“Gimme five!” US Republicans’ amoral minority

Godfrey Hodgson
27 June 2005

The Cherokee Indians, a “civilised” tribe in the language of the day, many of whom converted to Christianity and wore dresses and trousers, were the victims of one of the most shameful crimes of 19th-century America. They were driven west from their traditional hunting-grounds in the southern Appalachians along what was called the “trail of tears”. Now their allies, the Choctaw, are the victims of less lethal but still scandalous mistreatment.

They have been ripped off, to the tune of tens of millions of dollars; not by any old snake-oil salesmen, but by a pair of fast-talking palefaces who sit at the very top table of the Republican conservative ascendancy that rules Washington.

The unravelling scam is a reminder that the Bush administration represents not only the hopes of millions of plain folk for a return to a more godly America, but also the cynical manipulation of those yearnings by a cabal of insiders. Their motto is “gimme five!” (or, “where’s my cut?”). It may go down in history along with Watergate or the 1924 Teapot Dome scandal as the symbol of a corrupt political environment of the kind that can discredit a party - or a presidency.

The K-street cartel

“Gimme five” was a joke between the two Washington lobbyists, Jack Abramoff and Michael Scanlon, about how they would distribute money paid by an Indian tribe to represent them. So much would go to one conservative cause, so much to another. And “gimme five!”

The part of the iceberg that has surfaced so far concerns the way Abramoff, lawyer-turned-lobbyist, and Mike Scanlon, former spokesman for the Republican majority leader in the House of Representatives, used the spectacular wealth of the casinos operated in the Mississippi Delta by the Choctaws as a sort of bank to buy influence in Washington.

They spent it lavishly to bankroll what they considered good causes, all the way from fake Christian anti-gambling phone-banks to discredit the Choctaws’ competitors, to a scheme for selling night scopes to Israeli snipers. Needless to say, they rewarded themselves richly for these public-spirited enterprises.

Jack Abramoff and Mike Scanlon, it must be understood, are not just anyone. Abramoff, in particular, has been for a quarter of a century an insider of insiders in the conservative project. His closest political friend since they organised conservative students in Massachusetts to vote for Ronald Reagan in 1980 is Grover Norquist, head of the lobbying group Americans for Tax Reform and the Bush White House’s favourite guru on tax and economic policy.

A close associate since they ran the national conservative student organisation College Republicans in the 1980 election is Ralph Reed, baby-faced founder of the immensely influential Christian Coalition of America. Reed, who is running for lieutenant-governor of Georgia, was handed $4 million of the Choctaws’ money at Abramoff’s bidding.

Another beneficiary of Abramoff’s generosity and the skim from those casinos in the Delta is a hero to the conservative legions, Tom “the Hammer” DeLay, Republican majority leader and widely regarded as the most powerful member of the House of Representatives.

DeLay is feared for the way he punishes all dissent. He has pursued a ruthless policy of redistricting the boundaries of congressional districts in Texas to gain several seats for the Republicans there. DeLay is now in serious trouble with the ethics committee in congress; one of his problems concerns a junket to visit London and play golf at St. Andrews which turns out to have been paid for by Abramoff’s Choctaw clients.

Needless to say DeLay and his public relations bodyguard vociferously deny wrongdoing and profess to be devastated that the congressman is unable to clear his name because his case is still under investigation.

Indeed, the story reaches as far as the Oval office itself, since Abramoff is accused of charging one of his Indian clients $25,000 to set up a meeting with President Bush.

The American media has long been ultra-cautious in criticising the Bush administration and its “colourful” friends, and indeed even in reporting criticisms of them; but in the last few days it has started lifting the lid on some of the shenanigans of Abramoff and fellow-denizens of “K Street”, as the opulent tribe of Washington lobbyists is collectively known.

As in earlier Washington scandals, farcical excesses and bemused walk-on characters from real life are surfacing. Abramoff’s partner Scanlon, for example, set up a spoof think-tank “determined” (as its literature explained) “to influence global paradigms in an increasingly complex world”. To this end, Scanlon is reported to have handed $2,500, small change on K Street, to a certain Brian Mann, a yoga instructor, and Brian Grosh, a lifeguard and beach buddy of Scanlon.

The scope of Abramoff’s web of influence and its cynical tone, however, cannot be dismissed as mere comedy. As the media get around to reporting them they reveal what aware observers in Washington have always understood: that the genuine patriotism, populism and piety of the moral majority who have now twice voted George W Bush into the White House have been manipulated by an amoral minority.

Money games and chariot wheels

Jack Abramoff grew up in Beverly Hills in a wealthy Orthodox Jewish family. Recently, on being proposed for membership of the prestigious Cosmos Club in Washington, he asked a friend to give him an award as a “scholar of Talmudic studies” to impress the club. No such thing, in Abramoff’s world, as waiting for people to give you an award unasked.

His father was the head of the Diner’s Club franchising operation and a close friend of Alfred Bloomingdale, one of Ronald Reagan’s “kitchen cabinet” of friends and financial backers. After starring as a wrestler and weight-lifter at high school in Beverly Hills, Jack went to Brandeis University in Boston, where he met Grover Norquist, who was doing an MBA degree at the Harvard Business School. Later he went to law school at Georgetown University.

Abramoff helped to organise support for Reagan in 1980, rose to prominence in the College Republicans, and hired Ralph Reed as an aide. After producing a Hollywood movie (an anti-Communist epic, naturally) Abramoff went to work as a Washington lawyer/lobbyist, first for Preston Gates Ellis & Rouvelas Meeds, later for Greenberg Traurig; both have since parted company with him. Abramoff is now being investigated by the press, as well as by two Senate committees.

Enter the curious phenomenon of Native Americans and gambling. In 1987 the Supreme Court, acting in a case involving no more than 25 members of an obscure Californian Indian tribe, the Cabazons, found that Indian nations were not bound by state laws restricting gambling. As a consequence, Indian gambling has grown from an industry with $100 million dollars of revenue in 1988 to a turnover of $16 billion today.

This strange anomaly has flourished almost everywhere in the United States - notably California, New York and Mississippi, which is now third in gambling revenue behind Nevada (Las Vegas) and New Jersey (Atlantic City).

The Native American leaders soon learned that it helped to contribute lavishly to politicians’ election funds: in 1998, after encountering difficulties with the Republican governor of California, Pete Wilson, they gave nearly $2 million to the Democratic challenger, Gray Davis. Since then, a few Native American leaders, working closely with lobbyists in Washington, have been able to generate vast flows of money supposedly to benefit all tribal members. Increasingly, Native Americans are asking where all this money goes.

Substantial sums seem to have gone to Abramoff and Scanlon. Indeed testimony in hearings conducted by Senate John McCain before the Senate Indian affairs committee suggest that Abramoff and Scanon treated the Mississippi Band of Choctaws and their casinos virtually as a bank. One credible estimate is that he and Scanlon have been paid a total of $66 million by their Indian clients; others say the total may have passed $80 million. Not that all the clients were Native Americans: another of Abramoff’s clients was President Mobutu of Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of Congo), and he also worked with the apartheid regime in South Africa and for Russian oligarchs.

Abramoff was not especially fond of his clients, the Coushatta of Louisiana as well as the Mississippi Choctaw. He has been known to call them "monkeys," "troglodytes," and "idiots". “I think the key thing to remember with all these clients”, he wrote in an email to Scanlon, “is that they are annoying, but that the annoying losers are the only ones which have this kind of money and part with it so quickly.” Gimme five!

It is possible that if the wheels come off President Bush’s chariot, it will be as much because of the spouting of revelations of the sordid reality behind his supporters’ conservative rhetoric as because of his mismanagement of Iraq.

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