While most who are commenting on the guilty pleas today of lobbyist Jack Abramoff are focusing on the sleaziness of his operation (and its effects on the political climate in Washington), I see the whole story as a tragedy in the classic sense of the term. Unlike most of those commenting on the affair, I know Jack, though it perhaps might be more accurate to say I knew Jack for the Jack Abramoff I knew when I was involved in College Republicans (CR) in the early 1980s bears little resemblance to the man who stood before a federal judge this morning. That said, given all that I have learned about his scandal, like Michelle Malkin, I “condemn his criminal activities unequivocally.” And agree with the White House that he “must be held to account for what he did.”
When I knew Jack, he was the idealistic national chairman of the College Republican National Committee. Not only did he encourage me to become more active in the group, but he also furthered my education, introducing me to a number of conservative and libertarian thinkers. Indeed, when I became state chairman of the Massachusetts College Republicans, he frequently sent me (and the other state chairmen) books and articles. He did not merely see the mission of College Republicans as helping elect Republicans, but also as promoting ideas. We were not merely to be the collegiate foot soldiers of the Reagan Revolution, we were also to be its advocates and intellectuals.
The Jack I knew (though not without his flaws) was a decent man. In the summer of 1983 when I was interning in DC, I asked Jack to join my parents and me for dinner when they were in town. So impressed were they by Jack that they asked about him for years after that meal. I recall how he charmed my very liberal mother, knowing exactly what to say so as not to offend her even when advocating some very conservative ideas. When I stepped down as state chairman to focus on my studies, not only did he thank me for my efforts, but he also sent a leter to my mother, telling her what a good job her son had done, regretting my decision. College Republicans, he said, would miss my leadership.
Jack was a true and gracious leader with a vision that went beyond merely promoting his party. He was eager as well to promote ideas and to help other bright young conservatives advance.
Given that promise, I am particularly saddened by his fall. (It’s one reason that though I have followed this story, I have not posted on it until today.) It’s not just the tale of another greedy lobbyist who did not know his limits, but of the fall of a man who once had a vision. And that is why it is a real tragedy. An idealist, a man of great promise, loses sight of his ideals in the pursuit of power or pecuniary rewards.
To be sure, Jack is not the first idealist to succumb to the lure of lucre. Nor will he will the last. Throughout history, noble men (& women) have given in to the appeal of easy wealth. And though some on the left will surely bloviate (indeed, may have already bloviated) on how this represents some kind of corruption inherent in conservatism (or the current GOP), it is rather a corruption inherent in human nature itself. Many on the left — just as many on the right — have set their principles (and ideals) aside in their greed for gain. Just as many of all political stripes have held onto their principles, their ideals rather than give in for the sake of easy wealth or increased power.
It is truly a tragedy when men of principle (and vision) fall. In the classic definition of the word, a tragedy is when a once-prosperous individual suffers misfortune due to a flaw on his part, a flaw for which he is responsible. For Jack, it appears that flaw was the desire to get more money through the scheme he had set up to tap into the wealth generated by tribal casinos. His fall is a tragedy not merely because of Jack’s idealism but also because, as my immediate predecessor as Massachusetts CR chairman (and Jack’s successor) put it, “Jack had the potential to do great things.”
He squandered that potential in his greed for gain.
Thus, this story is doubly sad for me, sad on a personal level, to see the fall of someone I once admired and considered a friend and sad because it shows a man of principle brought down by greed. I had thought it was political idealists who were the least likely to become corrupt.
And it makes me wonder if it could have happened to me. The last time I saw Jack was in 1995 when, just out of law school, I was looking for a job in politics or public policy in Washington. We met in the lobby of his firm’s office where I handed him a copy my resume and we exchanged pleasantries. We didn’t talk long. He said he’d keep his eyes open (for positions suitable to my talents and aspirations); I didn’t hear back from him. Perhaps had he helped me find work, I might have felt obligated to help him when he was looking for favors and gotten tangled up in the mess in which some of his friends (and at least one of my former CR colleagues) now find themselves. I would like to think while I’m always eager to help a friend (particularly one who has helped me) that my idealism and ethics would have prevented me from engaging in such behavior. But, Jack was both idealistic and a far more religious Jew than am I and look where is today.
Perhaps it is Jack’s faith which has made contrite today. When the scope of his crimes — and his own downfall — is made manifest to the tragic hero, he admits his wrong and accepts the penalty. In pleading guilty today, Jack showed such an attitude:
Words will not ever be able to express my sorrow and my profound regret for all my actions and mistakes. . . . I hope I can merit forgiveness from the Almighty and those I’ve wronged or caused to suffer.
It is the choices we make which define us as individuals. Jack forgot his ideals and lost sight of the ethical teachings of our faith and so today faces as many as thirty years behind bars. At least he recognizes that he is responsible for the bad choices he has made.
Given Jack’s idealism, I remain befuddled as his choices. He was never hurting for money when I knew him. And the sums he was pocketing seem far more than enough for a family to live in luxury (let alone comfort). It reminded me of a tale Peggy Noonan recounted as the Enron scandal was first coming to light. Certain retired executives of a corporation pressed for shares when their company went public, not because they needed the money, but because as the former CEO explained to her, “Everyone wants more.”
Democrats will try to dress this up a tale of the “culture of corruption” which, they believe, defines today’s Republican Party. But, it’s not that. It’s the tale of a corrupt Republican — and those he influenced. But, it’s more than that. It’s another unfortunate example of how the lure of increased power and wealth can corrupt even the most idealistic of individuals. We see more Republicans succumbing today than we do Democrats because our party has controlled Congress now for over our decade. We are the party in power. But, as American political history — and even the news of the day — shows, Democrats are not immune to this weakness. Even some of the most idealistic of their number.
And that to me is the real tragedy of Jack Abramoff’s fall. That a once promising man, a born leader, with strong and passionate beliefs and the ability to articulate them, could, like so many individuals throughout history, compromise his principles out of greed, not to gain money to feed his family or educate his children, but because, like Peggy’s corporate acquaintance, he just wanted more.
-Dan (AKA GayPatriotWest): GayPatriotWest@aol.com
UPDATE: After reading the post, Ted Higgins, my predecessor as state chairman of the Massachusetts College Republicans wrote in to elaborate on Jack’s good qualities and I reprint with permission:
I think you captured it very well. You are spot on about Jack promoting ideas rather than just party candidates. Also worth mentioning that he had extraordinary charisma and leadership abilities for someone of that age.