When Matthew Continetti took a job at the Weekly Standard a few years ago, he was a young conservative committed to denouncing big government. But Continetti was surprised by what he found in the nation's capital: Republican operatives were "getting rich off conservative power," leaving Washington a city "on the brink of major scandal."
It's not on the brink anymore. As Jack Abramoff and Tom DeLay dominate the political headlines, Continetti has written a hastily assembled but timely account of GOP corruption -- instigated, he writes, by "K Street Conservatives" who have shed their movement's libertarian heritage and become enthralled with power and the pursuit of personal wealth. The K Street Gang carries additional weight because its charges come not from a liberal author or even a nonpartisan reporter but from a card-carrying conservative. The book is arguably the most detailed chronicle to date of how some of Continetti's erstwhile allies made a wrong turn in the past decade.
The fiasco began, he argues, when Rep. Tom DeLay (R-Tex.) was elected House majority whip in December 1994, just one month after the GOP won control of both houses of Congress. DeLay was interested not in promoting small-government conservatism but in tightening his party's grip on power. He flung open the doors of the Capitol, working with lobbyists to raise money to reinforce his majority while giving big business its cut. Republican lawmakers inserted pet provisions into bills, and the size of government actually expanded -- flying, Continetti notes, in the face of the GOP's traditional Reaganite agenda.
Enter Jack Abramoff, an ex-Hollywood producer who financed B-movie flops before joining the law firm Preston Gates Ellis & Rouvelas Meeds in late 1994. DeLay was about to create golden opportunities for men like Abramoff -- and the tycoon-turned-lobbyist took full advantage.
According to Continetti, Abramoff's stock in trade was wrapping his clients' causes in anti-government-meddling rhetoric. Abramoff saw the Northern Mariana Islands as "a free-market utopia" (in Continetti's phrase) and arranged junkets there for DeLay and other conservative lawmakers, many of whom relaxed at the Hyatt Regency and played golf. DeLay called the Marianas "a perfect Petri dish of capitalism" and insisted that they should not be subjected to federal labor laws.
Abramoff had plenty of unsavory companions on K Street. When the conservative activist Grover Norquist wanted to raise funds in 1999 for his organization, Americans for Tax Reform, he asked Abramoff (a friend from their days as College Republicans) to plug a "$75K hole in my budget"; Abramoff leaned on his Indian clients to donate money to Norquist's organization.
The hypocrisy was rampant. Continetti writes that the principles of former Christian Coalition leader Ralph Reed "appear to be no match for his profit margins." Faced with legislation in Louisiana that would have reduced the proceeds to one of Abramoff's Indian gaming clients, Reed deployed what he described as "pro-family forces" to defeat the bill.
Some of DeLay's former aides -- most notably Michael Scanlon, a DeLay press secretary turned lobbyist -- made bundles working with Abramoff. Adopting a scheme called "Gimme Five," Scanlon signed contracts with Abramoff's clients and kicked back proceeds to Abramoff -- without telling their clients that the two men were working together. At one point, Abramoff e-mailed Scanlon to ask whether he could "smell the money?!?!?!" The question had to have been rhetorical: Scanlon at one point was spending $17,000 per month to rent an apartment at Washington's Ritz-Carlton and using a helicopter to visit his $4.7 million mansion in Rehoboth Beach, Del. All told, Abramoff and Scanlon made more than $66 million over three years while doing what Continetti calls shoddy work for their Indian tribe gaming clients -- and while Abramoff was referring to them in e-mails as "troglodytes" and "monkeys."
Unfortunately, Continetti's account feels unfinished: These scandals are still unfolding, after all. Some of his terms are also confusing, his biographical sketches of his antiheroes are too cursory to put the scandals into their proper context, and his narrative jumps inconsistently from one scandal-laden episode to the next. Moreover, according to Continetti's endnotes, his book is based almost entirely on e-mails previously released by the Senate's Indian Affairs Committee, criminal complaints against Abramoff and others, and newspaper and magazine articles chronicling the Abramoff saga, including the groundbreaking, Pulitzer Prize-winning pieces by The Washington Post's Susan Schmidt, James V. Grimaldi and R. Jeffrey Smith.
Still, Continetti's book is useful because it suggests that conservatives are now more ensnared than ever: DeLay's GOP remained in power in part because he so successfully figured out how to work with K Street to keep it there. Now that DeLay has announced his resignation from Congress and Abramoff and other "K Street Conservatives" have entered guilty pleas in federal courts, the right's struggle to regain its credibility will remain one of the outstanding questions of American politics for years to come. Can conservatives repair the damage done by the K Street scandals? Continetti suggests that they have their work cut out for them.
Reviewed by Matthew Dallek
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