The year was 1984. The speaker, Jack Abramoff, was the national chair of the College Republicans, commander of a platoon of baby-faced Reagan enthusiasts. A self-described "rabid right-winger," Abramoff had planned to use his slot at the Dallas convention for a red-meat speech that mocked the preaching style of Jesse Jackson. But party officials had taken a pen to his text and turned it into "namby-pamby we're-all-young-people-and-we-love-Reagan blah-blah-blah." Now, with his note cards for backup, he was reconstituting his original speech from memory. "Today, our party readies itself to mount the wave of the future," he sermonized. "Will we ride that wave to glory, or will it send us crashing ashore? If we're the party of tax cuts, and not the party of 'ifs' and 'buts,' then we're riding our wave. If we're liberating students from Grenada, and not bowing down to a Cuban dictator, we're riding our wave."
Abramoff bled Indian clients to the tune of $82 million, even as he sometimes worked for their political competitors; that he funneled cash to his pet causes and fuzzed up the paper trail; that he wrote emails mocking his own clients as "troglodytes."
Some of the delegates stirred. The Texans and Californians, sitting in front, started applauding. "But if we equivocate, capitulate, accommodate, and negotiate, we'll crash ashore," Abramoff continued, his nasal voice laced with vestiges of his family's Old World accent. "If we try to outspend big fat Tip O'Neill, or rush to Geneva to cut a deal, we'll crash ashore." Afterward, as delegates cheered, he swaggered off the stage, pleased to have infiltrated a carefully scripted media event with the uncompromising message of his movement.
It took Abramoff's wave another 20 years to crash ashore. A millionaire lobbyist who befriended Washington's most powerful men, he has been at the center of a full-blown national scandal, with revelations that he bled Indian clients to the tune of $82 million, even as he sometimes worked for their political competitors; that he funneled cash to his pet causes and fuzzed up the paper trail; that he wrote emails mocking his own clients as "troglodytes." The probes have spiraled to include a broad cross section of Washington's Republican power structure, including House Majority Leader Tom DeLay and former Christian Coalition director Ralph Reed. Yet it's Abramoff's name, more than anyone else's, that has become a synonym for corruption, particularly since his August 11 indictment for wire fraud in a case involving a failed gambling-boat business venture. "I don't think Abramoff ever stood for anything," says Melanie Sloan, executive director of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington. "I think Abramoff just stands for greed. I think Abramoff is a terrible human being and should get anything coming his way."
Harsh judgment for a man who came to D.C. on an ideological, even spiritual quest. Abramoff was a revolutionary, part of a movement that took root among maverick young Republicans in the '80s, swept to electoral victory a decade later, and has dominated Capitol Hill ever since. His story is an iconic tale of the intersection of faith and power—of what happens when an ideological purist finds himself with both political muscle and seemingly inexhaustible financial opportunity.
To Marshall Wittmann, a former Christian conservative who now works for the moderate Democratic Leadership Council, the story of Jack Abramoff is the story of a generation. "It's a classic tale of intending to do good—and doing very well," he says. "The pledge of all these Reagan revolutionaries was to overturn the iron triangle of Congress, the special interests, and the lobbyists. Instead, they've found themselves comfortable with big government, as long as it cashes in for their clients. I remember all these people as insurgents, revolutionaries to overthrow the establishment. They became the establishment in such a short time in an orgy of moneymaking. They ran the Republican revolution off the rails."
In the heat of a Los Angeles summer afternoon, the 13-year-old set off from home and began walking the five miles to synagogue. He was hungry and thirsty. It was the Jewish holy day of Tisha B'Av, when observers are not allowed to consume food or water for 24 hours. Grasping for his own interpretation of the law, the boy had convinced himself that he wasn't supposed to ride in a car or even wear shoes.
He walked along the fence of the Los Angeles Country Club, an institution that historically excluded Jews. The pavement was hot and full of small stones, and his stocking feet began to blister. But when a member of the synagogue offered him a ride, he refused. To young Jack Abramoff, the religion of his ancestors was perilously close to fading away in his generation. He wasn't going to fail it.
"I believed in God. I believed he did decide the Jewish people would do certain things. I wanted to keep up my end of the contract."
Abramoff came of age in Beverly Hills, the son of an executive who worked for Arnold Palmer, the famously conservative golfer. The language of his childhood home was about patriotism and honoring elders, and he often heard stories about the plight of Soviet Jews. But his parents were not particularly observant. As he tells it, his religious epiphany came at 12 years old when, after watching Fiddler on the Roof, he yearned for the Orthodoxy of his great-grandparents' generation. "It was to me very strange that they're Jews and we're Jews, and we have totally different lives and belief systems," he says. "I felt a twinge of sadness that that culture had died out in our family." And with that, he decided, "I'll be the person to resurrect it."
Abramoff bought books on Jewish law and taught himself Hebrew. Every Saturday, he'd wake before his siblings and walk to temple. His parents were surprised, but, he says, "I believed in God. I believed he did decide the Jewish people would do certain things. I wanted to keep up my end of the contract."
It wasn't until he entered Brandeis University that Abramoff found a like-minded community. He befriended rabbis and ate his meals at a kosher kitchen. He debated politics in the dorms, arguing that the Bible ordained a conservative ideology. And he met, for the first time, members of left-wing groups like the Spartacus Youth League, which held rallies attacking U.S. foreign policy in Afghanistan and calling for nuclear disarmament. "I was outraged that seemingly normal American students could so hate the country I love," he says. Abramoff organized counterdemonstrations, where students sang "God Bless America."
It was during those years that he met Grover Norquist, a Harvard business student who would go on to head the conservative group Americans for Tax Reform. The two became lifelong allies, and in 1980 they set off to organize Massachusetts campuses for Reagan. (During one rush hour, Abramoff dangled Burma Shave-style signs over a highway near Boston, setting off several collisions below.) When Reagan carried the nation's most reliably Democratic state by 6,000 votes, some attributed the margin to the student turnout. The following year Abramoff parlayed his success into the $12,000-a-year national chairmanship of the College Republicans.
At the time, the CRs, as everyone referred to them, were a political nonentity—"more of a social club," recalls former member Dan Cohen, now a corporate executive in Washington. Abramoff sought to energize the organization and, with Norquist as his executive director, he engineered a purge of moderates from its leadership. Those remaining were the hard core, he recalls—"young enthusiasts who were imbibing on conservative political tracts, the sexy intellectual material that was forbidden in school." Abramoff, all of 22, became a mentor to his peers. "His core beliefs were so strong," says Rachel Winston, a math teacher whom Abramoff hired as the CRs' national field director. "He was like steel."
From the newly energized College Republicans came figures like Ralph Reed and Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum. "The vast right-wing conspiracy began with Jack Abramoff."
If their philosophy came from the right, the CRs' tactics came directly from the left. Abramoff & Co. became masters of street theater—the more attention-grabbing, the better. "When we were bored late at night," says former treasurer Paul Erickson, "and we didn't feel like the senior Republican Party was doing quite enough to battle communism, we would buy or borrow some concrete blocks, stack them in a wall in Lafayette Park, drape a Soviet flag over the top of them, soak the flag in kerosene, light it—and then, with sledgehammers, break down the Berlin Wall." The CRs would invade nuclear-freeze rallies, pounding one another's shoulders like football players before charging up the steps of the Washington Metro. And they would test their limits with the grown-ups. Once, when Democrats were hosting an upscale fundraiser near Dupont Circle, Abramoff posted flyers around town promising a soup kitchen across the street. "He'd have a long line of homeless people being served dinner by the College Republicans while the fat-cat Democrats were going into the Hilton to eat their foie gras and filet," recalls David Barron, who headed the rival Young Republicans. "The Republican leadership said, 'You shut this damn thing down now or you're out the door.'" Twenty years later, Abramoff would serve as an elite fundraiser himself, bringing in more than $100,000 for President Bush's 2004 reelection campaign.
If Abramoff's street tactics were too brash, his elders nonetheless appreciated his behind-the-scenes efforts. "He took a group that had, at most, 10,000 members—and when Jack was done, there were over 150,000 card-carrying College Republicans," says Ben Waldman, who served as liaison between the national party and the CRs. "This group of amorphous, apathetic college kids who were drinking at night—to get 250 of them to form truth squads, come to events and invite speakers, that was incredible." From the newly energized CRs came figures like Ralph Reed and Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum. "The vast right-wing conspiracy began with Jack Abramoff," says Erickson.
Abramoff's strategic savvy and ideological clarity, though, were not matched by his administrative skills. The CRs were constantly broke, begging for contributions from New Right figures and telling vendors to expect late payments. "Our financial maturity still need-ed development," he admits. "We were like kids in a candy store." Abramoff's lack of restraint would come back to haunt him.
In 1985, partway through his second term with the CRs, Abramoff took a job running Citizens for America, a pro-Reagan "civic league" chaired by Rite Aid cofounder Lewis Lehrman. Reagan had just announced the United States would henceforth arm anti-Soviet insurgents around the world, explaining, "Support for freedom fighters is self-defense." Some of those rebels had been accused of human rights abuses, most notably Jonas Savimbi of Angola's UNITA movement, who reportedly burned his enemies at the stake. Though the abuses have since been well documented, Abramoff says he is skeptical of the most outrageous charges. "They had a full-time director at the KGB for disinformation," he says.
Abramoff, by now 26, found a way to take the Reagan Doctrine into his own hands. Working with Jack Wheeler, a professional adventurer who has been called a right-wing Indiana Jones, he organized an international gathering of anticommunist rebels in UNITA's provisional capital of Jamba, Angola. Leaders from the Afghan mujahideen, Nicaraguan contras, and Laotian guerrillas attended—some flying in on a DC-3 nicknamed the "vomit comet" because it swerved so wildly to avoid detection—along with Savimbi and his followers. For two days on the savanna, the guerrillas listened to one another's speeches, received framed copies of the Declaration of Independence, and brainstormed (in vain, it turned out) about how to coordinate efforts. When Abramoff returned from Jamba, Citizens for America asked him to resign, according to the Washington Post, which reported that he and his staff had "gone hog wild" with the organization's $3 million budget. Abramoff insists he was the victim of a power struggle.
For a decade, Abramoff stayed out of full-time politics. He followed his brother into the movie industry, producing Red Scorpion, an action flick starring Dolph Lundgren as a Soviet soldier-turned-defector in a thinly disguised Angola. It's a film full of needle-in-the-skin torture and political grandstanding. In one scene, Lundgren is on the run with a U.S. journalist who can't seem to utter a G-rated sentence. "Do the Americans all swear as much as you do?" Lundgren asks, fingering his weapon. "As a matter of fact," the journalist replies, "an American can swear whenever, wherever, however much he or she fuckin' well pleases. It's a little something we call freedom of speech. Which I'm sure you Russians aren't real familiar with."
When Abramoff watched the final cut, he was so embarrassed he didn't view the movie again for 10 years.