Byline: David Margolick
By now, Jack Abramoff is known in just about every home and Grange hall and shopping mall, every Middlesex village and farm, in America. He's the Washington lobbyist who bought all those senators and representatives, the man who ripped off all those Indian tribes he represented, the butt of all those late-night-TV jokes. He's the fellow responsible for what might be the biggest government scandal since Watergate, the man whose sullied example could maybe, possibly, help clean up Washington. He's the guy who wore that infamous black hat on the day he admitted it all.
Abramoff is known everywhere but in two buildings, that is: the United States Capitol and the White House. Sure, he spread around millions of Indian-tribe dollars, to say nothing of golf trips to Scotland and free meals at Signatures, his own fancy restaurant, and luxury-box seats at sporting events-American Indians, of all people, paying for Redskins tickets-among roughly 270 members of Congress. Sure, a few senators and representatives admit to having brushed up against Abramoff, but only long enough for him to have "duped" or "misled" them. And President Bush can barely remember him: for a couple of Hanukkahs, Abramoff apparently stood on grip-and-grin lines at the White House to be photographed with the president, but almost anybody can do that.
Being airbrushed out of a whole community in which he cut so wide a swath for the past 10 years, where he helped revolutionize lobbying, where he was very nearly ubiquitous and invincible-it's enough to hurt someone's feelings. On other matters related to his situation he tiptoes, as would anyone whose fate-the amount of time he will languish in prison-lies in the hands of prosecutors and the judge. But for someone who has fought his whole career to be acknowledged and respected and feared, being treated like a nonperson is simply too much to take. "For a guy who did all these evil things that have been so widely reported, it's pretty amazing, considering I didn't know anyone," Abramoff says sardonically. "You're really no one in this town unless you haven't met me."
Just to cite one typical example, the head of the Republican National Committee, Ken Mehlman, said in an interview, "Abramoff is someone who we don't know a lot about. We know what we read in the paper," even though, according to documents obtained by Vanity Fair, Mehlman exchanged e-mail with Abramoff, did him political favors (such as blocking Clinton- administration alumnus Allen Stayman from keeping a State Department job), had Sabbath dinner at his house, and offered to pick up his tab at Signatures. (According to a spokesperson, Mehlman does not recall the e-mail exchange, "because he was often contacted by political supporters with suggestions and ideas," or the Sabbath dinner.) The newly elected House majority leader, John Boehner, Republican of Ohio, also doesn't know Abramoff, but Abramoff's clients gave him $30,000 over the past few years, and ate many meals at Signatures. (For a couple of years, Abramoff's principal liaison with Boehner was David Safavian-a former member of "Team Abramoff" and later head of procurement for the White House Office of Management and Budget-who has been indicted for lying about his Abramoff ties.)
Then there's presidential adviser Karl Rove. He has not spoken of his relationship with Abramoff, but the White House insists Rove, too, barely knew him, acknowledging only that they met at a political event in the 1990s. "He would describe him as a casual acquaintance," a White House spokesman said. But Abramoff was Rove's spiritual heir at the College Republicans in the 1980s; both men head- ed the group, and the two met from time to time in connection with it. After George W. Bush took office, Susan Ralston, Abramoff's administrative assistant, took the same position with Rove at the White House, where Abramoff met with Rove at least once. (An eyewitness also recalls seeing Abramoff emerge from a car near the White House and have what looked like a pre-arranged, street-corner meeting with Rove; Abramoff says he can't recall that.) Rove dined several times at Signatures and was Abramoff's guest in the owner's box at the N.C.A.A. basketball playoffs a few years ago, sitting for much of the game by Abramoff's side. Recently, three former associates of Abramoff's have told how he frequently mentioned his strong ties to Rove, and one described being present when Abramoff took a phone call from Rove's office.
Then, most important, there's President Bush. "I, frankly, don't even remember having my picture taken with the guy," he has said. But how about those 10 or so photographs of him with Abramoff, or with Abramoff's sons, or of Laura Bush with Abramoff's daughters, apparently taken during all of those meetings that never took place? And the time when the president joked with Abramoff about his weight lifting: "What are you benching, buff guy?" How about the invitation to the ranch in Crawford, where Abramoff would have joined all of the other big Bush fund-raisers? Abramoff didn't go to that-it fell on the Sabbath, which, as an Orthodox Jew, Abramoff observes-but how about that speech Bush gave to big donors in 2003, when Abramoff sat only a few feet away, between Republican senators George Allen (Virginia) and Orrin Hatch (Utah), and was the only lobbyist on the dais?
"He has one of the best memories of any politician I have ever met," Abramoff wrote of the president in yet another of his notorious e-mails, which have evolved from his principal means of communication to the rope with which he has hanged, and continues to hang, himself. "Perhaps he has forgotten everything. Who knows."
There are other people from Abramoff's more distant past who also never knew him, such as former Republican House Speaker (and rumored 2008 presidential candidate) Newt Gingrich, who first never met Abramoff during the latter's firebrand days atop the College Republicans. "Before his picture appeared on tv and in the newspapers, Newt wouldn't have known him if he fell across him. He hadn't seen him in 10 years," Gingrich's spokesman, Rick Tyler, tells me. That this especially rankles Abramoff becomes clear as he rummages through a box of old memorabilia with me. "Here's [former Republican Texas congressman and House majority leader] Dick Armey," he tells me. "Here's Newt. Newt. Newt. [Former president Ronald] Reagan. More Newt. Newt with Grover [Norquist, the Washington conservative Republican ber-strategist and longtime Abramoff friend] this time, and with [Seattle arch-conservative Republican] Rabbi [Daniel] Lapin. But Newt never met me. [Indicted Iran-contra figure and longtime Abramoff friend] Ollie North. Newt. Can't be Newt ... he never met me. Oh, Newt! What's he doing there? Must be a Newt look-alike. I have more pictures of him than I have of my wife. Newt again! It's sick! I thought he never met me!"
After a public evisceration unlike any in recent history, and facing a decade or more in jail, Jack Abramoff, the 47-year-old father of five, who spent 10 hyperkinetic, largely introspection-free years as both Washington's most powerful lobbyist and a key Republican activist, is contrite and humble. He is trying to salvage for himself a modicum of self-respect, along with some mercy and understanding from the judge who holds his fate in her hands. He admits that he stepped over ethical lines, insulted and misled his clients, offended the God to whom he regularly prays. By court decree, he owes the Indian tribes approximately $25 million in restitution, and he owes the I.R.S. at least $1.7 million. On Yom Kippur, the Jewish day of atonement, when Orthodox Jews beat their breasts for their sins, he can flagellate himself with great conviction. But for Jack Abramoff, the time for on-the-record rancor is over. However angry he may be with former cronies who supped at his trough and accepted his favors but who now call him a "sleazebag" or a "creep" and wish he'd never been born, he bites his tongue. What really upsets him is all this revisionism, all these people pretending he never existed.
"Any important Republican who comes out and says they didn't know me is …