Before he went to prison, Jack Abramoff would begin nearly every day the same way: by hitting the links at the Woodmore Country Club in Bowie, Md.
Before he went to prison, Jack Abramoff would begin nearly every day the same way: by hitting the links at the Woodmore Country Club in Bowie, Md. — usually with a client or business acquaintance — and then head to downtown Washington, to swing by his restaurant, Signature’s. Golf and influence peddling, Abramoff knew, go hand in hand.
“To use golf for lobbying, you really have to obtain a certain level of play so you’ll be able to not be a complete hacker,” Abramoff told POLITICO.
But things have changed for Abramoff, who was convicted in 2006 on mail fraud and conspiracy charges and became a symbol of Washington corruption. He spent 3½ years in federal prison and is now emerging back into the public spotlight with his new book, “Capitol Punishment: The Hard Truth About Washington Corruption From America’s Most Notorious Lobbyist.”
To talk about things past and future, I invited Abramoff to return to the scene of so many golden mornings at the Woodmore for POLITICO’s latest Game Changer feature. The rules were simple: three holes (the 16th, 17th and 18th), using just one club (I picked a 5 iron; Abramoff went with a 5 wood).
Abramoff, who wore all black in homage to golf legend Gary Player, took a swing before we even started, razzing me about my loud, plaid golf pants: “It looks like something they put you in when you go to prison.”
His first drive landed in the fairway, and his knack for some friendly ribbing began, first knocking my “ancient golf clubs” and then noting, accurately, that “your club went further than the ball” on my first drive. “The ball has to go in the cup,” Abramoff helpfully reminded me.
As you might imagine, prison is not something he recalls fondly — describing it in one word: “misery” — and he was grateful to be back on the course, a happy place where his mind would frequently drift while doing his time.
“I had a good opportunity to really think about what I was doing and what I was involved in and whether I should have been involved in it,” said Abramoff. “You also learn to appreciate the little things in life, not just golf.”
As my game continued to sputter on the 16th hole, I asked Jack for some advice.
“Try to keep your body down,” he said. But Abramoff’s own game fell apart when he five-putted.
“I think you tied the hole!” said Abramoff. “We’ll say we tied that one,” I replied, since both of our scores had entered the “too big to keep track of” territory. On to our second hole.
Abramoff said he’s both excited and nervous about re-entering Washington life. He hopes to “educate people about what the world that I was in is” but knows perfectly well he remains a hot potato around town.
“I know there will be a lot of hostility as there already is toward the message I have. There’s a lot of denial,” he said. “People very much wanted it to be just me as the person involved in things that were untoward, and nobody sensible believes that.”
By the time we hit Woodmore’s 17th hole, neither of us had anything to brag about.
“Patrick, I’m catching your disease here,” said Abramoff, referencing my penchant for topping my shots. “I’m lifting my body up. … This is not going well.” That was all before we reached the green, where putting again proved a challenge for Jack.
“Within the 2-foot range is not your sweet spot,” I informed him, but gave him the hole, turning the 18th into a winner-take-all hole.
“My life now is different then my life then,” said Abramoff. “I’ve got other things to focus on. … I have other things to sort of move on to personally. I don’t now how much golf is in my future. And the way I played today, frankly, I don’t think there should be much golf in my future.”
“This is for everything,” said Abramoff as he approached our final hole. His drive on the 18th headed right and into the woods.
“I think I just gave you a two-stroke advantage,” he said, but fortunately for him, mine didn’t fare much better, and both of our stroke counts — yet again — were too high to remember. As Abramoff’s final putt hit the bottom of the hole, we agreed to do our best to forget how poorly we had played and simply call it a tie.
“This is the kind of game that makes you want to not come back and play golf again,” said Abramoff.
Video by Alexander Trowbridge