When Is a Scandal Really a Scandal?

Former Washington lobbyist Jack Abramoff arrives at the Miami Courthouse in Miami, Jan. 4, 2006. i i

Former Washington lobbyist Jack Abramoff arrives at the federal courthouse in Miami, Jan. 4, 2006. Reuters hide caption

itoggle caption Reuters
Former Washington lobbyist Jack Abramoff arrives at the Miami Courthouse in Miami, Jan. 4, 2006.

Former Washington lobbyist Jack Abramoff arrives at the federal courthouse in Miami, Jan. 4, 2006.

Reuters

So "Casino Jack" Abramoff has entered his guilty pleas in federal courtrooms in Washington and Miami and stands ready to testify against some of his political associates. After 18 months of simmering, this classic Washington story of megabucks and mendacity has finally reached a boil.

Abramoff has been a household name for years, if your household happens to be on Capitol Hill. A wider circle of capital dwellers and other political obsessives became aware of him in 2004. That was when stories in The Washington Post and hearings in the Senate Indian Affairs Committee laid bare his practice of billing tribes with gambling interests tens of millions of dollars for services best described as marginal.

Now the whole country may spend months contemplating the transgressions of this wheeler-dealer supernova. But Abramoff is not a true household name just yet. This remains a top-down scandal, more important to the elite (and the elected) than to regular people.

When scandals arise, investigators and journalists tend to focus on one aspect of the story while the general public fastens on another. That was one reason the impeachment of Bill Clinton in 1998 never had majority support from the public. Clinton's transgressions always seemed more important to Congress and the media than to most people.

By contrast, the country was far more incensed than its capital by stories about members abusing the House bank. No laws were broken or tax dollars lost, but the spectacle of members writing hundreds of overdrafts on their in-house accounts (essentially interest-free loans on their payroll checks) somehow enraged millions. It galvanized public sentiment in a way that big federal deficits and a host of other policy failures did not. As a result, scores of members either retired or met defeat in 1992.

Something similar happened with the proposed congressional pay raise a few years earlier. The idea of hiking members' pay by half caught the nation by surprise, energized the first real talk-radio revolt and overwhelmed any attempt at explanation.

The Speaker of the House at the time, Texan Jim Wright, soon found himself deserted by many fellow Democrats, swarmed by Republicans and skewered by an ethics probe. Wright became the first Speaker in history to resign under fire.

It took a while to build, but the cumulative effect of these House-based scandals was still reverberating when the Democrats lost their 40-year grip on that chamber in 1994.

Since that time, there have been good years and bad for the new majority Republicans. But they have maintained a basic equilibrium, aided by post-census adjustments to district boundary lines that usually protect incumbents.

This year, some believe the Abramoff scandal will hobble the Republicans, who were recipients of roughly two-thirds of his lubricating largesse. But that will depend on who gets indicted, and whether the targets include names big enough to capture the public imagination.

Without major trophies, no scandal is likely to register with this jaded an electorate. Consider the case of Randy "Duke" Cunningham, a Republican from suburban San Diego. A few weeks ago, Cunningham resigned after admitting he took more than $2 million in bribes to steer defense contracts. Few had heard of the Duke, so his story disappeared almost as quickly as it happened.

If that's all the interest there is in so bald a felony as this, we should not assume the public will be transfixed by tales of golf trips and restaurant meals, or a few thousand dollars given in exchange for remarks inserted in the Congressional Record. If that's all the public sees of the Abramoff yarn, we should not expect the public to care overmuch.

The controlling question is this: Will the story be about Abramoff and his peculiar excesses? Or will it be the wider culture of influence peddling and access buying that dominates life in Congress?

The real scandal is not that Abramoff was unique but that he was far from it. For every lobbyist who goes over the top like Abramoff, there are dozens (perhaps hundreds) who quietly find far less conspicuous ways to reward federal officials who help them. Most of those means are, at least technically, legal. So scarcely any of them will be exposed in the cycle of post-Abramoff indictments.

If that point could be driven home, the Abramoff affair might be truly scandalizing. Otherwise, this episode will be just another chapter in the courtroom chronicles of the capital. And the public will soon be watching something else.

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