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Tom DeLay’s day in the barrel

The Washington Post adds some detail today about the connections between Republican Congressman Tom DeLay and Jack Abramoff, the K Street kingpin who is reportedly in the final stages of negotiating a plea bargain with federal prosecutors.

Today’s story follows on the heels of a Thursday one by Susan Schmidt and James Grimaldi which purports to provide a timeline and broad outline of Abramoff’s rise to power in Washington; it also serves to distance Abramoff from DeLay in particular, and to paint Abramoff as someone who exaggerated his influence in Congress and the White House. On the latter front, Karl Rove’s hiring of Abramoff’s key assistant is said to be the work of Ralph Reed, an Abramoff associate and former head of the Christian Coalition, rather than of Abramoff himself. Susan Ralston’s desire to distance herself from Abramoff at this point isn’t mysterious, but the idea that she left Abramoff without his blessing at the height of his power to take a job with the key player in the incoming Bush administration doesn’t pass any test, smell, laugh or otherwise.

Atrios pointed out the most peculiar passage in the story — “DeLay, a Christian conservative, did not quite know what to make of Abramoff, who wore a beard and a yarmulke. They forged political ties, but the two men never became personally close, according to associates of both men.” — and wonders if it’s meant to suggest that a deeply conservative if notoriously flexible Christian like DeLay couldn’t possibly become close to an Orthodox Jew.

I’d suggest it goes a bit further than that, and signals the onset of a “The Jew made me do it” defense aimed at holding DeLay’s political base together as his troubles mount. We all know how valuable “the other” is to Republicans of all stripes these days, and how well the sense of victimization plays among the rubes who support the party that at present has a stranglehold on government.

Atrios also notes that a month ago, Grimaldi and Schmidt quoted DeLay’s comment that Abramoff is “one of my closest and dearest friends.” For some reason, he thinks DeLay’s take on the subject deserves more emphasis than that of “associates of both men,” and might have warranted a little compare-and-contrast coverage in the more recent story.

Today’s Post story describes the workings of the U.S. Family Network, a supposed “grass roots” organization touted by DeLay as “a powerful nationwide organization dedicated to restoring our government to citizen control.” In fact, the organization appears to have been funded entirely by a handful of Abramoff clients, and to have spent its revenue on payments to the consulting firm of a former DeLay chief of staff — who turned around and paid DeLay’s wife $3000/month for providing him with lists of charities favored by other members of Congress — on a Washington townhouse, purchased with cash and used by both DeLay and his powerhouse political action committee, ARMPAC, for fundraising operations, and on attack ads against Democrats. The townhouse was convenient for DeLay, since lawmakers are prohibited from fundraising on federal property and it was only a few blocks from Capitol Hill.

Maybe the organization really was dedicated to citizen control of government, but the citizens in question appear to have been Abramoff, DeLay and their clients.

Let’s revisit the Grimaldi-Schmidt story from Thursday for a moment, and in particular the peculiarity of that first encounter between DeLay and the bearded, yarmulke-sporting Abramoff, which occurred in 1996. At that point DeLay had served six terms since his election in 1984. He was an unflagging supporter of hard line Israelis, many of whom, we can assume, were Orthodox and wore yarmulkes, just as newly anointed Republican Democratic saint Joe Lieberman is and does. The notion that DeLay would have been thrown by the religion or appearance of a Jewish lobbyist, particularly one wired into the Republican power structure, is absurd. And of course we know for sure that DeLay did know what to make of the mountains of non-yarmulked dead presidents Abramoff shovelled his way during the next several years.

It isn’t surprising that politicians, political operatives and Abramoff’s fellow lobbyists are running as far and as fast as they can from him, although in a lot of cases that’ll turn out to be a necessarily short sprint. It’s only slightly more surprising that Schmidt, who was labored hard to earn her “Steno Sue” sobriquet, would uncritically report the DeLay camp’s spin on his relationship with Abramoff. It’s more than a bit aggravating, though, that she and her co-writer wouldn’t bother to check today’s spin against yesterday’s DeLay quotes, and it’s borderline criminal that she and Grimaldi would include Abramoff’s alien Jew appearance without an attribution or, apparently, without even thinking through the connotations of it. But you can expect to see much more of the fat Jew corrupting God-fearing Chrisitan politicians with his filthy lucre and wily ways— not because DeLay and his ilk are anti-Semitic, but because many people in their fan base are. With any luck, or perhaps with a lot of luck, reporters will be a tad less credulous about distributing the meme.

Abramoff is the lens through which any examination of GOP corruption is now focused, but, as forcibly retired California Republican Duke Cunningham can testify from his cell, Abramoff isn’t the only game in town. Citizens for Ethics and Responsibility in Washington (CREW) recently launched a website dedicated to the “thirteen most corrupt members of Congress,” among whom are included DeLay’s replacement as House majority leader, Roy Blunt, and Senate majority leader Bill Frist, and a couple of House members caught up in Cunningham’s wake.

Assuming any indictments resulting from Abramoff’s cooperation with prosecutors aren’t tagged as 20 or 30 (or 40 or 50) isolated incidents, the scandal might serve to focus attention on less ambitious forms of corruption. The fact is that no matter how heinous the scams Abramoff and his Congressional enablers ran, they’re only the tip of what is a fundamentally rotten iceberg of a system. Absent reforms that surgically excises corporate financing of campaigns and lobbying, corruption will remain the rule. Seeing Abramoff and DeLay in orange jumpsuits, no matter how deleriously enjoyable, isn’t going to change that; it just might, however, give reformers a shot at tipping the balance.

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UPDATE: Jack in the House provides a handy guide to Abramoff’s best friends in Congress and the GOP establishment.

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