With the Citizens United decision by the U.S. Supreme Court, lobbyists have never been more powerful and the power of money to corrupt democracy more felt. So, in some ways, the corruption that surrounded this one super lobbyist Jack Abramhoff less than a decade ago may seem quaint.
|Kevin Spacey as Jack Abramhoff|
Essentially Abramoff put the screws to various tribes of Native Americans who were trying to build and operate casinos on their own land. His purpose was to enrich himself by paying off legislators to pass or kill laws that respectively benefitted or hurt his clients. Two films, one a documentary, have been made that focus on those years when the young Republican warrior became one of the most powerful forces on Washington D.C.’s all-too influential K Street. Both films were released in 2010.
Kevin Spacey played Abramoff in the Hollywood version. There is disagreement among the critics about Spacey and about the film. The actor seemed to soften the hard edges of the character that emerged in the documentary. The real Abramoff, as portrayed in the documentary, appeared far less likable or even tolerable than the character Spacey drew.
However, for those who shy away from documentaries, Casino Jack is, in my mind, a fine film that nonetheless gets to the core of the kind of corruption that has only escalated after the Supreme Court decision. It shows how this behavior — the selling of influence — distorts the promise of democracy and especially how we pick a few villains to throw in jail so the public will think the evil that is caught has been dealt with and no longer exists. Actors portraying Ralph Reed, Tom DeLay, Karl Rove and Grover Norquist do a decent job getting the characters across. Barry Pepper is fantastic as Abramoff’s partner in crime, Michael Scanlon, who has pretty much avoided public awareness, let alone censure.
If you have the time and have some interest in politics and or how your government works, I’d definitely watch both films, together if possible. But if you were forced to choose, my suggestion is to see Casino Jack and the United States of Money. Frankly, Abramoff, Scanlon, Reed, DeLay, Rove and Norquist do a much better job playing themselves. And the road to corpocracy is drawn more clearly.
The time period is roughly the same, though the documentary picks up Abramoff much earlier — first, his youthful political transformation, and second as he turns his political power into money and money into still more power. Slices of footage from speeches and interviews move us through these fascinatingly cynical times.
Much is made of John McCain’s leading a committee to ferret out all these evil doings, especially in the defrauding of the tribes running reservation casinos. However, the documentary shows how McCain, once he found out how many legislators were getting donations from Abramoff, shut down the committee before it could expand its investigation into the behavior of all but one of the U.S. representatives, who was tossed, sacrificially, to the wolves. After all, McCain would need party support to run for president. Only a few paid any price for the fraud. Abramoff and a few others went to jail. Suddenly Abramoff, whose product was access and influence, was later cropped out of photos in which he appeared with Bush the Younger. Others did the same thing, pretending not to know the man they all but worshipped. One of the most popular presences in DC suddenly became an unknown.
Clearly, money and favors flowed all too freely, and I seriously doubt if the Democrats are immune from the temptation. The truth, for me, is that it is hard imagine how we, as society, don’t equate huge donations by corporations as bribery anyway. However in the Abramoff case money for favors was clearly documented. And even a spiritually corrupt Supreme Court wouldn’t have been able to ignore that.
Both films show how greed and ego kill. In an earlier decade (Bonfire of the Vanities) it was called being “masters of the universe.” Today, the creed that Abramoff and his friends appear to follow is the latest form of Republican politics, the cult that truly embraces survival of the fittest. In the Republican warrior mentality, as the right-wing religious fundamentalists have yet to learn, right and wrong have no place in the achievement of their goals. And in fact, the “born again” politicians, the Ralph Reeds and Tom Delays of the world, assume the mantle only to dupe the pious.
If you don’t believe me, make sure you watch the end of the documentary when the “join me in prayer” Tom DeLay, shakes his ass on Dancing The Stars to “Wild Thing, I Thing I Love You.”
It is sad that DeLay is considered a celebrity, however minor, that Grover Norquist still dominates Republican legislators and Ralph Reed’s reputation has been rehabilitated to the extent he is currently a talking head on ABC’s “This Week With George Stephanopoulos.”
For drinks, indulge lightly the first film if you plan on watching both, then switch to something like a Martini for the second. For some reason I think of a Martini as non-sentimental. It’s kind of “I’ll take my truth straight,” kind of drink — unlike a romantic, sensuous red wine, innocent peach Daiquiri or or a nostalgic (I repeat myself) Old Fashioned.