater at 30 percent. The tumble has already wiped out more than $2.4 trillion in wealth—a figure roughly 10 times the size of Greece’s economy.
A new book by the evolutionary biologist Jerry Coyne tackles arguments that the two institutions are compatible.
In May 1988, a 13-year-old girl named Ashley King was admitted to Phoenix Children’s Hospital by court order. She had a tumor on her leg—an osteogenic sarcoma—that, writes Jerry Coyne in his book Faith Versus Fact, was “larger than a basketball,” and was causing her leg to decay while her body started to shut down. Ashley’s Christian Scientist parents, however, refused to allow doctors permission to amputate, and instead moved their daughter to a Christian Science sanatorium, where, in accordance with the tenets of their faith, “there was no medical care, not even pain medication.” Ashley’s mother and father arranged a collective pray-in to help her recover—to no avail. Three weeks later, she died.
Defining common cultural literacy for an increasingly diverse nation.
Is the culture war over?
That seems an absurd question. This is an age when Confederate monuments still stand; when white-privilege denialism is surging on social media; when legislators and educators in Arizona and Texas propose banning ethnic studies in public schools and assign textbooks euphemizing the slave trade; when fear of Hispanic and Asian immigrants remains strong enough to prevent immigration reform in Congress; when the simple assertion that #BlackLivesMatter cannot be accepted by all but is instead contested petulantly by many non-blacks as divisive, even discriminatory.
And that’s looking only at race. Add gender, guns, gays, and God to the mix and the culture war seems to be raging along quite nicely.
People put serious weight on judgments of character based on facial structure alone.
People whose faces are perceived to look more "competent" are more likely to be CEOs of large, successful companies. Having a face that people deem "dominant" is a predictor of rank advancement in the military. People are more likely to invest money with people who look "trustworthy." These sorts of findings go on and on in recent studies that claim people can accurately guess a variety of personality traits and behavioral tendencies from portraits alone. The findings seem to elucidate either canny human intuition or absurd, misguided bias.
There has been a recent boom in research on how people attribute social characteristics to others based on the appearance of faces—independent of cues about age, gender, race, or ethnicity. (At least, as independent as possible.) The results seem to offer some intriguing insight, claiming that people are generally pretty good at predicting who is, for example, trustworthy, competent, introverted or extroverted, based entirely on facial structure. There is strong agreement across studies as to what facial attributes mean what to people, as illustrated in renderings throughout this article. But it's, predictably, not at all so simple.
For centuries, experts have predicted that machines would make workers obsolete. That moment may finally be arriving. Could that be a good thing?
1. Youngstown, U.S.A.
The end of work is still just a futuristic concept for most of the United States, but it is something like a moment in history for Youngstown, Ohio, one its residents can cite with precision: September 19, 1977.
For much of the 20th century, Youngstown’s steel mills delivered such great prosperity that the city was a model of the American dream, boasting a median income and a homeownership rate that were among the nation’s highest. But as manufacturing shifted abroad after World War II, Youngstown steel suffered, and on that gray September afternoon in 1977, Youngstown Sheet and Tube announced the shuttering of its Campbell Works mill. Within five years, the city lost 50,000 jobs and $1.3 billion in manufacturing wages. The effect was so severe that a term was coined to describe the fallout: regional depression.
An attorney who helped players file a gender-discrimination lawsuit over artificial turf in the World Cup proposes a way forward for the sport.
On Sunday, players from the U.S. and Japan’s women’s soccer teams will step onto the field in Vancouver to compete for the sport’s greatest achievement: the World Cup. But perhaps the bigger battle—one that started well before the final match and will continue well after—isn’t about a trophy or national glory. Women’s soccer teams have long fought for recognition and respect not just from the public, but also from the male organizers of the sport, and it’s a struggle symbolized by the very fields they’ve been playing on.
The co-hosts of the World Cup—FIFA and the Canadian Soccer Association—failed to stage this year’s tournament to be played on real grass like every other World Cup previously, mandating that it be played on artificial turf instead. This is despite the dangers and inconveniences plastic turf poses. The synthetic pitches bake in the sun, with surface temperatures sometimes reaching 120 degrees. Clouds of rubber pebbles fly into players’ eyes, and the turf makes it difficult for the women to gauge the way the ball will bounce.