In the Beginning, There Was Abramoff
By Frank Rich
The New York Times - Sunday 02 October 2005
"Terri Schiavo is not brain-dead; she talks and she laughs, and she expresses happiness and discomfort. Terri Schiavo is not on life support."
- Tom DeLay, March 20, 2005
If you believed Tom DeLay then, you no doubt believe now that the deposed House majority leader is only on "temporary" leave from his powerful perch in Washington and that he'll soon bounce back, laughing all the way, from a partisan witch hunt that unjustly requires his brief discomfort in a Texas courtroom.
Those who still live in the reality-based community, however, may sense they're watching the beginning of the end of something big. It's not just Mr. DeLay, a k a the Hammer, who is on life support, but a Washington establishment whose infatuation with power and money has contaminated nearly every limb of government and turned off a public that by two to one finds the country on the wrong track.
But don't take my word for it. And don't listen to the canned talking points of the Democrats, who are still so busy trying to explain why they were for the war in Iraq before they were against it that it's hard to trust their logic on anything else. Listen instead to Andrew Ferguson, of the conservative Rupert Murdoch magazine, The Weekly Standard. As far back as last December in a cover article on the sleazy lobbyist Jack Abramoff, Mr. Ferguson was already declaring "the end of the Republican Revolution."
He painted the big picture of the Abramoff ethos in vibrant strokes: the ill-gotten Indian gambling moolah snaking through the bank accounts of a network of DeLay cronies and former aides; the "fact-finding" Congressional golfing trips to further the cause of sweatshop garment factories in the Marianas islands; the bogus "think tank" in Rehoboth Beach, Del., where the two scholars in residence were a yoga instructor and a lifeguard (albeit a "lifeguard of the year"). Certain names kept recurring in Mr. Ferguson's epic narrative, most prominently Ralph Reed and Grover Norquist, Republican money-changers who are as tightly tied to President Bush and Karl Rove as they are to Mr. Abramoff and Mr. DeLay, if not more so.
The bottom line, Mr. Ferguson wrote, was a culture antithetical to everything conservatives had stood for in the Gingrich revolution of 1994. Slaying a corrupt, bloated Democratic establishment was out, gluttony for the G.O.P. and its fat cats was in. Mr. Abramoff and his gang embodied the very enemy the "Contract With America" Congress had supposedly come to Washington to smite: " 'Beltway Bandits,' profiteers who manipulate the power of big government on behalf of well-heeled people who pay them tons of money to do so." Those tons of Republican money were deposited in the favors bank of K Street, where, as The Washington Post reported this year, the number of lobbyists has more than doubled (to some 35,000) since the Bush era began in 2000. Conservatives who once aspired to cut government "down to the size where we can drown it in the bathtub" - as a famous Norquist maxim had it - merely outsourced government instead to the highest bidder.
Mr. DeLay's latest plight is only a tiny detail within this vast Boschian canvas of depravity. If this were Watergate - and Watergate itself increasingly looks like a relatively contained epidemic of corruption - the Texas grand jury's indictment of the congressman and his associates would be a sideshow tantamount to the initial 1973 California grand jury indictment of the Nixon aide John Ehrlichman and his pals in the break-in at Daniel Ellsberg's psychiatrist's office; Watergate's real legal fireworks were still in the wings. So forget about all those details down in Texas that make your teeth hurt; don't bother to learn the difference between Trmpac and Armpac. Fasten your seat belt instead for the roller coaster of other revelations and possible indictments that's about to roar through the Beltway.
The most important plot development of the past two weeks, in fact, has nothing to do with Mr. DeLay (as far as we know). It was instead the arrest of the administration's top procurement officer, David Safavian, on charges of lying and obstructing the investigation of Mr. Abramoff. And what an investigation it is: The F.B.I., the I.R.S., the Treasury Department and the Interior Department have all been involved. The popular theory of the case has it that Mr. Safavian, a former lobbying colleague of both Mr. Abramoff and Mr. Norquist, is being muscled by the feds to rat on the big guys in Washington - much as another smaller fish may have helped reel in Mr. DeLay in Texas.
The DeLay and Abramoff investigations are not to be confused with the many others percolating in the capital, including, most famously of late, the Justice Department and S.E.C. inquiries into the pious Bill Frist's divine stock-sale windfall and the homeland security inspector general's promised inquiry into possible fraud in the no-bid contracts doled out by FEMA for Hurricane Katrina. The mother of all investigations, of course, remains the prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald's pursuit of whoever outed the C.I.A. agent Valerie Wilson to Robert Novak and whoever may have lied to cover it up. The denouement is on its way.
But whatever the resolution of any of these individual dramas, they will not be the end of the story. Like the continuing revelations of detainee abuse emerging from Afghanistan, Iraq and Guant·namo, this is a crisis in the governing culture, not the tale of a few bad apples. Every time you turn over a rock, you find more vermin. We've only just learned from The Los Angeles Times that Joseph Schmitz, until last month the inspector general in charge of policing waste, fraud and abuse at the Pentagon, is himself the focus of a Congressional inquiry. He is accused of blocking the investigation of another Bush appointee who is suspected of siphoning Iraq reconstruction contracts to business cronies. At the Justice Department, the F.B.I. is looking into why a career prosecutor was demoted after he started probing alleged Abramoff illegality in Guam. According to The Los Angeles Times, the demoted prosecutor was then replaced by a Rove-approved Republican pol who just happened to be a cousin of a major target of another corruption investigation in Guam.
We have to hope that the law will get to the bottom of these cases and start to connect the recurring dots. But while everyone is innocent until proved guilty, the overall pattern stinks and has for a long time. It's so filthy that the Republican caucus couldn't even find someone clean to name as Mr. DeLay's "temporary" stand-in as House majority leader last week. As The Washington Post reported in 2003, Roy Blunt, the Missouri congressman who got the job, was found trying to alter a homeland security bill with a last-minute provision that would have benefited Philip Morris-brand cigarettes. Not only had the tobacco giant contributed royally to Mr. Blunt's various campaign coffers, but both the congressman's girlfriend (now wife) and his son were Philip Morris lobbyists at the time.
This is the culture that has given us the government we have. It's a government that has spent more of the taxpayers' money than any since L.B.J.'s (as calculated by the Cato Institute, a libertarian research institution), even as it rewards its benefactors with tax breaks and corporate pork. It's a government so used to lying that Mr. DeLay could say with a straight face that the cost of Katrina relief could not be offset by budget cuts because there was no governmental fat left to cut. It's the government that fostered the wholesale loss of American lives in both Iraq and on the Gulf Coast by putting cronyism above patriotism.
The courts can punish crooks, but they can't reform democracy from the ground up, and the voters can't get into the game until 2006. Meanwhile, on the Republican side, the key players both in the White House and in the leadership of both houses of Congress are either under investigation or joined at the hip to Messrs Rove, DeLay, Abramoff, Reed or Norquist. They seem to be hoping that some magical event - a sudden outbreak of peace and democracy in Iraq, the capture of Osama bin Laden, a hurricane affording better presidential photo ops than Rita - will turn things around. Dream on.
The one notable anomaly is John McCain, who retains a genuine hunger for reform, a rage at the corruption around him and the compelling motive of his presidential ambitions to push him forward; it's his Indian Affairs Committee, after all, that exposed the hideous Abramoff cesspool to public view last year. The Democrats, bereft of leadership and ideas (though not of their own Beltway bandits), also harbor a number of would-be presidents, but they are busier positioning themselves politically than they are articulating actual positions that might indicate what a new governmental order would look like. While the Republican revolution is dead, it says everything about the power vacuum left in its wake that Geena Davis's fictional commander in chief has more traction, as measured in Nielsen ratings and press, than any of the real-life contenders for that job in D.C.