A scandal is like any other melodrama: It can’t be a crowd pleaser unless the audience can follow the plot. That’s why Monica Lewinsky trumped Whitewater, and that’s why of all the story lines ensnaring Tom DeLay, the one with legs is the one with the craps tables. It’s not just easy to follow, but it also has a combustive cultural element that makes it as representative of its political era as Monicagate was of the Clinton years. As the lies and subterfuge of the go-go 1990s coalesced around sex, so the scandal of our new “moral values” decade comes cloaked in religion. The hair shirt is the new thong.
This time the plot begins with money. Two K Street fixers, a lobbyist named Jack Abramoff and a flack named Michael Scanlon, managed to snooker six American Indian tribes into handing over $82 million in exchange for furthering their casino interests. According to The Washington Post, some of their tribal takings, cycled through a nonprofit center for “public policy research,” helped send DeLay golfing in Scotland. The pious congressman, a gambling foe, says he had no idea of his trip’s sinful provenance. Never mind that DeLay was joined abroad by Abramoff, whom he has described as one of his “closest and dearest friends,” or that Scanlon had once been his spokesman. DeLay was as innocent of the goings-on around him as a piano player in a brothel.
Beltway cronyism, dubious junkets, loophole-laden denials are all, of course, time-honored Washington fare. The few on the right backing away from DeLay, from The Wall Street Journal’s editorial page to Newt Gingrich, make a point of reminding us of that. As they see it, more in sorrow than in anger, the Gingrich revolutionaries who vowed to end the corruption practiced by congressional Democrats have now been infected by the same Washington virus as their opponents. That’s true, but this critique of DeLay and company by their own camp all too conveniently sidesteps the distinguishing feature of this scandal. Democratic malefactors like Jim Wright and LBJ’s old fixer Bobby Baker didn’t wear the Bible on their sleeves.
In the DeLay story, almost every player has ostentatious religious trappings, starting with the House majority leader himself. His efforts to play God with Terri Schiavo were preceded by crusades like blaming the teaching of evolution for school shootings and raising money for the Traditional Values Coalition’s campaign to save America from the “war on Christianity.” DeLay’s chief of staff was his pastor, and, according to Time magazine, organized daily prayer sessions in their office. Today this holy man, Ed Buckham, is a lobbyist implicated in another DeLay junket to South Korea.
But it’s not merely Christian denominations that figure in the religious plumage of this crowd. Abramoff, who is now being investigated by nearly as many federal agencies as there are nights of Passover, is an Orthodox Jew who in his salad days wore a yarmulke to press interviews. In Washington, he opened not one but two kosher restaurants (I hear the deli was passable by D.C. standards) and started a yeshiva. His uncompromising piety drove him to condemn the one Orthodox Jew in the Senate, Joe Lieberman, for securing “the tortuous death of millions” by supporting abortion rights. Abramoff’s own moral constellation can be found in e-mail messages in which he referred to his Indian clients as “idiots” and “monkeys” even as he squeezed them for every last million. A previous client was Zaire’s dictator, Mobutu Sese Seko, who, unlike Lieberman, actually was a practitioner of torture and mass murder.
Another Abramoff crony is the political operative Ralph Reed, whom Abramoff hired for his College Republicans operation in the early 1980s. Reed, who has called gambling “a cancer on the body politic” and is running for lieutenant governor in Georgia, is now busily explaining that he, like DeLay, had no idea that some of his consulting firm’s Abramoff-Scanlon paydays ($4.2 million worth) were indirect transfers of casino dough. Reed, of course, is best known for his stint as the public altar boy’s face of Pat Robertson’s political machine, the Christian Coalition.
It was at a Christian Coalition convention in Washington in 1994 that I first encountered yet another religious figure who pops up in this tale, the South African-born Rabbi Daniel Lapin. He was regaling the crowd with scriptural passages proving that high taxes are “immoral.” Now the show rabbi of the Christian right, Rabbi Lapin has moved on to bigger broadcast pulpits. When he’s not preaching the virtues of “The Passion of the Christ,” he is chastising “Meet the Fockers” for promoting “vile notions of Jews” that “are not too different from those used by Nazi propagandist Joseph Goebbels.” He apparently didn’t like the idea that Barbra Streisand and Dustin Hoffman played characters who enjoy sex.
Rabbi Lapin, according to Slate, is the networker who jump-started the mutually beneficial business relationship of Jack Abramoff and Tom DeLay by introducing them in the early ’90s. That was some mitzvah. As Marshall Wittmann, a former Christian Coalition lobbyist who later jumped to the Democratic Leadership Council, told me recently, “We now see the meaning of Judeo-Christian values.”
The values alleged so far in this scandal – greed, hypocrisy, favor-selling, dissembling – belong to no creed except the ruthless pursuit of power. They are not exclusive to either political party. But the religious trappings add a note that distinguishes these Beltway creeps from those who have come before: a supreme righteousness that often spirals into anger and fire-and-brimstone zealotry that can do far more damage to America than ill-begotten golf junkets.
It’s not for nothing that DeLay’s nickname is the Hammer. Or that early in his Christian Coalition career, Ralph Reed famously told a Knight-Ridder reporter that he wanted to see his opponents in a “body bag.”
The current manifestation of this brand of religious politics can be found in the far right’s anti-judiciary campaign, of which DeLay is the patron saint. As he flew off to the pope’s funeral in Rome, the congressman left behind a rabble-rousing video for a Washington conference on “Confronting the Judicial War on Faith” staged by a new outfit called The Judeo-Christian Council for Constitutional Restoration. Another speaker, a lawyer named Edwin Vieira, twice invoked a Stalin dictum whose unexpurgated version goes, “Death solves all problems; no man, no problem.” The reporter who covered the event for The Washington Post, Dana Milbank, suggested in print that one prime target of the vitriol, Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy, might want to get “a few more bodyguards.” It wasn’t necessarily a joke.
You can see why Dick Cheney and President Bush in rapid succession distanced themselves from DeLay’s threats of retribution against judges who presided in the Schiavo case. If an Eric Rudolph murders a judge in close chronological proximity to that kind of rhetoric, they’ve got a political Armageddon on their hands.
DeLay got the message, sort of. At his Wednesday news conference, he tried to dial back some of his words, if only as a way of changing the subject from Indians and his own potential outings in a court of law. Unlike Bill Frist, he has yet to sign on to next Sunday’s national Christian right telecast bashing what its organizer, the Family Research Council, calls “out-of-control courts.”
Many believe that DeLay’s legal fate is tied to that of Abramoff, whom the congressman has now downsized into one of “hundreds of relationships I have in Washington, D.C.” Abramoff, intriguingly enough, hasn’t always been a creature of the capital. He was raised in Beverly Hills, the town that is supposed to be anathema to every value that Republican theocrats stand for. And he returned there for a time in the late 1980s, when he produced an anti-communist action film called “Red Scorpion.” Once it was reported that extras and military equipment had been supplied by South Africa’s racist government, Arthur Ashe’s Artists and Athletes Against Apartheid condemned the film, and no major studio would touch it. But it opened nationwide nonetheless, to few customers and many protesters.
In 1992 Abramoff, eager to prove that he was unlike secular show-business Democrats, told The Hollywood Reporter that he was starting a Committee for Traditional Jewish Values in Entertainment to emulate Christian anti-indecency campaigns. (He didn’t.) But “Red Scorpion,” on which Abramoff shares the writing credit, has many more four-letter words than “Meet the Fockers,” as well as violence, bloodied beefcake (Dolph Lundgren’s) and crucifixion imagery anticipating “The Passion of the Christ.”
Though Abramoff has closed his yeshiva and is now being sued for back wages by its former employees, his cinematic creation survives on DVD. “Red Scorpion” is seriously Godawful, but, unlike the Ten Commandments displayed in Tom DeLay’s office, it may yet endure as a permanent monument to what these people are about.