If most Washington lobbyists are amoral scumbags, then Jack Abramoff was the undisputed King of the Scumbags. After cutting his teeth as a rabid College Republican — and hanging out with other young true believers like Karl Rove and Ralph Reed — Abramoff blew through an astounding career of graft and corruption that included cheerleading for overseas sweatshops and screwing over Indian tribes. Filmmaker Alex Gibney is an old hand at documenting injustice, whether it’s corporate scandal at Enron (The Smartest Guys in the Room) or torture (Taxi to the Dark Side). In Casino Jack and the United States of Money, Gibney explores the behind-the-scenes machinations of America’s most eager lobbyist. And while most of us assume that politics is a corrupt, vile, despicable game, it’s probably worse than we can even imagine. “You see this film, you kind of get it,” Gibney told us. “We can be cynical about it, but also at the end of the day, we have to get real. It’s our government, it’s not their government, and unless we take it back, we’re done.” We spoke with him about possible NASCAR jackets for Senators and why young Republicans are a bit like Lenin.
Most people would think politicians have always been crooked — you’ve got to sell your soul to get into office … There are always problems with power. What has changed in the last few years are two things. The price of campaigns is going through the roof. The pressure to raise money for those campaigns because of TV advertising is just enormous. Congressman, Senators spend as much as two, three days of every week dialing for dollars or going to fundrarisers. We’re now paying our Congressmen and Senators to raise money? I think we’re also seeing the net result of what was the Reagan Revolution. The Reagan Revolution said government’s not the solution, it’s the problem. Well, at some point if you utterly discredit government, and you also say the only moral value is money, what you can buy and what you sell, who wins and who loses, then you kind of get what you pay for. Which is a broken, discredited government.
It’s the point Thomas Frank made in Wrecking Crew — do you agree with that? It’s not only blaming the government, but actively saying, “We’re going to screw it up, we’re going to destroy it?” I think he’s right. I think that’s the intent. That’s what Grover Norquist says in the film: “I want to get government small enough so I can drown it in the bathtub.” What does that tell us? Does that tell us he has tremendous respect for our system of government, or that he wants to destroy it? He’s an anarchist; he wants to destroy it.
And replace it with what? I guess he believes in the goodness of Blackwater, Merck and Goldman Sachs. That they’ll lead us to the future; that’ll be a good thing for all of us. It could happen in an alternate reality.
What is it about Abramoff? Is he an outlier? He’s mainstream. But he’s an exaggerated version of the mainstream. So I think there’s no doubt that Jack was outlandish — he was wild. He didn’t play by the rules in the sense that he did things completely out of scale, but it wasn’t like he was doing different things. There were a lot of people who had baseball game skyboxes. There were a lot of people who used and abused not-for-profits to hide where the money was coming from. There were a lot of people who used the revolving door — you know, getting staffers from congressman and senators, getting them in your lobbying shop, so then you can use these relationships to really get what you want on behalf of your well-heeled clients. Its not like Jack’s somehow doing things completely differently; he was just doing them in a more outsized, outrageous way. Which is better for a filmmaker — you can see it better.
And he’s so prolific — when you track all of the things he’s involved in … When you’re a lobbyist for Microsoft, both the lobbyist and Microsoft know how to play the game in a way that’s very gray, very hidden, very discrete. But when you’re representing Indian casinos that don’t feel they’ve had a seat at the table, particularly with a Republican administration, or when your dealing with the Marianas Islands, trying to keep their sweatshop economy going — then you’re dealing with players who are not that sophisticated … so you can see the problems and the outrage a little bit more clearly.
For Abramoff, it was just about the money? I think for his partner Mike Scanlon it was about the money. For Jack, it was about the ideology. He was finding clients who’d spin off tremendous amounts of money that he could infuse into the political process to advance his political agenda. At least while the Soviet Union was standing, that was anti-Soviet and also: destroy government, big government as they knew it.
One of my favorite parts of the film is the old footage: Ralph Reed, Karl Rove … Seeing that footage is really something. These were like the vanguard. It’s like Lenin. It’s like the Russian Revolution. These were the vanguard revolutionaries who are going to take control of the state if they could, by riding this revolutionary wave, particularly the change-over in the Congress in 1994. That’s what they tried to do and very nearly did. Seeing them as youngsters, that is wild. That’s an interview with a collegiate Karl Rove done by Dan Rather. We found it in the bowels … It’s like panning for gold. There’s a lot of days where nothing shiny gets in the strainer … and every once in a while you think oh my god, it’s a nugget!
It’s easy to throw around terms — Abramoff’s an evil guy, this is evil personified, this guy’s a borderline sociopath. Do those terms apply? I’m not sure they apply. I think this is a portrait of a zealot. I think he believed that the end justified the means. He was going to do whatever he needed to do to get there. In terms of some of that wild stuff, with emails between Abramoff and partner Mike Scanlon — I recognize that attitude from the Enron film. Those audiotapes in the Enron film where frat house traders were laughing as they watched the California grid go down. This hardhearted notion of, “We’re the motherfuckers, we’re gonna do what’s right, law of the jungle, fuck ‘em.” Frat boys on beer night.
Did Abramoff expect to get caught? I think he thought he wasn’t doing anything wrong. That’s often what happens with corruption. You take a tiny step over the line and then another little one, another little one, another little one … you wake up one day, somebody points out to you — there’s the line back there, here are the set of binoculars you can look at to see that line, because you’re so far from it now.
I guess you don’t wake up and look in the mirror and say, I am a scumbag. You wake up every morning, you kiss your wife, you worry about the kids. You say hello to your neighbor, you do a favor for them. You’re a nice guy! What’s not to like?
After he went down — people that were affected, how did they distance themselves? That was the beauty of Jack — he did become the scapegoat. He even helped people. That day of the hearing, I think he may have been thinking that he was cloaking himself in a religious mantle by dressing up in the black trenchoat and the black hat. “I’m just being observant.” I’m sorry. Jack’s a movie producer. Jack understands wardrobe. When you dress up in a black trenchcoat with a black hat, you look like something out of a gangster film. Washington was delighted to have Jack as the scapegoat. Now, he did very bad things. But he wasn’t the only one. And he certainly — to say that Jack was the problem and everything else was great, is a complete fiction.
Do you think that’s how the narrative went? Yeah, I do. That was very much the narrative that Congress presented. The Abramoff Reforms, they’re called. They’re not very significant reforms, in my view.
Is it just the more rules you make, there’s going to be more loopholes found? Is there something in your mind that can stop it? To some extent, every time you make a rule, somebody will develop a counter-rule. But the biggest problem here is really the flow of money. And on that I agree with the conservatives. The conservatives say denude the government of cash, and you will solve the problem of pork. I don’t agree with that. But I do agree — you won’t stop bad decisions being made until you stop the flow of money, and/or stop the expense of campaigns. If we don’t one of those two things, we’re going to have to go to a solution that was proposed to me by a newspaper writer in Utah, which is that every member of congress will have to wear a NASCAR jacket. There’ll be decals: Goldman Sachs, Merck, Pfizer, Blackstone …
After making a film like this, when you look at look at a politician in this country, do you just assume they’ve lost a good amount of their purity? No, there are a lot of people in Washington who do good things. But the system is not serving them well. They’ll tell you — they hate this system. I think there are a lot of people trying to do the right thing. But when you have to run against an opponent who’s got X millions of dollars, and you know in order to try to do the right thing you have to raise the same amount of money … you’re going to have to curry favor with all sorts of people you may not want to curry favor with in order to get that election done. The process continues to erode any sense of idealism or possibility.
Do you think it’s improved at all under Obama’s administration? I think around the margins. I don’t think the Obama administration really frontally attacked the central problem, in part because the Obama administration profited from not having public finance. They drowned McCain. They raised so much more money. Now the myth is they only raised it from grassroots private citizens. In fact they got a lot of money from bundlers, and they paid those bundlers back just like every other administration does, by giving them ambassadorships over seas and so forth. There are some restrictions in terms of lobbyists in the federal government, but the big problem hasn’t been addressed, which is the problem of money. The Obama administration doesn’t necessarily want to address it because they feel they know how to raise more money than their opponents.