Alex Gibney heads Jigsaw Productions and is the executive producer, director, and writer of the new movie “Casino
Jack and the United States of Money,” which tells the story of Washington lobbying through Jack Abramoff’s rise to power. Gibney’s other credits include “Taxi to the Dark Side,” which won the Academy Award for Best Documentary, “Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room,” and “The Trials Of Henry Kissinger.”
My research associate Caryn Freeman recently interviewed Gibney when he was in Washington and asked him six questions about his new movie. This interview was edited for length and clarity.
1. Early in the film the question is raised, has Washington “always been like this” or did something change with Abramoff?” Has it always been like this? Is the buying and selling of politicians just the free market in action?
Yes, it’s always been like this in the sense that money has always had a powerful influence over policy but no it’s never been this bad. The reason why is that now elections are so titanically expensive, the fact that members of Congress spend one-third to one-half of their time raising money. That’s a completely insane idea in terms of what the framers had imagined. It’s also a terrifying prelude to corruption because if you have to raise that much money, you have to go to the people that will give it to you, and that is the free market in action.
2. Was money the cornerstone of the College Republican ideology when Abramoff, Grover Norquist, and Karl Rove were involved in the organization? Was money their way of rebelling against the ethos of the sixties? Was their de-regulation agenda solely a means to make money or were they corrupt all along the way?
Yeah, I think is was. They had two key ideas: one was Anti-Soviet. The Soviet Union represented the opposition to capitalism, so crush the Soviets and tear down all rules and regulations so that the market could work it’s magic. The other idea was that deregulation would lead to a better world. In their view, instead of corrupt politicians handing out favors from the government you’d have the market acting as the mechanism for the invisible hand of Adam Smith. The best ideas will win and the market will always reflect that; that was their vision.
What’s interesting about that vision as an idealistic vision is that it takes you to somewhere very cynical, which is then it’s OK to buy and sell politicians like sneakers. That’s kind of delusional because greed becomes a noble purpose. They knew that deregulation would lead to money but they thought that was a good thing.
What they were naive about is that when you have the law of the jungle, you end up with a few fat lions that feast on a lot of sheep. Corruption ends up being an insider’s game and that’s how they played it. It became about buying and selling influence and keeping other people out.
3. There is corruption on both sides of the aisle. Do you think Abramoff would have been able to do this if Democrats controlled Congress? Or without Tom Delay?
No, they wouldn’t have. Tom DeLay was absolutely critical to what Abramoff was doing. He was a guy who believed in the power of money and he was willing to let Abramoff market him. He was willing to have Abramoff go out and say, “I have access to Tom DeLay, pay me and you can get him.” DeLay had the power and he was willing to sell it.
4. Would Abramoff have been exposed if his fees weren’t so inflated? It sounds like there was a lot of jealousy on K Street about how much money Abramoff’s network of companies was pulling in.
That’s what brought him down and it’s ironic because it was not some deep offense at his corrupt behavior. What brought him down was the fact that he was charging so much and taking all the clients. You have to look at that and say, why were they paying him so much money? He didn’t go into the Indian casinos in the middle of the night and take the money out of a safe; they gave it to him, because he promised the tribes an access they had never had before. The film doesn’t view the tribes as a monolithic community. Some of the people who helped expose Abramoff were dissident members of the tribes who thought he was ripping them off. The huge fees he charged got him in trouble not only with fellow lobbyists but also with some Indians. It put him on everyone’s radar.
5. Is it possible to run the government without lobbyists?
I don’t think lobbyists are evil. Lobbyists are efficient. You can’t have four million people standing in line to see a Congressmen or Senator for a couple of minutes each, so lobbyists are necessary and everyone should have the right to petition the government. The problem is combining lobbyists with money and this desperate need that politicians have for that money. Then it’s no longer the power of the argument it’s the power of the pocket book. Politicians should get paid more, it would keep them from being corrupt.
6. Has anything seriously changed in Washington with lobbying reform? Will there always be loopholes in the system?
There will always be loopholes, but that’s not a reason to not try to pass reform laws. But there hasn’t been fundamental reform in Washington. There is a ban now on sit down meals so everyone stands, that’s nibbling around the edges. The big problem is the money. You have to set limits on fundraising, you have to have a system for public finance and you have to set limits on spending. It’s like a nuclear arms race. At some point everybody has to agree to limits. In 2008, the candidate with the most money won ninety-three percent of the time in the House and ninety-four percent of the time in the Senate. I can’t believe that is what the framers had in mind.