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.
We're all going to die and we all know it. This can be both a burden and a blessing.
In the heart of every parent lives the tightly coiled nightmare that his child will die. It might spring at logical times—when a toddler runs into the street, say—or it might sneak up in quieter moments. The fear is a helpful evolutionary motivation for parents to protect their children, but it's haunting nonetheless.
The ancient Stoic philosopher Epictetus advised parents to indulge that fear. “What harm is it, just when you are kissing your little child, to say: Tomorrow you will die?”he wrote in his Discourses.
Some might say Epictetus was an asshole. William Irvine thinks he was on to something.
“The Stoics had the insight that the prospect of death can actually make our lives much happier than they would otherwise be,” he says. “You’re supposed to allow yourself to have a flickering thought that someday you’re going to die, and someday the people you love are going to die. I’ve tried it, and it’s incredibly powerful. Well, I am a 21st-century practicing Stoic.”
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.
Can a political system be democratically legitimate without being democratic?
The flaws in China’s political system are obvious. The government doesn’t even make a pretense of holding national elections and punishes those who openly call for multiparty rule. The press is heavily censored and the Internet is blocked. Top leaders are unconstrained by the rule of law. Even more worrisome, repression has been ramped up since Xi Jinping took power in 2012, suggesting that the regime is increasingly worried about its legitimacy.
Some China experts—most recently David Shambaugh of George Washington University—interpret these ominous signs as evidence that the Chinese political system is on the verge of collapse. But such an outcome is highly unlikely in the near future. The Communist Party is firmly in power, its top leader is popular, and no political alternative currently claims widespread support. And what would happen if the Party’s power did indeed crumble? The most likely result, in my view, would be rule by a populist strongman backed by elements of the country’s security and military forces. The new ruler might seek to buttress his legitimacy by launching military adventures abroad. President Xi would look tame by comparison.
People look to Amy Schumer and her fellow jokers not just to make fun of the world, but to make sense of it. And maybe even to help fix it.
This week, in a much-anticipated sketch on her Comedy Central show, Amy Schumer staged a trial of Bill Cosby in “the court of public opinion.” Schumer—her character, at any rate—played the role of the defense. “Let’s remind ourselves what’s at stake here,” she argued to the jury. “If convicted, the next time you put on a rerun of The Cosby Show you may wince a little. Might feel a little pang. And none of us deserve that. We don’t deserve to feel that pang.”
Her conclusion? “We deserve to dance like no one’s watching, and watch like no one’s raping.”
Ooof. This is the kind of thing that gets Inside Amy Schumer referred to as “the most feminist show on television,” and her act in general called, in a phrase that reveals as much about her craft as about Schumer herself, “comedy with a message.” But while Schumer’s work is operating at the vanguard of popular comedy, it’s also in line with the work being done by her fellow performers: jokes that tend to treat humor not just as an end in itself, but as a vehicle for making a point. Watch like no one’s raping.
Caves and tunnels have always been part of human life.
Caves and tunnels have always been part of human life. We've grown more adept at shaping these underground shelters and passages over the millennia, and today we dig for hundreds of reasons. We excavate to find both literal and cultural treasures, digging mines and unearthing archaeological discoveries. We use caverns for stable storage, for entertainment, and for an effective shelter from natural and man-made disasters. And as the planet's surface becomes ever more crowded, and national borders are closed, tunnels provide pathways for our vehicles and for smugglers of every kind. Collected below are more recent subterranean scenes from around the world.
Some spoiler-y speculation on the final three episodes
With only three episodes left to go, Game of Thrones looks as though it once again has a lot of ground to cover before wrapping up a season. And so, for the curious and impatient among you, I’ll do my best to offer some quasi-informed speculation about what we might reasonably expect in these final weeks.
Note: I haven’t seen any of the remaining episodes, but I have read the books. The first five items below are spoiler-y, but the predictions in them do not derive from the George R. R. Martin novels. Rather, they’re guesswork based on what’s already happened on the show and on tidbits scattered across the web: a behind-the-scenes photo here, a close-read of a trailer there. (They could all, of course, turn out to be completely wrong.) The last four items, however, are based at least in part on events that take place in A Feast for Crows and A Dance with Dragons, so non-book-readers may want to skip them. And obviously anyone, book-reader or not, who’d prefer to go into these final episodes without preconceptions—who doesn’t want to know at least some of what will (probably) happen—should stop reading now.
A challenge based on four words of the law amounts to little more than politics dressed up as a legal argument.
The Supreme Court is about to decide another blockbuster case arising under the Affordable Care Act (ACA). The specific issue is whether federal-tax subsidies are available to people who purchase health insurance from exchanges operated by the federal government or instead whether such subsidies are available only from exchanges established by the states. A decision in favor of the plaintiffs in King v. Burwell would most likely cripple the ACA in over thirty states and deprive millions of people of health insurance.
That the Supreme Court even agreed to hear the case is the result of an improbable conjunction of events. Two committed opponents of the ACA seized upon four words of the law out of almost 1000 pages, and through their persistent and energetic work, created a powerful soundbite that appealed to die-hard opponents of the ACA. They then took that sound bite and dressed it up in highly technical arguments about statutory interpretation that might well change how healthcare is paid for in the United States. But the soundbite is inaccurate, and the technical window dressing shouldn’t obscure the fact that the argument is based on a faulty reading of the text of the entire law as well as a misleading account of how and why the law was passed. At bottom, King v. Burwell is a political challenge to the ACA dressed up in legal garb.
The wealthiest schools in the country could have more economic diversity if they wanted it. So why don't they?
In case you ever wondered just how much wealthy students dominate America's top colleges, here's a nice illustration from a new report by the Century Foundation. At the most selective schools in the country,* 70 percent of students come from the wealthiest quarter of U.S. families. Just 14 percent come from the poorest half. And while these statistics date back to 2006, I think it's safe to say they haven't changed greatly in the last few years.
If you think higher education should be a ladder for upward mobility, then you should regard these numbers as a disgrace. As we've written before at The Atlantic, elite colleges do a consistently poor job recruiting the intelligent but low-income high school students who could benefit most from a top-notch education. Part of their problem, as Josh Freedman explained for us recently, is that it's expensive. Low-income undergrads need financial aid, and many institutions either don't have the resources, or would simply prefer to deploy them elsewhere. Others have the money and are willing to use it, but aren't sufficiently aggressive about reaching out to a population of students who often don't realize they have the academic skills to attend a great school or that aid would cover most of their expenses.
The former speaker of the House is charged with lying to federal agents and evading financial reporting requirements, reportedly while attempting to conceal past sexual misconduct.
Updated on May 29, 2015, at 4:05 p.m.
Former House Speaker Dennis Hastert has been indicted on charges of lying to FBI agents and evading federal financial-reporting requirements, reportedly while paying a man to cover up past sexual misconduct.
Hastert, an Illinois Republican, was speaker from 1999 to 2007. BuzzFeed’s John Stanton notes that there were several high-profile congressional scandals in those years. Illinois is also a notorious hotbed for political corruption, as Roland Burris, Rod Blagojevich, George Ryan, and Jesse Jackson Jr. can attest.
But Hastert’s indictment seems to involve a darker story than political corruption. In or about 2010, according to the indictment, Hastert—a former high-school teacher and coach—met with an unnamed individual from Yorkville, Hastert’s hometown. They “discussed past misconduct by defendant against Individual A that had occurred years earlier.” In effect, Hastert fell victim to blackmail, the indictment alleges: He “agreed to provide Individual A $3.5 million in order to compensate for and conceal his prior misconduct against Individual A.” (Since leaving the House, Hastert has become a highly paid lobbyist.)
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?