Article — From the August 2008 issue

The Wrecking Crew

How a gang of right-wing con men destroyed Washington and made a killing

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.

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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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