Casino Jack and the United States of Money
by George Sax
King of the K Street Sharpies: Casino Jack and the United States of Money
Early on, Alex Gibney’s Casino Jack and the United States of Money delivers some mildly disappointing information. After the infamously conniving Washington lobbyist Jack Abramoff was bought down by the press, his political enemies and the authorities, he reportedly began studying the Talmud and the Jewish faith, pursuing redemption. Perfect, no? Another high-flying bunco artist seeking belated refuge in religion. But Gibney’s documentary relates that Abramoff had long ago spurned his Jewish parents’ secular outlook and become an adherent of Judaism’s Orthodox branch, even arguing that it provided moral support for rightist politics. This isn’t a satisfying story, but it is what it is, and Gibney does make clear that Abramoff was always an inveterate finagler. And the scope of his self-enriching scheming was enlarged as he found and made opportunities for his ambitiously dirty operations.
Casino Jack begins with a lurid nighttime scene. Taking a cue from Erroll Morris’ The Thin Blue Line, it reenacts a mob hit on a dark Miami street. The victim was one Gus Boulis, who had just sold Abramoff and a shady consort a gambling ship line. (The two of them had defrauded a lender to get the money for the purchase.) The movie oddly refers to Abramoff’s co-conspirator as someone who “had risen in the mob-dominated New York bagel business,” a description that pushed my mental pause button. (Bagels? The mob?)
Gibney’s film doesn’t follow Morris’ baroque narrative mode, but quickly settles into a kind of breezy, faster-paced version of a PBS Frontline episode. This very colorful story of Abramoff’s ravening rise in Washington’s cash-hungry Republican power circles elicits sometimes conflicting reactions of dismay, anger, and amusement. He came up from the leadership of the college Young Republicans, along with the sanctimoniously and boyish-looking Ralph Reed, who was later head of Pat Roberts’ Christian Coalition, and a dirty-fingered collaborator in Abramoff’s grubby enterprises.
The two of them helped organize a forum in Africa in tribute to self-proclaimed freedom fighter and anti-Commie Jonas Savimbi, who was in fact a brutal, bloody, women-and-child-killing Angolan revolutionary supported by South Africa’s apartheid regime. Several years later, Abramoff produced a stultifyingly silly movie, Red Scorpion, celebrating Savimbi’s imaginary exploits, and starring Dolph Lundgren as a guy who lifts a car by himself. (Abramoff was a high school wrestler who claimed he could squat-press 500 pounds.)
But Abramoff relinquished dreams of movieland glory in 1994 when the Republicans took over Congress under Newt Gingrich and political predators moved in for a share of the spoils. Gingrich and company allowed lobbyists to occupy Congressional offices and help write legislation, if they paid to play, of course. And under majority whip Tom “The Hammer” DeLay, only lobbying firms with strong Republican ties had access to Republican members of Congress. (The K-Street Project, it was called.)
Abramoff flourished in this savagely crass environment, as Gibney amply demonstrates. His two biggest “scores” were his heavy-handed intervention in the US territorial Marianas Islands to get a government compatible with his lobbying aims and his aid to clothing companies operating sweat shops, and much worse, paying immigrant workers a dollar an hour under an exemption granted by a cooperative US Congress paid by Abramoff’s clients.
And then he discovered a mother lode: extracting tens of millions from importunate indian tribes, for whom he brokered federal approvals for gambling casinos, again from remunerated Congressional members. He was brazen enough to secretly help arrange the cancellation of a Texas tribe’s gambling license, even as he “represented” both them and another tribe which wanted the competition eliminated and was paying his firm.
Gibney captures this lively tale in an involving, straightforward fashion, but sometimes he seems to be straining to justify Abramoff’s significance. “Who was this man, Jack Abramoff, who bought Washington?” asks the narrator (actor Stanley Tucci), quoting a Time magazine cover. But even Gibney eventually has to concede that Abramoff wasn’t really a central agent of our republic’s subversion, but just a guy who was super-good at realizing very large profits in a permissive American society that worships at the altar of material success. Liberal American historian Jon Weiner not long ago called the American electorate “ignorant…and swayed by meaningless phrases.” (He has an important point, but it is easier to accurately define society and one’s own real interests from the comfortable elevations of tenure at the University of California and national communications platforms, rather than the more imperiled social stations of many millions in that electorate.)
Abramoff’s clients and patsies were relative small-timers, unsophisticated about power and access in Washington. It’s hard to imagine J.P. Morgan Chase chair and Barack Obama pal Jamie Dimon relying on the likes of Abramoff to safeguard finance capital’s enormous profits and power.
In its own perverted way, Abramoff’s was as much of an American success story as Obama’s.
Watch the trailer for Casino Jack and the United States of Money
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