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Saturday, January 08, 2011

A close-up look at the new Gilded Age

My wife and I just finished watching an amazing documentary, Casino Jack and the United States of Money, which is available on Netflix on demand. It is the story of the rise and fall of Jack Abramoff and it is the most astonishing and appalling portrait of Washington today that I have ever seen, which is saying quite a bit. Washington is now like early modern Paris. In Old Regime France the government sold the right to collect taxes. Now the government hands out the right to conduct money-making businesses such as Indian casinos and sweatshops in the Marianas. (Really). But to get your hands on such a cash cow, you need money, lots of it. That is where people like Abramoff come in--they channel the money to the politicians who can make things happen, such as Tom Delay and Bob Ney back in the days when the Republicans ruled Washington, as they now threaten to do again..

Abramoff overdid it, of course--along with that sweetheart Ralph Reed of the Christian coalition, he was taking money from rival casinos, one trying to shut down the other--money from casino A to shut down B, and then money from B to re-open. It apparently takes a certain amount of money to get introduced to certain powerful Congressmen. Bob Ney, who along with Abramoff wound up behind bars because of the scandal, evidently took contributions to insert items in the Congressional Record relating to various casino owners whom Abramoff wanted either to favor or to discredit, depending on who was paying him when. As my brother Robert (who makes cameo appearances in the documentary) notes, Congressmen have such an endless, hopeless need for money nowadays that they simply cannot say no to such requests. The Citizens United decision, of course, is only going to make things worse.

Two episodes in the documentary were particularly disturbing. One involved a Greek shipping and casino tycoon, Gus Boulis, who owned Sun Cruz, a line of casino boats operating off the Florida coast, which Abramoff wanted to buy, and eventually managed to pressure Boulis into selling in 2000 for much less money than Boulis wanted to pay. Abramoff financed the deal with a bank loan, and when the bank insisted that he put up some of his own money he produced a fraudulent wire transfer to make it appear that he had--the crime that landed him in jail. But then, shortly after the sale, Boulis--who was still fighting it--was murdered in a gangland hit. Three mob figures were charged with the murder in 2005. Chillingly, one of them, Anthony Moscatiello, was an associate of Abramoff and Adam Kidan, the Abramoff associate who has also done time for the fraudulent wire transfer. Moscatiello became a consultant to Sun Cruz after the Abramoff purchase and received, according to reports, a $200,000 payment. Some reports have also stated that Governor Jeb Bush used state regulatory influence to try to force Boulis to make the sale because he was not an American citizen. It also turns out that Moscatiello was an FBI informant at the time of the Gangland hit, a fact the Bureau initially concealed from Broward county prosecutors. For reasons for which I have found no explanation, the murder case still has not come to trial.

Another story was, for me, even more shocking. In the late 1990s the Prime Minsiter of Malaysia, Mahathir Mohamad, got himself and his nation into serious international trouble with some wildly anti-Semitic statements about Jewish control of the world. Seeking to burnish his image, he hired Abramoff for $1.2 million to try to burnish his image (he later claimed, interestingly, that he did not know where the money actually came from.) Abramoff, who grew up in a non-observant Jewish family but became Orthodox as a young man, delivered by arranging a well-photographed meeting between Mohamad and President George W. Bush. Perhaps because I have spent my life studying professional diplomats, and because my own father was one, I am more disgusted by this story than anything else in the movie. My father never had to pay for the right to discuss matters of mutual interest with his host government, nor did he have to steer Presidents Senghor of Senegal or Ould Daddah of Mauretania to the right Washington lobbyist before he took them in for long conversations with President John F. Kennedy. The idea of a foreign government feeding the Republican or Democratic money machine for a photo op with the President of the United States simply curdles my stomach.

There are some other great mysteries opened up by the movie. Grover Norquist, I remember, was pretty heavily implicated in the scandal when it broke--I think it turned out he was getting money from Jack (an old college Republican buddy) and handing it to Newt Gingrich back in the 1990s--he called it "Newt maintenance." Oh, yes! Here's the document, from 1998. (What would we do without Google?) An email from Ralph Reed to Abramoff.

"From: ralphreed@
Sent: Thursday, November 12, 1998 12:19 AM
To: Abramoff, jack (DC)
Subject: RE: Hi Rlaph

Hey, now that I'm done with electoral politics, I need to start humping in corporate accounts. I counting on you to help me with some contacts. Have you talked to Grover since the Newt development. [N.B.: Gingrich's ethics problems that led to his resignation as speaker.] I'm afraid he took a hit on the consulting side with that since so much of it was Newt maintenance but I hope I'm wrong. I'm getting ready to do some work with mutual friends that we probably ought to discuss. Let's chat.

But this didn't go anywhere. Karl Rove, in addition, was up to his ass in the whole thing. He apparently helped arrange the Bush-Mohamad meeting, and a woman who worked for Abramoff went to work for Rove in the White House. Informed observers thought Rove was about to be indicted for something when he quit the White House--why else would he have quit?--but of course nothing ever happened. John McCain, as the documentary shows, made political hay out of the scandal on the Indian Affairs Committee, but didn't release a lot of data on how many contributions had gone to Republicans.

Much as I would like to believe that these abuses have solely or even predominantly involved Republican politicians, I know that that cannot possibly be true. The film mentions Harry Reid as another recipient of Indian casino contributions. (Indeed, I can't help but wonder if Reid's Las Vegas relationships, tying him to cash cows there, were critical in making him majority leader in the first place.) But more importantly, bipartisan corruption is the only possible explanation of how the Republicans, with rare exceptions, have managed to get away with all this. I was appalled when the Obama Administration decided not to take any action against the torture conspiracy in the Bush Administration, but their failure to do anything more about any of this is equally disturbing.

So here we are. 140 years ago the money that bought Congress was from railroads, iron and steel. Now it's from casinos and sweatshops, health insurance companies, and Wall Street. Thanks to the five Republican appointees on the Supreme Court it's now as unregulated as it was then. Honestly, I didn't think of myself as an innocent political virgin but I didn't grasp until seeing this movie just how bad it was. For the time being, it seems, we're sunk.


Patricia Mathews said...

I've developed a streak strong enough to be called a subpersonality, called The Old Curmudgeon, who first came out at the revelation that Abramoff self-identifies as Orthodox. *what past of "thou shalt not steal" did his rabbi not teach him?*

Oddly enough, gangsters who self-identify as devout Catholics don't bother me as much, probably because it's been going on since the first missionary converted the first barbarian warlord. But politicians and the like who self-identify as evangelicals and who carry on like something out of Nero's court (I'm looking at you, Newt), also do.

And this streak only popped up as the Crisis Era was under way.

David Kaiser said...

Anyone in America, whether Protestant, Catholic, Muslim, Evangelical, or orthodox Jew, can grow up to be a millionaire, a hero, or a dirtbag. It's what makes the country great! Oddly it's when I'm faced with someone like Abramoff that a certain kind of attachment to my Jewish ancestors comes out--I'm furious that Jews could produce some one like that, but I shouldn't be--why should they be different from anyone else?

Bozon said...


Many thanks for this commentary.

I had not followed Abramoff's activities until now.

Just took a look at Wikipedia on him.

As with many other fields, but perhaps more so, law is, increasingly, quite susceptible to manipulation for political ends, which can be claimed to justify means, in the Machiavellian, rather than Ciceronian, paradigm.

Very interesting. I have to say that, on the whole, this sort of thing has been American business as usual for a long time now.

Recently ran across a copy of Kutler's book on The New Nixon Tapes. Haven't read much yet; but fascinating book.

all the best,

Bruce Post said...

"Anyone in America, whether Protestant, Catholic, Muslim, Evangelical, or orthodox Jew, can grow up to be a millionaire, a hero, or a dirtbag."

I would be a bit careful using the above line of argument. Robert Bellah, an acclaimed sociologist, and some colleagues wrote The Good Society some years back. If I remember it correctly, they wondered how Americans could so easily abandon programs and projects that benefited the community as a whole. They abandoned the commons or rather they allowed it to be sacrificed on the altar of individualism.

Speculating as to why, Bellah, et. al. argued (if memory serves me well) that many Americans, those who were not wealthy, participated in the destruction of the good society against their own interests because they believed in what Reagan represented when he said: "I want to keep America the kind of country where anyone can become a millionaire."

Now, adjust the value of "millionaire" from its worth in 1980 to its present worth, you are speaking about a lot of money. Yet, the chance that most Americans will attain that kind of wealth is about the same as a young, inner city youth making it to the NBA.

I feel that the well-connected, entrenched class of hyper-wealthy interests are like Lucy in Peanuts and the rest of us are like Charlie Brown.

Lucy (think the Koch brothers, etc.) holds out the football labeled "You, too, can be a multi-millionaire," inviting us poor sacks to kick it. Yet, time after time, as we/Charlie approach the ball, they/she pull it away, leaving us flat on our butts.

Quite frankly, I don't know what makes America great anymore. Do you?