With friends like Jack...

Posted: Jan 07, 2006 12:05 AM
If you’re the sort who enjoys those giant jigsaw puzzles that consume consecutive summer vacations, have we got a scandal for you!

Corrupt lobbyist Jack Abramoff may be the biggest piece of the puzzle, but there are scores of others that, once pieced together, form an almost cartoonish picture of extreme greed and corruption.

Start with the characters, a surreal hodgepodge of caricature, including: el capo Abramoff, the gangster in too-tight overcoat and fedora striding from the courthouse, grim-faced and missing only a cigarette dangling from his lips; a variety of politicians and K Street lobbyists, all looking like they just remembered they left a porn site up on their mother-in-law’s computer; and, not to leave anyone out, Indians — that most sacred of all American victim groups.

Oh, wait, and the Christian activist, Ralph Reed, who worked with Abramoff to get an Indian casino shut down in El Paso, Texas, after which Abramoff convinced the same tribe to pay him to get it reopened.

No fiction writer could improve on that story line: Washington and the Christians shaft the Indians … again.

All we need to make the picture complete is a stripper named Fanny. Ah, well, the night is young. Meanwhile, we have about 20 congressmen “lawyering-up,” as they say, following Abramoff’s guilty plea bargain earlier this week, while Republicans are giving back Abramoff money faster than you can say, “Jack Who?”

You mean he was a skunk? Who knew?

Cynics will say — and some Republicans already are saying — oh, well, so it goes. Politics as usual. Everybody does it. Indeed, the National Republican Senatorial Committee said Wednesday that almost all Senate Democrats have accepted money from Abramoff or his associates.

Sean Spicer, spokesman for the House Republican Conference, told The Washington Times, “This is something that has ensnared both parties.”

And the National Republican Senatorial Committee has put out the word that 39 of the Senate’s 44 Democrats — as well as “independent” James M. Jeffords of Vermont — have taken money from Abramoff, either directly or indirectly.

The strategy seems to be that by widely distributing “blame” across party lines, everyone’s equally duped and, therefore, equally not-to-be-blamed. Dumb ol’ Republicans; dumb ol’ Democrats.

The only problem is, it won’t wash, and it’s bad strategy if Republicans want to maintain a drop of credibility as the ethical party. While true that some Democrats did accept money from Abramoff — and some will get burned — it is more true that this is a Republican problem.

Political Reality No. 1: The party in power gets corrupted.

Political Reality No. 2: Indicted incumbents don’t get re-elected.

Besides, exactly how does one rationalize a golfing trip to Scotland, as Rep. Robert W. Ney (R-Ohio) enjoyed, compliments of Abramoff? Nobody expects politicians to sleep in Motel 8s or dine at Wendy’s while conducting the nation’s business, but golfing in Scotland doesn’t quite pass the “straight-face” test.

Meanwhile, there’s a critical difference between “directly” and “indirectly.” What “indirectly” means is that many Democrats have accepted funds from the Florida-based law-lobbying firm Greenberg Traurig, to which Abramoff once belonged. He “left” the firm when Abramoff’s questionable practices with Indian tribes were first reported.

That Greenberg Traurig should give campaign funds to Democrats is far less surprising than that the firm would hire Abramoff in the first place. One of Greenberg Traurig’s partners, after all, is Marvin Rosen, who was (cue ironic music here) former Democratic National Committee finance chairman for Clinton-Gore in 1996.

Rosen also is considered to have made more money in politics than nearly anyone else in the 1990s. He was legendary. Which is to say, he helped create the culture that coughed up Abramoff. Rosen’s other claims to fame include supervising DNC fund-raiser John Huang, who pleaded guilty to illegally raising funds from foreign sources.

See what I mean about the giant jigsaw? Or, to mix metaphors, webs don’t get much more tangled than this, which may be why no one in the media has put it all together until now. I certainly can’t do the narrative justice in a column.

What’s clear is that however the Republican Party tries to spin it, this is a huge deal, and it’s primarily a huge Republican deal. It’s also becoming increasingly clear that the ripple effects of Abramoff’s corruption could alter the political landscape come the midterm elections and possibly far into the future.

As one Democratic insider said to me in December just before the Abramoff plea story broke: “For Democrats, it’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas.”