Article — From the August 2008 issue
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Article — From the August 2008 issue
Corruption is uniquely reprehensible in a democracy because it violates the system’s first principle, which we all learned back in the sunshiny days of elementary school: that the government exists to serve the public, not particular individuals. We Are the Government, insisted the title of a civics primer published in the earnest year of 1945. “The White House belongs to you,” its dust jacket told us. “So do all the other splendid buildings in Washington, D.C.” This idea runs so deep in the American grain that many of us can’t bring ourselves to question it, even in this disillusioned age. Republicans and Democrats may fight over how big government should be and exactly what it should do, we tell ourselves, but surely everyone shares those baseline good intentions, that simple devotion to the public interest.
We continue to believe this despite such massive evidence to the contrary as the career of Jack Abramoff, the conservative lobbyist whose feats of corruption have been unreeling in newspaper and congressional investigations for years. On January 3, 2006, Abramoff pled guilty to bribing a member of Congress, evading taxes, and defrauding his clients, but what made his case memorable were the incredible details: the millions of dollars Abramoff and his confederates casually squeezed out of clients, the luxury restaurant he opened in order to hand out the goodies more efficiently, the golf trips to Scotland, the gleeful contempt he expressed for nearly everyone in his voluminous emails, and, later, the desperate wriggling of prominent Republicans as they tried to deny their old pal.
Journalistic coverage of the Abramoff affair has clung reliably to the “bad apple” thesis, in which the lobbyist’s sins are carefully separated from the movement of which he was once a prominent part. What Abramoff represented, we read, was “greed gone wild.” He “went native.” He was “sui generis,” a one-of-a-kind con man, “engaged in bizarre antics that your average Zegna-clad Washington lobbyist would never have dreamed of.”
In which case, we can all relax: Jack Abramoff is in jail. The system worked; the bad apple has been plucked; the wild greed and undreamed-of antics have ceased.
But the truth is almost exactly the opposite, whether we are discussing Abramoff or the wider tsunami of corruption that has washed over the capital in recent years. It is just this: Fantastic misgovernment is not an accident, nor is it the work of a few bad individuals. It is the consequence of triumph by a particular philosophy of government, by a movement that understands the liberal state as a perversion and considers the market the ideal nexus of human society. This movement is friendly to industry not just by force of campaign contributions but by conviction; it believes in entrepreneurship not merely in commerce but in politics; and the inevitable results of its ascendance are, first, the capture of the state by business and, second, what follows from that: incompetence, graft, and all the other wretched flotsam that we’ve come to expect from Washington.
The correct diagnosis is the “bad apple” thesis turned upside down. There are plenty of good conservative individuals, honorable folks who would never participate in the sort of corruption we have watched unfold over the past few years. Hang around with grassroots conservative voters in Kansas, and in the main you will find them to be honest, hardworking people.
But put conservatism in charge of the state, and it behaves very differently. Now the “values” that rightist politicians eulogize on the stump disappear, and in their place we can discern an entirely different set of priorities—priorities that reveal more about the unchanging historical essence of American conservatism than do its fleeting campaigns against gay marriage or secular humanism. The conservatism that speaks to us through its actions in Washington is institutionally opposed to those baseline good intentions we learned about in elementary school. Its leaders laugh off the idea of the public interest as airy-fairy nonsense; they caution against bringing top-notch talent into government service; they declare war on public workers. They have made a cult of outsourcing and privatizing, they have wrecked established federal operations because they disagree with them, and they have deliberately piled up an Everest of debt in order to force the government into crisis. The ruination they have wrought has been thorough; it has been a professional job. Repairing it will require years of political action.
Let us start with conservatives’ sense of their own exclusion. This idea may strike you as peculiar, but to conservatives it is fundamental; it predicates everything they do, say, and enact. The government is never theirs, they believe, no matter how much of it they happen to control. “Even when conservatives are in power they refuse to adopt the psychology of an establishment,” marveled the journalist Sidney Blumenthal during the Reagan years. George W. Bush, who has grabbed more power for the executive branch than anyone since Nixon, actually sees himself as a “dissident in Washington.” One of his more worshipful biographers calls him the nation’s Rebel-in-Chief: he “operates in Washington like the head of a small occupying army of insurgents. . . . He’s an alien in the realm of the governing class, given a green card by voters.”
The hallucination is dazzling, awesome. For most of the past three decades these insurgents have controlled at least one branch of government; they were underwritten in their rule by the biggest of businesses; they were backed by a robust social movement with chapters across the radio dial. Still they remain the victims, the outsiders; they fight the power, the establishment, the snobs, the corrupt. John McCain rails against Washington as the “city of Satan”—which in any sober theology would make him Lucifer’s lieutenant. Fred Barnes, the author of Rebel-in-Chief, is such a well-known Washington fixture that he hosts a TV show called The Beltway Boys. Karl Zinsmeister, the editor of a magazine published by the ultra-insiders at the American Enterprise Institute, reviled the people of the capital in 2004 as “morally repugnant, cheating, shifty human beings.” Soon afterward he was rewarded for his adherence to the fantasy by being appointed chief domestic-policy adviser to President Bush.
Conservatism-as-revolution was not always such a ridiculous idea. In the Fifties and Sixties, conservatism was widely regarded as a deluded relic of an earlier age. The Republican Party itself was dominated at that time by its moderate faction, which conservatives defeated only after a titanic struggle spanning many years. Then, in the Seventies, right-wing insurgencies spread across the country: conservative cliques took control of the Southern Baptists and the National Rifle Association, and in 1978 the first of a wave of tax revolts shook California. In 1981 came the turn of the College Republicans, where the right-wing takeover was led by none other than the future supercorruptionist Jack Abramoff. This uprising holds special significance for the historian, since it not only introduces us to the cast of characters who went on to dominate Washington during the Gingrich and Bush eras but also provides a window into the conservative soul.
The story begins in 1980, the year of the “Reagan Revolution,” when there appeared on the national scene a phenomenon that bewildered political observers: legions of politicized, energetic college students who were conservatives rather than liberals or radicals, as had been typical in the two decades previous. And not only were their politics deeply square but the idol of this unlikely youth craze was the oldest president ever. Reagan’s entire Pennsylvania campaign, for example, was run by a lad of twenty. In 1984, the aged actor won 60 percent of the college-student vote. The historical turnabout was irresistible, and Reagan Youth became one of the great journalistic clichés of the period, powering hundreds of newspaper columns and at least one beloved TV sitcom.
These sons of Reagan had a strong sense of generational self-awareness, and they loudly told the world how they had come by it. In the midst of the interminable Iran hostage crisis, a crowd of them at one college campus were supposedly so moved by a showing of Patton that they demonstrated spontaneously in favor of a nuclear attack on that country, shaking the ivory tower with chants of “First strike now!” Another well-known story of the era was how a bunch of privileged kids at Dartmouth College, a traditional fortress of privilege, decided that embracing the traditional politics of privilege and mimicking the traditional manners of the privileged were actually acts of great daring, exposing them to persecution by tyrannical liberals. Then there was Jack Abramoff, a College Republican leader in the Boston area who gained, according to the John Birch Society’s Review of the News, a “reputation as one of the most innovative of the national Conservative youth leaders” after he mounted such a massive grassroots push for Reagan in 1980 that he almost single-handedly shifted Massachusetts into the Republican column.
Abramoff, a burly fellow from Beverly Hills, came to Washington in 1981 to assume the chairmanship of the College Republican National Committee. Back in the Vietnam days it had been leftists who fought the power, he explained to reporters. But “now we’re the campus radicals.” His newly energized College Republicans (CRs) fanned out across the nation, instructing clean-cut kids on how to use the tactics of the Sixties left for their own causes. A snapshot of Abramoff using a bullhorn to rally a conservative throng was proudly reproduced in the CRs’ Annual Report for 1983, just across the page from a photo of Ralph Reed, who was then Abramoff’s right-hand man, pumping his fist at the head of a swarm of angry, sign-waving conservatives. In both instances the young men had gone into action wearing neckties.
It was Abramoff’s friend Grover Norquist, then a recent graduate of Harvard Business School, who came up with a plan for changing the very nature of the College Republicans. Norquist made a study of the CRs, developing a scheme to transform them from “a resume-padding social club,” as one account puts it, into “an ideological, grassroots organization.” Abramoff made Nor-quist the College Republicans’ executive director, and the two put Norquist’s theory into action. They purged the “old guard.” They amended the group’s constitution, establishing a structure that made the Washington office more powerful, and rewarded proselytizing on campus.
What the rising conservative sensibility of those years treasured above all else was “confrontation” with the left. It called for a quasi-military victory over liberalism; it would have no truck with civility or fair play; and it made heroes out of outrage-courting lib-fighters like Reagan’s communications director Pat Buchanan, the organizer Howard Phillips, and the young Jack Abramoff.
The first and most noticeable characteristic of this new militancy was an air of swaggering truculence. There are, of course, bullies from every walk of life and every political persuasion, but on the right bullying holds a special, exalted position. It is no accident that two of the movement’s greatest heroes—Tom DeLay and Oliver North—had the same nickname: “the Hammer.”
Jack Abramoff filled this bill perfectly. He had reportedly been something of a bully in high school and had now grown into a “hard-charging” and “dynamic” leader, in the assessment of conservative magazines, an ass-kicking weight lifter who could quiet the commies with his fists if they got out of line. The gangster fetish of his later years is by now familiar to the whole world—his constant references to The Godfather, his black trench coat and fedora, his Meyer Lansky memorabilia, the murderer argot that will no doubt serve him and his friends well during their prison years.
Abramoff himself derided the moderates he had ousted from control of the CRs as “wishy-washy country-clubbers” and insisted that he had transformed the organization into an “ideological, well-trained, aggressive, conservative” outfit. “Fighting the Left with a goal of victory” became the official, stated purpose of his College Republican cadres, according to an essay Abramoff wrote for the group’s 1983 Annual Report. The CRs were “fighting America’s last stand,” he blustered; they would “defund the enemy wherever possible,” one of his lieutenants added. According to the journalist Nina Easton, CR officers had their underlings memorize the gory opening monologue from the movie Patton, only with the word “Demo crat” standing in for the word “Nazi.” Other young rightists of the period went a step further. J. Michael Waller, the editor of the Sequent, a student paper at George Washington University, actually took breaks from red-baiting professors in order to zip down to Central America and hang out with the Nicaraguan Contras and the death-squad faction in El Salvador.
War was the order of the day, from President Reagan’s fight with the air-traffic controllers right down to the college campus, where Abramoff became famous for his declaration: “It is not our job to seek peaceful coexistence with the Left. Our job is to remove them from power permanently.” War plus revolution, actually. Abramoff liked to describe his CRs as “the sword and shield of the Reagan Revolution,” and in 1984 the young firebrand used his moment at the rostrum of the G.O.P. convention in Dallas to lecture the assembled small-business types on revolutionary theory.
Whether the small-business types grasped it or not, a revolution was indeed under way. Conservative politicians had long served business interests, and so businesspeople had long tended to be conservatives, but now would come a new turn: conservatism as business, conservatism as a source of profit for the people Jack Abramoff once referred to as “political entrepreneurs.”
In its embryonic form, conservatism-as-industry consisted mainly in peddling right-wing grievances to the like-minded. In those days there were dealers in precious metals who used a towering contempt for liberalism as a sales pitch for gold coins. There were outfits raising money to help beleaguered conservative politicians who were in fact not beleaguered and had not asked for the help. There were anti-union charities and even fake anti-union charities, all of them capitalizing on the keen hatred for labor shared by so many businessmen. “There was so much money ready for conservative organizations in the United States,” said Spitz Channell, a freelance conservative fund-raiser later involved in the Iran-Contra scandal, that the problem was finding “ways to spend that money.”
Abramoff quickly established himself as an entrepreneur with promise. When the “campus radical” took over as the CRs’ chairman in 1981, the group’s budget came directly from the Republican National Committee. That had been sufficient for the old CRs, who liked to party and aimed to anger nobody. But Abramoff started to complain about the arrangement in his first year. And he schemed to achieve autonomy. He didn’t want “to be the youth arm of the Republican National Committee,” his onetime lieutenant David Miner remembers. He wanted
a very strong, viable organization. And instead of once a year sitting down with the budget director and the political director of the RNC and making a twenty-minute case about why they should donate $100,000 a year to the College Republicans, Jack decided he was going to run the College Republicans just like the Republican National Committee was run: he was going to have his own direct mail list, he was going to have prominent members of Congress sign letters for him, and he was going to raise his own money. That’s a pretty bold statement for someone to do at twenty-two years old.
It was so bold, in fact, that it infuriated the RNC officials charged with supervising the college auxiliary. They kicked the CRs out of their building.
No matter. Under Abramoff’s leadership, enthusiasm was high, membership soared, and revenues quintupled; what’s more, fully 70 percent of that income came from individual donors, dwarfing contributions from the RNC itself. “Jack was a very creative, smart executive,” Miner told me. He was “a hell of a CEO.”Before Abramoff’s name became so poisonous, most College Republicans regarded this era as their finest hour. In 2001, then-chairman Scott Stewart introduced the lobbyist to the CRs’ convention as “probably the best national chairman we’ve ever had.”
As entrepreneurs are supposed to do, Abramoff and Norquist opened themselves to the market, setting up incentives for growth and looking for investors outside the parent organization. And what did the College Republicans have to offer these investors, these donors? Outrage. Activism. The right-wing position rammed home with force. To see college kids in the street, chanting the slogans of the hard right—this was a spectacle for which older Republicans, angered by what they had seen in the Sixties, were willing to pay a great price. And Abramoff’s CRs delivered, with constant protests in Washington and a series of insulting posters, the most famous of which slyly implied that liberals were communist dupes.
I have managed to unearth a single specimen of direct mail from the CRs’ Abramoff period, and it is typical of the genre circa 1983: by turns chummy, frightening, confiding, and apocalyptic. As was common in those days, the letter is signed by an elected official—in this case by New York Representative Jack Kemp, then the best-known conservative in Congress. (Today Kemp advises John McCain on economic policy.) It pleads with the recipient to “dig down deep” for the College Republicans, led by “my good friend Jack Abramoff.” And why should Mr. and Mrs. America give to Jack Abramoff’s CRs, of all groups? Because, according to Kemp, they are “the most important Republican organization in America today,” prepared to do all manner of grassroots electioneering in the upcoming 1984 contest. And why should the reader care about that? Because “our nation is in grave danger of sliding into another depression” should liberals be permitted to resume their tax-and-spend ways. “That’s right,” Kemp warned. “A depression worse than the so-called Great Depression.” Thankfully, though, Jack Abramoff and his “dedicated group of young leaders . . . understand what must be done to return economic prosperity to America.”
The larger mechanism CEO Abramoff used to break free from his stodgy, moderate Republican elders was a tax-exempt fund-raising group called the United Students of America Foundation (a.k.a. the USA Foundation, or sometimes just USAF), which was technically nonpartisan but in reality simply added its voice to whatever cause the CRs happened to be pushing. While direct mail solicited funds from individual conservatives, the USA Foundation allowed Abramoff and his crew to go after hefty contributions from the real powers of American conservatism: corporations. And with the support of corporate money came, wouldn’t you know it, support for corporate-friendly causes in the world at large.
Going freelance, as Abramoff did with the USA Foundation, soon became a popular career move among the sons of Reagan. Ralph Reed launched a group called Students for America, a Southern outfit designed to bring evangelicals into the conservative mix. Students for a Better America, which warred on liberal professors, was set up by Steve Baldwin, also a onetime Abramoff lieutenant. The Conservative Youth Federation of America was launched by Amy Moritz, yet another Abramoff associate. And let us not forget the Conservative Action Foundation, the Conservative Student Support Foundation, and the mysterious Young Conservative Foundation, “America’s premier Human Rights organization.”
It was through the USA Foundation that Abramoff seems to have discovered the profitable side of politics. The occasion for this discovery was the College Republicans’ ongoing war with Ralph Nader’s Public Interest Research Groups (PIRGs), student-activist outfits that were set up in the Seventies and funded at most colleges by “activity fees” that all students were required to pay unless they checked a box on a form. This was the point on which the CRs challenged them, insisting on campus after campus that it was “sinful and tyrannical” to compel students to fund an obviously political organization.
Like other Nader groups, the student PIRGs were something of a nuisance for business, and at some point it apparently occurred to Abramoff or Norquist that defunding and thus “killing” campus PIRG chapters was a service for which the targeted businesses ought to be paying. So the young entrepreneurs of the USA Foundation got out there and sold themselves as political hit men. According to one 1986 study, by the journalist Allan Nairn, the group managed to collect tribute from canning and bottling companies, two oil companies, an electric company (PIRGs were then working to set up utility watchdog groups), Amway, Coors, an assortment of San Francisco landlords worried about the possibility of rent control, and the Campbell Soup Company, which paid the USA Foundation to undermine a campus support group for a migrant farmworkers’ union. It was pug nacity for pay.
The USA Foundation’s motto was “Promoting a free market of ideas on the nation’s campuses,” and here we encounter yet another of the Washington right’s signature lines. Like so many conservative ideas—anticommunism, for example—it sounds fine at first. A “free market of ideas” sounds like “free inquiry” or a “free exchange of ideas,” an environment in which hypotheses are tested and bad ones are weeded out while good ones go on to earn the respect of the community of scholars. But this is not what the phrase means at all. Markets do not determine the objective merit of things, only their price, which is to say, their merit in the eyes of large corporations and the very wealthy.
The point, and the profit, was in getting the people with money to understand which ideas served their common interests, which ones didn’t, and then to act together as a class—supporting the good ideas and crushing the liberal ones. This was a plan with legs: When I spoke to Grover Norquist in 2006, he was still insisting that businesses had to be instructed on big-picture thinking, on the amazing returns to be realized through funding conservatism. By then, of course, Grover Norquist was no longer some campus activist; he was the architect of the most effective defund-the-left program Washington has ever seen. And his old friend Jack Abramoff was on his way to jail.
Side by side with the Entrepreneur in those days stood another great conservative hero: the Freedom Fighter, a ragged warrior who had, according to myth, spontaneously taken up arms against communism in Third World countries around the globe. American conservatives came to love these freedom fighters intensely, and for a simple reason. These tough anticommunists in faraway lands validated the conservatives’ most cherished fantasies of the Sixties turned right-side up. The freedom fighters proved it: Reagan’s revolution was for real.
Traditional conservatives had generally regarded anticommunist guerrilla movements as necessary evils, doing important if ugly work. The transforming fire of Reaganism, however, turned all such cutthroats and mercenaries into patriots. It was our guys who were the heroic underdogs now, disrespected and ill-supplied, going up against the high-tech, organization-men monsters of the Soviet Union—and, of course, its liberal proxies here in the United States.
The peerless darling of the freedom-fighter fan club was Jonas Savimbi, the charismatic Angolan guerrilla leader whose every utterance seemed to strike young Eighties conservatives as a timeless profundity. Angola had been one of the very last countries in Africa to be freed from colonial domination, but, unlike seemingly every other “national liberator” in the preceding decades, Savimbi was not a communist. In Angola, the communists were the ones who grabbed power in the capital as soon as the Europeans left; Savimbi, who fought them with the backing of the apartheid government in South Africa, supposedly believed in free enterprise and balanced budgets.
Conservatives were smitten with this self-titled general who struggled for free markets in his remote land. They fell for Savimbi as romantically, and as guilelessly, as Sixties radicals once did for Che, Ho, and Huey. Savimbi was “one of the few authentic heroes of our time,” roared Jeane Kirkpatrick, queen of the neocons, when she introduced him at the 1986 Conservative Political Action Conference. Grover Norquist followed the great man around his camp in Angola, preparing magazine articles for Savimbi’s signature. Jack Abramoff made a movie about Savimbi, depicting him as a tougher, African version of Gan- dhi. Even Savimbi’s capital—the remote camp called “Jamba”—was described in conservative literature with elevated language such as “Savimbi’s Kingdom.”
In truth, Savimbi’s main achievement was to keep going, for nearly thirty years, a civil war that made Angola one of the worst places on earth—its population impoverished, its railroads and highways and dams in ruins, its countryside strewn with land mines by the millions, even its elephant herds wiped out, their tusks hacked off to raise funds for his army.
This was the man the rebel right chose for the starring role in one of the strangest spectacles in American political history, a media event designed to cement conservatism’s identification with revolution. The organizer was Jack Abramoff; the place was Jamba; the model, I am told, was Woodstock—only a right-wing version, with guerrillas instead of rock bands. Every kind of freedom fighter was there, joining hands in territory liberated by arms from a Soviet client regime. There were Nicaraguan Contras, some Afghan mujahedeen, an American tycoon—and they all got together at Savimbi’s hideout.
This “rumble in the jungle,” as skeptics called it, came to pass in June of 1985. Of course, bringing it off required considerable assistance from Savimbi’s South African patrons. Nobody else even knew how to find Jamba.
Since these freedom fighters had no actual issues to discuss—no trade agreements or mutual-defense plans or anything—they signed the Jamba Declaration, a bit of high-flown folderol written by Grover Norquist that aimed for solemnity but sounded more like the work of a fifth-grader who has been forced to memorize the Gettysburg Address and the Declaration of Independence and has got them all jumbled up somehow.
Jamba was meant as a celebration of freedom, a word revered by Americans generally and a term of enormous significance to conservatives in particular. Yet as freedom’s embodiment Abramoff had chosen a terrorist: Jonas Savimbi, the leader of an armed cult. To fill the main supporting role in this great freedom-fest, meanwhile, the organizers turned to apartheid South Africa, a place where only a small, correctly complexioned percentage of the population possessed even the most basic democratic rights.
And here we encounter one of the right’s great lost causes. You don’t have to dig very deep into the conservative literature of the Eighties before you hit apartheid South Africa. Today the issue makes conservatives uncomfortable, naturally, and few of them will own up to the passion with which they once worked to rationalize that government or to vilify its foes. But in those days, South Africa’s agonizing racial problems, its prosperous but beleaguered business community, and its stout defiance of all things communist made it a potent symbol for American conservatives: South Africa was essentially like us, and yet the liberals, with their sanctions and divestment strategies, with their airy do-gooder moralism, were prepared to sell out this loyal friend, just as they had sold out so many others.
As it happened, Jack Abramoff had visited South Africa in 1983 to meet with student leaders, presumably including Russel Crystal, who headed an energetic right-wing outfit on that nation’s campuses. Crystal was a sort of South African doppelgänger to Abramoff, echoing not only the American’s tactical thinking but his combative style as well. In the early Eighties, Crystal’s group declared “all-out war” on its campus adversaries, who, he said, were “undermining the will of the Western world”; on one occasion his followers reportedly threatened a peaceful left-wing demonstration with baseball bats. Just like the College Republicans, Crystal’s student organization spent heavily, and Crystal boasted about its financial “support from the business community.”
One month after Jamba, Crystal’s student group hosted a second right-wing Woodstock, bringing together conservative college students from around the world. The event was called “Youth for Freedom,” and a “Dear Delegate” letter given to each participant explained its purpose: It was 1985, the U.N.’s “International Youth Year,” and high-minded youth congresses were happening all over the world—most of them “under the leadership of . . . communist front organisations . . . to propagate their own marxist/leninist agenda.” The duty of the righteous was obvious: “to gather the true defenders of liberty and freedom”; to ponder “the security and prosperity of the free world”; and to draft a statement to which “conservative students worldwide” might rally. Norquist, Abramoff,Although Abramoff is listed as the very last speaker on the official “Youth for Freedom” program, none of the attendees I talked to remember seeing him there. and a gaggle of College Republicans made up the American contingent. Color was added by a representative of the German extreme right. (Bonus points: he had been a U-boat captain during World War II.) The delegates listened to a denunciation of divestment. They received an expensively printed booklet about the martial and philosophical achievements of Jonas Savimbi. After the conference, the kids were given a treat: some of the “youth for freedom” got to go to a military base to see a riot-control demonstration.
Coverage of the conclave in the South African press focused on the lavishness of the proceedings and the great expense involved in flying everyone to Johannesburg. The participants stayed in the finest hotel in the city, and the conference provided a squad of interpreters and a video crew to document it all. Obviously, Russel Crystal’s tiny student group couldn’t have paid for all of this by itself, and Crystal himself kept mum about the financing. But other freedom-youths confirmed that the gathering had been
at least partly funded by South African corporate concerns, in the now-familiar political-entrepreneur pattern: “The business community in South Africa is very enthused about any face-lift possibility that they can gain,” one of the organizers told Allan Nairn.
Out of the Youth for Freedom conference came an organization called Liberty and Democracy International, which didn’t last long, perhaps because of the neck-snapping contradiction between its dreamy title and its South African reality. Out of that organization, in 1986, came the International Freedom Foundation—the IFF—the strangest scheme hatched to that point by the sons of Reagan for bringing the power of money to bear on politics and the world of ideas.
Not one of the many former IFFers I contacted, either in the United States or in South Africa, would consent to an interview, but we do know the most basic facts about the group. According to the official report of the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission, the duties of the IFF included supporting Jonas Savimbi and fighting trade sanctions against South Africa. The IFF’s head office was in Washington, where Abramoff served as executive director. But the shots were called by the organization’s South African branch, headed by Russel Crystal. There was an office in London and, eventually, one in West Germany. We also know that the IFF was an expensive proposition and that the apartheid government spent millions of dollars propping it up. The group hosted speakers, conferences, and presentations; it published several magazines and a flock of newsletters; its principals constantly traveled the globe, spreading their toxic trinity of “Liberty, Security, Prosperity.”
The Washington branch of the IFF, it seems, was particularly successful at courting politicians. The group’s “advisory board” listed, among others, Senator Jesse Helms and Representatives Phil Crane, “B-1 Bob” Dornan, James Inhofe (a stout family-values supporter), and “Buz” Lukens (an egregious family-values violator). The group also tried their hand at influence-buying. In 1987, the IFF’s Washington office requested $450,000 from South Africa in order to buy a jet plane for the presidential campaign of Jack Kemp, then the idol of the conservative movement. According to internal IFF documents, this bauble would be an investment sufficient to make Abramoff’s gang “the ‘kitchen cabinet’ types of the Kemp administration.” The South Africans turned the proposal down, realizing even then what a long shot Kemp was.
The IFF made no direct attempt to justify apartheid, for the simple reason that racism as a philosophy of government was flatly irredeemable in the West. Instead the IFF aimed to tarnish apartheid’s enemies, “to paint the ANC as a proj ect of the international department of the Soviet Communist Party.” This was merely a large-scale replay of the political entrepreneurship we saw at the USA Foundation, with Jack and the gang yet again hiring themselves out to a wealthy client to perform a hit on a troublesome left-wing group. High points in this campaign included hearings by the House Republican Study Committee in 1987 to blame “the plight of the children of South Africa” on the commie-terrorist ANC; reports playing up the ANC’s commie-derived taste for atrocities against kids; newspaper ads designed to throw cold water on Nelson Mandela during his triumphant visit to America in 1990; and an endless war on Ted Kennedy, a leading proponent of the 1986 sanctions against South Africa.
The real, confessed éminence grise behind the IFF was South Africa’s infamous “superspy” Craig Williamson, a man whose bloody escapades deserve an entire volume in the annals of Cold War espionage. Williamson infiltrated South Africa’s main leftist student group in the Seventies and rose to its leadership; he used the connections thus made to assist in the imprisonment and murder of the movement’s other leaders. A respected South African historian, asked for his opinion of the man, said simply, “Craig Williamson was the scum of the twentieth century. He murdered friends of mine. I spit on the ground he walks on.”
When the IFF’s true identity was exposed in 1995, the Americans questioned by the media denied any knowledge of its ugly provenance. In most cases this was plausible enough; after all, the basic principle of a clandestine operation is secrecy. But Jack Abramoff almost certainly knew. Still, he denied it—“categorically,” he exclaimed—when the truth came out. Plus, he had an explanation for all the bad press: “It’s pay-back time in South Africa.”
The single biggest scandal of the Eighties resulted from a confluence of the two great conservative themes I have been describing: the “freedom fighter” mentality and the cult of political entrepreneurship.
The outlines of the Iran-Contra story are well known. President Reagan’s CIA was waging a “secret” war against the Sandinista government of Nicaragua; the Democratic Congress understandably objected, as we were technically at peace with that nation, and, in 1983, cut off funds to the CIA-backed Contras. Over at the National Security Council, however, Marine Lieutenant-Colonel Oliver North came up with a scheme to get money to the Contras anyway, using a network of private donors, weapons sales to Iran, and private supply operations. He also organized behind-the-scenes efforts to lobby Congress to change its mind.
Quite early on in the annals of Iran-Contra our pioneering political entrepreneurs make their inevitable appearance. Jack Abramoff crops up in North’s notebook for February 14, 1985, his name misspelled but the beginnings of a great lobbyist unmistakable. On March 26, Abramoff showed up on a list of people helping North to influence the upcoming Contra-aid vote in Congress. Later that day, Abramoff phoned North and told him that a number of “votes” were available in exchange for some or other favor.
We do not ordinarily remember Iran-Contra for the business opportunities it generated, but in the long, winding history of conservatism-as-industry it remains a particularly instructive chapter. The aforementioned political entrepreneur Spitz Channell, for example, sensed the Contras’ potential early on and used them to become the most successful fund-raiser in all of Washington, circa 1985. Channell’s marks were conservative widows; he made his pitches in person, often using a scary slide show put together by Oliver North about the dangers of Nicaraguan communism. Not only did his donors reap tax write-offs by giving to one of the “nonprofit” groups Channell had set up but they sometimes got to meet President Reagan too, a favor the fund-raiser arranged simply by throwing some change to one of the president’s former aides.
None of this put much money into the pockets of the Contras, though. On the right, the fund-raiser typically prospers, even if the cause does not. And Channell was a professional; he later admitted that he became interested in Nicaragua only after he noticed how the subject ticked off rich folks. He proceeded to take the customary profiteering to dizzy entrepreneurial heights. Of the $12 million raked in by Channell’s empire of fund-raising organs in 1985 and 1986, it is estimated that only $2.7 million actually made it to the Contras. Huge sums were diverted to Channell’s friends, his lover, and his friends’ lovers. All the middlemen between here and Managua took a cut, too.
Iran-Contra was the scandal with the Midas touch, and it continued to rain money on the faithful even after the whole rotten operation had been rolled up. One day in July 1987, as the Dem ocrats in Congress screeched hysterically about the White House and its illegal foreign policy, Ollie North put on his uniform, stood before the cameras, raised his hand, and summoned up a backlash that ultimately crushed the liberals and brought a flood of prosperity to the political entrepreneurs of the right.
Jack Abramoff’s IFF, for example, started selling copies of an Ollie North videotape made up of a slide show that was almost certainly the one Spitz Channell had used to scare his dotards, advertising it with a photo of the stern-faced Marine testifying before “the so-called Iran/Contra congressional committee.” Oliver North videotapes eventually became something of an industry unto themselves, but the one made by Abramoff, titled Telling It Like It Is, is almost certainly the only bit of filmed entertainment ever to be dedicated “to the memory of William J. Casey,” the CIA director made famous by his unabashed contempt for Congress.
The trade in Olliana boomed for years, as the persecuted patriot was indicted for his crimes and came to require a legal-defense fund (and also, apparently, a host of fake legal-defense funds). Jerry Falwell compared Ollie to Jesus Christ. There were Oliver North keychains and pocketknives and T-shirts and eventually even a TV show in which Ollie told America the secrets of war. There was the usual round of plunder, as funds raised to help Ollie stayed with the fund-raisers instead. And inevitably there was “Ollie, Inc.,” as the man himself went into the nonprofit direct-mail business. By 1994, when he ran for a Senate seat in Virginia, Oliver North had become the most successful political fund-raiser in the land, bringing in some $20 million over the course of his campaign. Remarkably, he lost anyway.
Prodigious though they may seem, these acts of retail profiteering were minuscule compared with the colossal entrepreneurial gambit that the Iran-Contra investigation revealed. The insiders called it “the Enterprise”: private money, raised through the sale of government favors and property, would go to fund private armies of “freedom fighters” operating overseas. The ultimate aim of the Enterprise, as envisioned by CIA Director Casey, was privatization on the grandest scale imaginable: the construction of a foreign-policy instrument that was free from the meddling of Congress, financed by sales of weapons and another precious commodity that government had in abundance but had hitherto been reluctant to market—access.
The Enterprise eventually fell apart under congressional scrutiny, but fifteen years later this very bad idea was back again in even more grandiose form: a vast selling-off of government favors to those willing to fund the conservative movement, a wholesale transfer of government responsibilities to private-sector contractors, and even private armies, unaccountable to Congress or to anyone else.
Today industry conservatism includes specialists in dozens of fields. There are professionals and amateurs; those who do it because they’re paid to do it and those who do it because their eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Entrepreneur. It includes establishment firms and feisty start-ups, megacontractors taking billions to do work that the government used to do itself for far less, young men with a nice smile and a single client— who just wants to do a little clear-cutting out West somewhere. In conservative circles you encounter entrepreneurs both formally and casually, at carefully programmed events laying out the opportunities for profit opened up by Hurricane Katrina, or in conversation at a banquet celebrating some right-wing anniversary or other. At one such event in 2004, waiting for the presentation of a “Charlton Heston commemorative firearm,” I made the backslapping acquaintance of a freelance motivational speaker who, upon discovering that one of my tablemates was an officer of the Transportation Security Administration, immediately sought his confirmation that “we’re gonna privatize that, right?”
For some in winger Washington this is an idealistic business, but what gives it power and longevity is that it is a profitable business. I mean this not as polemic but as a statement of fact. Washington swarms with conservative ideologues not because conservatives particularly like the place but because there is an entire industry here that supports these people—an industry subsidized by the nation’s largest corporations and its richest families, and the government too. We are all familiar with the flagship organizations—Cato, Heritage, AEI—but the industry extends far beyond these, encompassing numerous magazines and literally hundreds of lobbying firms. There is even a daily newspaper—the Washington Times—published strictly for the movement’s benefit, a propaganda sheet whose distortions are so obvious and so alien that it puts one in mind of those official party organs one encounters when traveling in authoritarian countries.
There are political strategists, pollsters, campaign managers, trainers of youth, image consultants, makers of TV commercials, revolutionaries-for-hire, and, of course, direct-mail specialists who still launch their million-letter raids on the mailboxes of the heartland. Remember the guy who wrote all those sputtering diatribes for your college newspaper? Chances are he’s in D.C. now, thinking big thoughts from an endowed chair, or churning out more of the brilliant usual for one of the movement’s many blogs. The campus wingnut whose fulminations on the Red Menace so amused my friends and me at the University of Virginia, for example, resurfaced here as a columnist for the Washington Times before transitioning inevitably into consultancy. A friend of mine who went to Georgetown recently recalled for me the capers of his campus wingnut, whom he had completely forgotten until the guy made headlines as the lead culprit in a minor 2004 scandal called “Memogate.” Later he worked for the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad, teaching democratic civics to Iraqi politicians.
There is so much money in conservatism these days that Karl Rove rightly boasts, “We can now go to students at Harvard and say, ‘There is now a secure retirement plan for Republican operatives.’” The young people who, like Jack Abramoff before them, have answered conservatism’s call over the past three decades were obeying their conscience, perhaps, but they were also making a canny career move.
Canny career moves are just about all we can expect from conservative government these days: tax breaks for wealthy benefactors, wars started and maintained for the benefit of American industry, fat contracts granted to the clients of the right consultant. Like Bush and Reagan before him, John McCain is a self-proclaimed outsider, but should he win in November he will merely bring us more of the same: an executive branch fed by, if not actually made up of, lobbyists and other angry, righteous profiteers. Washington itself will remain what it has been—not a Babylon that corrupts our pure-hearted right-wingers but the very seat of their Industry Conservatism, constantly seething and effervescing, with tens of thousands of individuals coming and going, each avidly piling up his own tidy pile but between them engaged in an awesome common project.
Take a step back, reader, and see what they have wrought.
Thomas Frank is the author of four books, including What’s the Matter with Kansas? and the forthcoming The Wrecking Crew (Metropolitan Books), from which this essay is adapted.
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