Source: The New York Times High over Central Park, in a private screening room on the 51st floor of the Time Warner Center last Sunday night, Jack
Source: The New York Times
High over Central Park, in a private screening room on the 51st floor of the Time Warner Center last Sunday night, Jack Abramoff, the onetime supervillain of lobbying, had an unusual coming out.
Mr. Abramoff had come to Manhattan to roll out his rehabilitative media campaign, and with a dozen friends and colleagues — among them his lawyer; his publicist; his literary agent; and the evening’s host, a wealthy Israeli equities investor — he now sat to watch himself on “60 Minutes,” his debut interview since getting out of prison last December. There was popcorn, potato chips and seltzer; a kosher sushi dinner waited in the main room. The television, 60 inches wide, was mounted on the wall in movie-theater style.
It was an extraordinary backdrop for a man on the eve of re-emergence from one of the most spectacular scandals in recent political history; but then, Mr. Abramoff is an extraordinary man. At 53, he is unemployed, insolvent and trying — as you may know from his numerous appearances last week — to redeem and rebrand himself.
What you may not know is that Jack Abramoff, being Jack Abramoff — which is to say, a genetically energetic operator — is also working on a few small personal projects on the side.
There is, for instance, his Facebook game app, “Congressional Jack” (think “Farmville” for armchair lobbyists), or his still-developing venture into what his partner-producer, Roy Bank of “Are You Smarter Than a 5th Grader?” fame, likes to call the “unscripted television space.”
Mr. Abramoff is available for speaking engagements (“The Secret of Power,” “A Congress for Sale”) and has briefed F.B.I. agents on the nature of corruption. There is also a feature film in the works about the lobbying milieu, one being financed by the host of Sunday’s party, Eli Zicherman, who met Mr. Abramoff two years ago on a good-will trip to the Federal Correctional Institution in Cumberland, Md., to observe the Jewish New Year with inmates.
“When I met Jack, he told me what he was involved with, and I was very impressed,” Mr. Zicherman said recently. “I thought I could help him raise some capital.”
The truth is that while celebrity redemption seems simple on its surface (take 1 oz. of candor, add 2 oz. of remorse, shake on national TV), it can actually be a complicated cocktail.
Even before he served three and a half years for crimes that included corrupting members of Congress with illegal golf trips to Scotland, he was thinking of coming back. His tell-all memoir, “Capitol Punishment,” was released this month. But plans for it were in his head before he went away — a searching time when he confessed in an interview to be looking for his “own narrative.”
Having grown up in Hollywood, Mr. Abramoff lapses naturally into the jargon of the pitch meeting, and even now admits to knowing enough about “entertainment platforms” to understand that his forays into show business may take years to succeed, if at all.
What he really needs — and quickly — is a paycheck. He owes more than $40 million to the Indian tribes he was convicted of bilking as a lobbyist (he disputes this bilking), and his bank account dwindled in prison. His first job coming out was an $8-an-hour position as an accountant at a kosher pizzeria. The job before that, as a clerk in the chaplain’s office in prison, paid him at the hourly rate of 12 cents.
Which is why he was hitting the media hustings hard last week, making mea culpas and offering his inside take on Washington — while simultaneously setting up meetings with network executives about his planned reality TV show. This conflation of public service and private business is classic Abramoff, and it reflects his latest and most personal lobbying effort yet: the one in which he lobbies for himself.
“What I want to do is something to undo what I did,” he said in trying to explain his transformation, an act that played out all week on “Hannity,” “The Early Show,” “Piers Morgan Tonight” and others. “The hope is I can use my natural infamy in a positive way.”
There is no doubt that because of his infamy, Mr. Abramoff garnered a clinician’s understanding of the illnesses of K Street and, like any good doctor, he has written prescriptions. In his book, he lays out proposals for banning political contributions from anyone doing business with the government and for closing the revolving door between Congress and lobbying firms.
These remedies, he says, came to him in prison, where he often made solitary circuits of the unpaved perimeter path, riddling out the fix to Congressional corruption like a jailhouse Napoleon in exile. At the same time, inveterately restless, he was also teaching courses in public speaking and screenwriting to his fellow inmates and, under the auspices of his job in the chaplain’s office, instituted a highly popular movie night.
While it is hard to know which, if any, of Mr. Abramoff’s ventures might pan out, he says he is encouraged by the sympathetic comments he has gotten on his newly established Web site, Abramoff.com. The site, which describes him as “out and ready to speak,” has links to his Facebook page, his LinkedIn presence and his Twitter feed.
Just the other day, he received a Twitter message from a new follower, Aaron Mehta, which poignantly captured the nature of his makeover. “Things I wouldn’t ever think I’d say in 2006,” wrote Mr. Mehta, a staff writer with the Center for Public Integrity. “Now following @jackabramoff on Twitter.”
It may be that Mr. Bank, the TV producer, was correct in saying that “the only thing Americans love better than a success story is a comeback story.”
The “60 Minutes” segment was the first step in that comeback, and Mr. Abramoff, perhaps bravely, said before it was broadcast that he was not concerned by the thought of how the correspondent Leslie Stahl would portray him. He looked a little peaked in his sports coat on Sunday night, but he later wrote, in an e-mail recalling the experience: “I was obviously a bit anxious to see how they would treat me, but not a high degree of anxiety. After what I have been through, the tick-tock of ‘60 Minutes’ is not too intimidating.”
Nonetheless, at the first tick he went silent, and throughout the segment the screening room remained so quiet that the muffled pings of texts and e-mails arriving on his smartphone could be heard. When it ended, Mr. Abramoff, surrounded by his entourage, repaired to the dining area. There, amid the sushi and sprawling city views, Abbe Lowell, his powerhouse lawyer, convened a focus group.
“So, what did everybody think?” Mr. Lowell asked. “Who wants to go first?”
Adjectives were offered: “Sincere.” “Contrite.” “Knowledgeable.” Someone said Mr. Abramoff had handled repentance well. Mr. Lowell said, definitively, “It was a good piece.”
Then it was Mr. Abramoff’s turn. After joking that he looked fat, he admitted that he had not liked the way the profile was edited to make it seem as if he was smirking. He was not smirking, he said, and did not want to seem to have been smirking.
“All I want,” he finally said, “is for people not to see me as this cartoon monster.”