Confessions of a Con Man

Jack Abramoff says we should hate the game, not the player.

Interesting and easy to read, Capitol Punishment takes people through the entire system that exists in Washington via Jack Abramoff’s scandal. Abramoff’s highly personal narrative gives new details about how he manipulated the legislative process that were previously unheard of, and it definitely pulls “back the curtain on K street” and shows “the dirty underbelly of America’s government” by describing how he witnessed and helped private interests influence politics. It is a strange combination of the celebration of his lobbying victories and his condemnation of the lobbying system.

Abramoff regrets his illegal actions, but the book is ultimately one of his success in a system that forces foul play. The honest book exposes the political system and how it focuses on money rather than people and clears up every detail of Abramoff’s case, the per­fect examples of greedy individuals and bad eggs infiltrating Congress.

Jack is more or less repentant, but he writes Capitol Punishment to explain that he did what he had to do to win at his political game. It shows that we need to hold our elected officials to much higher standards, but I believe on two levels. One, to eradicate the copious corruption of politicians, and the other, to ensure that politicians don’t allow people like Jack Abramoff to run the show. And it really is a show. Even the book was a show, a display by Abramoff to redeem himself and shift the focus from punishing individuals to punishing the system. I don’t how well you can trust the memoirs of a narcissist who claims to have a strict moral code, strong family values, and being devout in the Jewish faith, yet ends up in federal prison for ripping off Native American tribes. Nevertheless, it’s engaging.

Abramoff believes his profession placed him above the law, and he lost everything because of it. Even in jail, his mindset was still that he had a right to do what was necessary to accomplish his goals, despite its legality. He was sentenced an extra month for ignoring the limitations on prison mail. He slipped a note to visitors hoping for a Torah scroll to organize a reading, and complains the “rabbi ratted [him] out.” He admires himself plenty, and that’s why he was compelled to write an autobiography. He may have attempted redemption, but he ultimately feels justified, al­though he acknowledges the problems our government has.

The lists of accomplishments and discussions about how charitable and pious Abramoff is undermines the book. He comes off as self-righteous, arguing that he may have technically broken the law, but that that’s what happens when you work in a corrupt system to win. Still, it is a good thing to have a book that allows us to peek into Washington’s world, where there are “legal bribes” in the form of party contributions in exchange for more influence.

Money is behind all of the influence people have in Washington, and Abramoff discusses this frankly. Although I find Abramoff full of self-contradictions, this book would not have been nearly as effective if someone less infamous wrote it.

Abramoff delves into his own corrupted actions, ex­plaining how he used tax loopholes to convince Indians to make enormous contributions to politicians. This ensured substantial influence and also made Jack Abramoff a huge name in Washington. His ambition carried him all the way to federal prison. Abramoff seems to argue that, although regrettable, it was an unfortunate inevitability of work­ing as a lobbyist in a broken system. Abramoff points out that many other actions in his work for technically legal, though still morally wrong, because that’s how things work in Washington. They still compromise our democracy and give undue influence to those with deep pockets.

Abramoff does have a persuasive charm, apparent in his rise as a prominent lobbyist as well as his writing. He details how he was able to be more effective and profitable in his work by promising whatever his clients wanted and then coming through on those promises in his ruthless, determined method. This way, he was able to charge ten times the normal fees, because he was “the best” and, in a way, the worst.

Abramoff makes valid points, though this is not a book of deep revelations and repentance. This story need­ed to be told, but Abramoff’s self-centered focus makes the book a bit irritating at times, but still worth read­ing. The facts are extremely relevant to our society right now, and I’m glad Abramoff came out with it. If you’re looking for a broken man with an apology, you won’t find it in Capitol Punishment, but it is a necessary tale to tell so that people are aware of what’s behind the Wizard of Oz’s curtain. It’s a fantastic read for anyone with an interest in politics and the inner workings of our government.

Abramoff’s book worries me; I think the point of the novel may have been his warning that there are sociopaths running Washington. Grover Norquist, the president of Americans for Tax Reform, and Ralph Reed, the leader of the Christian Coalition, are shown to be not nearly as innocent as previously assumed. At one point, Abramoff writes that, “Not only should Ralph not have denied taking the money, he should have been proud about it.” He throws fellow lobby­ists under the bus, almost as if saying, “It’s okay; everyone does it!”

The constant stream of mentions of his Jewish faith and how devoted he is also did not add any­thing to the book for me; it didn’t stop him from lobbying the way he did, and it certainly does not stop him from self-worship. The book itself does a wonderful job of tackling issues that people don’t dare to usually discuss, if you can get past dealing with the frustrating personality behind the words. There is a serious problem in Washington of greed and self-interest.Strangely, Jack only discusses various types of reform at the very end of his book. Among them: prohibit members of Congress and their staff from ever becoming lobbyists in Washington D.C., term limits, repealing the 17th Amendment among in addition to some others.However, it goes without say­ing that Abramoff has no right to lead any sort of crusade against our political system.

Abramoff blames Washington, circumstances, and corrup­tion, but not himself. One thing’s for sure, he’s definitely not your typcal muckraker. He is the muck as well. But, hey, he’s had an interesting life, and the twenty-five dollar book helps pay some of the people he took money from. Isn’t that nice?

–Meghan Hassett