Money is not evil. Money is free speech.
Jack Abramoff is famous for making money. He made lots of it, he made it for a long time, and he made it illegally. He didn’t make it alone, though. And the way he made it was not his own invention. This is the argument made by Casino Jack and the United State of Money: the erstwhile super-lobbyist Abramoff is surely audacious and noisy and “a man of many hats,” but he is also a little mundane, not so singular or deviant as he’s been made out to be.
The reasons for calling him extraordinary are obvious enough: if Abramoff’s schemes to buy and sell members of Congress were his own alone, and he’s now imprisoned for his crimes, the problem appears to be resolved. But even the most naïve observer knows this can’t be true, and now it seems that everyone, from Tea Partiers to Coffee Partiers, is wary of Congress as a matter of course. So, when, just a couple of minutes in, Casino Jack asks its first and most pressing question—“Is this the story of individual corruption or the story of what our democracy has become?”—you already have an idea of the answer.
Still, coming to the answer is a fascinating process. Like Alex Gibney’s other documentaries, it begins with a violent crime, in this case, the 2005 gangster-style murder of SunCruz founder Gus Boulis. That his business was a fleet of casino boats establishes a theme as well as a connection to Abramoff, for he and partner Adam Kidan had recently bought that fleet. The plot thickens, as it were, as the film digs into the background of this purchase, specifically, how Abramoff came to be rich enough to make it.
Significantly, Abramoff does not take part in telling his story, at least on screen. And in the face of this problem, the film finds a series of ingenious solutions—elegant, funny, and preposterous ways to sort out the man’s thinking and contexts.
Unable to record Abramoff in prison, the documentary relies instead on other sources. Among these, Tom Frank, former College Republican and author of The Wrecking Crew: How Conservatives Rule, offers an especially cogent analysis of the era that produced Abramoff as well as current (largely deregulated) relations between lobbyists and Congress. “This is what capitalism looks like when you turn it loose,” Frank asserts. He’s talking about one example of Abramoff’s multiple profitable ploys, the one whereby Chinese sweatshops on U.S. territory Marianas Islands, whose continued exemptions from U.S. business regulations and oversight paid off for pro-Marianas lobbyists like Abramoff and Tom DeLay. “That’s why we have a regulatory state,” says Frank. “When you take the regulations away, as lobbyists like Abramoff wanted to do, the Marianas is what you get.”
Frank’s point here applies to nearly every case the film considers, selected from among the Abramoff constellation of deals and scandals. All are premised on gaming a system while insisting on an ideological purity: regulations are bad, free markets are good. As the recent global financial crisis suggests, this ideology is not wholly convincing to everyone. (That’s not to say deregulation does not remain a popular rallying cry for many on the right.) Abramoff was able to make his money because the system of lobbying is entrenched and legal. According to Tom Rodgers, a lobbyist with Carlyle Consulting, “Jack aligned himself with Congress members and traded access for cash.” In the (extensive) instance of the Indian casinos, Rodgers says that Abramoff followed a fairly simple procedure: “Take the tribal money, take as much as you can, and take it as quickly as you can: ‘I’m letting these politicians know that I’m going to be the vehicle to deliver this money. I’m the access for the money, you’re the access for the power.’ It’s a perfect circle.”
It was perfect for a time, as Casino Jack shows. The circle is traced here by a collection of colorful images, splashy headlines, and compelling talking heads. Along with Executive Director of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics Melanie Sloan, reporter Susan Schmidt, Tigua Tribal Governor Carlos Hisa, and Illinois Senator Peter Fitzgerald (who states flat-out, “Campaign financing is a system of legalized bribery”), the film includes scenes from Red Scorpion, the anti-Communist action pic produced by Abramoff (before he discovered Hollywood was not nearly so lucrative as lobbying), in which Dolph Lundgren supports unregulated third world barbarism. In real life, Abramoff and company supported Angola’s Jonas Savimbi. Casino Jack includes some astounding footage of Ralph Reed, a College Republican during Jack Abramoff’s chairmanship: decked out in military fatigues, Reed declares his commitment to “guerrilla warfare.” “I paint my face and travel at night,” he says, “You don’t know it’s over ‘til you’re in a body bag.”
While it’s easy to take aim at Reed, a stunningly craven manipulator during every stage of his career—with the Christian Coalition, the Faith and Freedom Coalition or the PR firm Century Strategies (whose clients included Enron)—he’s only one of many well-known figures affiliated with Abramoff. Of those who agreed to talk with Gibney, Tom DeLay is conspicuous for his continued faith in the free market (the faith that led to his K Street Project) and Ohio Congressman Bob Ney (who served 17 months in prison) for his regret, concerning especially his part in the Tigua Indians casinos scandal. Neil Volz, formerly idealistic and formerly Ney’s former chief of staff, here explains not only his part in the casinos caper, but also a devastating historical context: though he and his cohort had come to Washington campaigning against systemic corruption, he says now, “It’s so ironic that years later, I would be a face of a similar type of corruption to a whole different group of people.”
But here’s the trouble, as Casino Jack presents it. The corruption is not separate from the people, and the people are not so different. Abramoff was excessive, but he was not “one of a kind.” Exposure is a step toward changing that. Exposure that also unravels beliefs—in truths, ideologies, and systems of representation, including political and documentary systems—is even better.