The Corrupt Charmer on Screen
Currently serving time for conspiracy, wire fraud and tax evasion, Jack Abramoff once ruled over a lobbying empire that gave its clients in the United States, the Sudan and Malaysia access to the most influential legislators in government. After becoming a lobbyist in 1994, he bilked Indian tribes of millions of dollars, established a phony "think tank" presided over by a Rehoboth Beach lifeguard and helped bring about the resignation of former Congressional Majority Leader Tom DeLay in 2006. Now, for the first time, Abramoff's exploits are comprehensively recounted—in Casino Jack and the United States of Money, a documentary by Oscar-winning director Alex Gibney. Prior to its release by Magnolia Pictures on May 7, Gibney met with Nation staffers for a screening and discussion.
Four years in the making, Casino Jack covers Abramoff's entire career, from his days as a College Republican to his efforts to sway legislation governing Native American casinos. Perhaps his most unexpected career move involved producing B action movies, including Red Scorpion, starring Dolph Lundgren. Gibney provides some choice clips from the film, and highlights Abramoff's obsession with Hollywood movies like Fiddler on the Roof and Patton.
Abramoff's obsessions—with Hollywood clichés, with pulp spy thrillers and with religion as an expression of conservative politics—pulled him into situations that were puzzling when they were not criminal. He arranged a Freedom Fighter summit in Angola that paired former New York gubernatorial candidate Lewis Lehrman with a machine gun-toting Jonas Savimbi for a photo op that embarrassed the White House. Abramoff also managed to lobby both for and against legislation about Tigua Indian casinos, charging the tribe millions to double-cross them.
Casino Jack features interviews with several key figures in Abramoff's scandals, including DeLay, former Republican Congressman Robert Ney and staff lobbyist Neil Volz, that detail the ins and outs of a corrupt political process. Just as important, Gibney and his crew sought out Abramoff's victims. DeLay called the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands "a Petri dish of pure capitalism" while promoting legislation that allowed sweatshop owners there to skirt labor laws. But Gibney's cameras reveal the awful impact such rulings in ways that refute DeLay's words. "There is a section where you just see the sweatshop and hear the sounds of the sewing machines and see the faces of the women working there. It was very important to me. No music, no voice-over, just show what it's like," Gibney told me.
Due in part to Department of Justice guidelines, Gibney could not interview Abramoff on camera for this film. But he did arrange to meet him in prison, and was surprised to learn that the lobbyist was personable and even charming. Gibney wanted to confront him personally "because it becomes too easy to sit back and throw stones from afar. You have to be able to look somebody in the eye and say, 'You're a very nice guy but what you did was dead wrong.' " Gibney found Abramoff "repentant" but also frustrated by what is still characterized as an "ongoing investigation." The director notes, "Even Jack was dismayed at how few of the big fish were netted." In the film, Melanie Sloan, executive director of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, recalls how Republican leaders squelched Senator John McCain's investigation into Abramoff, worried about what Karl Rove and others would say under oath.
The director has a background in investigative reporting—his father was a journalist, as are two of his brothers—but describes himself as a filmmaker more than a reporter. "What I enjoy is trying to tell a story in visual terms," he says. "It's one thing to talk about somebody. When you see that person talking, without narrating over him or anything else, there's a certain vibe you get that's impossible to show any other way."
Asked to reconcile the strongly religious stances Abramoff, DeLay, and others espoused with the consequences of their actions, Gibney talks about how ideology can overwhelm reason. "You see the world through your eyes. You can walk through the sweatshops and pretend you're not seeing the suffering. It's willful blindness. When you believe in something, believe that what you're doing is good, how can you do anything bad?"
It's one thing to persuade Nation readers that lobbyists and money inevitably corrupt the political process. How can the director get his message through to a right-wing audience? Gibney answers, "I think the ultimate argument is, if you're concerned about how much corporate welfare there is, or how much pork there is, or how much money the federal government is spending—you can go to Congress and debate what the best policies are, but right now there's only one value, and that's the value of money, and who has more of it. I think that there's a pretty good argument for some conservatives who say, 'It's become too corrupt.' Well, I agree, it's become too corrupt. So let's unite on this one issue, which is: take the money out of the system."
Gibney is releasing several films this year, including a documentary about Ken Kesey and his Merry Pranksters; he also contributed to the upcoming Freakonomics. Eagerly awaited is his portrait of Eliot Spitzer, screened as a "work in progress" at the recent Tribeca Film Festival. "The Spitzer film was a departure for me because it goes in a lot of different directions," he admits. Being out of politics "has to eat at him," Gibney adds. Spitzer's fall was so complete because he had no allies to stand up for him. "That was it in a nutshell—he had no friends." As with Abramoff, Gibney found a measure of respect for the former governor. "Few are as good or as tough about understanding the political economy," he says.
And that political economy is "the central problem of our government." It's a problem exacerbated by the recent Supreme Court Citizens United decision. "I think lobbying is inherent to our political process," he says. "In a way, it's even efficient as a means to reach your Congressman or Senator. But campaign finance has tipped everything out of balance. It now costs so much to get elected that these guys are spending a half to a third of their time on the phone raising money—I mean, when are they doing our business? Why are we electing people to raise money?"
Abramoff is scheduled to be released to a halfway house in June. Gibney hopes the former lobbyist will join him at screenings of the film, as former Congressman Bob Ney has been doing. The director believes the experience could be a cathartic experience for Abramoff. "You know, I started this film thinking that lobbyists were the problem, but it's the money. Until the money gets taken out of the system, there's nowhere for us to go."