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The Ballad of Casino Jack

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The Ballad of Casino Jack.

The festival was over and the boys were all planning for a fall.
The cabaret was quiet except for the drilling in the wall.
The curfew had been lifted and the gambling wheel shut down.
Anyone with any sense had already left town.
He was standing in the doorway looking like the Jack of Hearts.

Thanks, Bob, I got it from here. As the links above attest, the sordid dealings of “Casino Jack” Abramoff and his GOP associates — most notably Tom DeLay and Bob Ney — made for solid blog fodder here at GitM for several years. So, between that and my current place of work, I probably had more interest than most in Alex Gibney’s Casino Jack and the United States of Money, a documentary recounting Abramoff’s rise-and-fall. And…well, it’s not bad. But, unfortunately, it’s not great either. And in terms of making the points he wants to make, I don’t get the sense Gibney really stuck the landing.

Part of the problem is Casino Jack is a maddeningly mercurial sort — and unlike the recently-released Ney, the soon to trial DeLay, chastened aide Neil Volz, and others, he and “Gimme Five” kickback co-conspirator Michael Scanlon choose not to go on the record here. So, right away, there is a cipher at the center of this ostensibly biographical story. And even more problematic for the film’s narrative and structure: Casino Jack had his fingers in a lot of pies, and if there was any way to game the political system somehow to make money, he was on the case. In short, this is one long, twisted, and convoluted story.

And thus, Gibney is left with the ungainly task of trying to explain how Abramoff turned Northern Marianas sweatshops into a bribe farm for GOP congressmen, and how his shady, playing-both-sides kickback operation gamed Native American casinos. Not to mention how his phantom think-tank on the Delaware coast was in fact a money-laundering outfit. Or how the seemingly Mob-connected takeover of a fleet of Suncruz casino ships — and the murder of its former owner — went down. And, amidst all this, how Abramoff managed to move up the GOP food chain by throwing his money around, and was depressingly successful at it. This is all not even withstanding weird tangents like Red Scorpion. So, while Gibney does an admirable job explaining the details of these various operations, he has to jump through so many hoops to get it all down that the Big Picture often gets lost.

I’m probably being a little too hard on this doc, if only because I went in with very high expectations. I was hoping Casino Jack would be more of a concise and devastating prosecutorial brief about the plague of unfettered money in politics, but it’s more broad and meandering than that. (And, to be fair, whenever you take a subject this broad, there will be some meandering — See also Why We Fight.) Still, as I said, even if the high-level connections aren’t quite nailed down, Gibney does a good job of nailing the specifics of each particular grift — the sweatshops and casinos and whatnot. And, coming across with the nerdy charm of a more buttoned-down, politically-minded version of R.E.M.’s Mike Mills, author and ex-Republican Thomas Frank (The Wrecking Crew, What’s the Matter with Kansas) is an appealing interviewee throughout, and he enlivens the discussion considerably.

Speaking of Frank’s ex-GOP years: If you already knew the contours of this Abramoff story (and I suspect most of the people who bother to see this film will), perhaps the most interesting part of Casino Jack is the first half-hour, which chronicles the old College Republican days of friends Abramoff, Grover Norquist, and Ralph Reed. And from Reed’s penchant for outlandish stunts at campus protests, to Norquist’s unabashed admiration for Leninist tactics, to Abramoff et al’s abortive attempt to engage the Third World in their free-market fundie ways, it’s seem as if the young Reagan Right of the ’80s were mainly just a cracked-funhouse-mirror version of the ’60’s New Left they so despise. (This is also in keeping with what you might expect from books like Rick Perlstein’s Before the Storm, about the ’64 Goldwater campaign.)

Still, as we move into the present day and these young conservatives fan out into the political system, Casino Jack and the United States of Money unfortunately gets its overarching message muddled. Is this movie about the former (Abramoff) or the latter (the U.S.M.)? Is Casino Jack a uniquely well-connected criminal mastermind, or, worse, the clearest expression of a political system overwhelmed by cold, hard cash? It’s true the answer to this question may just be “yes,” but the documentary can’t seem to decide at times if it wants to skewer Abramoff (and, by extension, his “unindicted co-conspirators”) or catch bigger game — the whole rotten system — and as a result, both sorta end up writhing off the hook.

At one point, Casino Jack gets caught up recounting the exceptionally douchey e-mail traffic between Abramoff and Scanlon, which is fun and all. (The best laugh in the movie is when the beach bum lifeguard running their Delaware front operation turns out to be savvier than these two would-be Masters of the Universe: “Uh, you’ve been putting this all in e-mails?”) But, even as we delve into these sordid details, the scarier implications of the Abramoff story feel shortchanged — that not only does this pay-to-play stuff seem business as usual for the Dubya White House and DeLay ring, but worse, that this monied corruption festering at the heart of our republic is both legal and even institutionalized.

And so, when the Citizens United fiasco comes up at the end, it unfortunately feels like a bit of a non-sequitur, rather than the sad culmination of the story we’ve been told for two hours. Casino Jack and the United States of Money is an able attempt at muckraking, but, to my mind, it fails to capture the true horror unfolding here: Jack Abramoff may be languishing in prison right now, and for many, many good reasons. But the mess of a system he thrived in is still right here with us — and if anything, after Citizens United, it might soon be getting worse.

Friends in Low Places.

“I need to know if Stayman is a career or a political appointee…I think we can do something about it, but I’m trying to figure out what is the best way to go about it. I don’t want a firing scandal on our hands.” An e-mail trail published by the Washington Post illustrates how Casino Jack Abramoff used the Dubya White House to remove his enemies, in this case a State Department aide advocating labor reforms in the Northern Marianas. (“ Abramoff’s clients wanted to keep paying immigrants less than the federal minimum wage to work in textile factories.“)

The Obama Record: Consensus.

In Washington, Obama continued to work on ethics issues, teaming up with fellow Democrat Russ Feingold after a series of national scandals surrounding GOP lobbyist Jack Abramoff. Their legislation required more disclosure of pork-barrel spending and the ‘bundlers’ who collect large campaign contributions. James Thurber, director of American University’s Center for Congressional and Presidential Studies, says Obama deserves much of the credit for the cleanup. ‘I think he was one of the major forces behind the provisions that came out in the act,’ says Thurber, who testified to Congress on the issues. ‘He held meetings, a lot of cross-party ones. He was trying to find support where he could.’” A thoughtful Newsweek piece by Richard Wolfe and Karen Springen examines the consensus-building nature of Obama’s leadership in both the Illinois and U.S. Senate. “Hillary Clinton says Obama’s ethics reforms left too many loopholes…Yet Clinton herself was one of 20 Democrats who rejected the Office of Public Integrity idea.

Old-School Document Dump?

Monday: A judge orders the White House to release all visitor logs within 20 days. Wednesday: A two-alarm fire at the OEOB. Hmm…

Congress/Judge to WH: Tear down the Wall!

So much for those early, hopeful signs of independence…Attorney General Michael Mukasey tries to stonewall both a Congressional investigation and a Judicial investigation into the destroyed CIA tapes, arguing it would impede the Justice Department’s own inquiry into the matter. “‘We are stunned that the Justice Department would move to block our investigation,’ Reps. Silvestre Reyes (D-Tex.) and Peter Hoekstra (R-Mich.) said in the [responding] statement. ‘Parallel investigations occur all of the time, and there is no basis upon which the Attorney General can stand in the way of our work.’

And, in somewhat related news, conservative judge Royce Lamberth, who earlier butted heads with the administration over FISA, rules that — despite what Dick Cheney thinks on the matterWhite House visitor logs are public records, meaning visits from “Casino Jack” Abramoff and/or religious conservatives can no longer be kept secret on account of (dubious appeals to) “national security.” Looks like it’s win-some, lose-some for Dubya’s imperial pretensions this week.

Ballad of Casino Jack, Refrain?

“The White House has said that Jack Abramoff had very little contact with the President’s staff and that it wanted all the relevant facts to be public. The 600 pages of documents it is withholding are directly relevant and should be produced.” Remember Casino Jack? Henry Waxman does, and has asked the White House to produce 600 pages of information previously withheld from the House investigation into Abramoff’s activities. (And this time, the White House might actualy play ball. Given an out by Waxman — that the information might be shown only to committee staff rather than going public — White House Counsel Fred Fielding pounced, “saying he was ‘pleased that such a concept is proposed in your letter’ and pledging to ‘seek to accommodate our respective interests in the documents we have withheld.’“)

McNulty, Bunk, Freamon…Heaton.

It played its part against the Barksdale operation in Baltimore. Now it seems an undercover wire may have helped bring down GOP rep and Abramoff flunky Bob Ney. “‘Heaton’s substantial assistance in the investigation and prosecution of Ney was critical to Ney’s decision to admit his involvement in the corrupt relationship with Abramoff,’ Butler wrote. ‘The tapes made by Heaton captured important circumstantial evidence that statements Ney had made to others about matters material to the investigation were false or intentionally misleading.’

Reform: The Next Step.

“So many concerns raised by the Abramoff scandals were enforcement issues. There is no change to that here.” Heartened by the comprehensive ethics bill passed by the House last week, observers nevertheless argue that more stringent enforcement mechanisms are needed to make congressional reform real. “Government watchdogs and ethics lawyers generally agree that the bill would shed new light on the Washington influence game but wonder how those who don’t play ball would be found and punished. Without an effective bureaucracy for managing the flow of new disclosures provided by the law, they say, the legislation won’t mean much.

A New Day in Washington?

“‘We have kept our promise to drain the swamp that is Washington, D.C.,’ Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said, adding that the legislation is ‘historic.’” “These are big-time fundamental reforms,’ said Fred Wertheimer, president of the open-government group Democracy 21.Noted Common Cause president Bob Edgar: ” If there is a positive side to Jack Abramoff and the wave of congressional scandal, this is it.

Yes, this could be big. In the wake of the broiling Stevens scandal, the House votes 411-8 to pass a comprehensive new ethics bill: “Secret ‘holds’ in the Senate, which allow a single senator to block action without disclosing his or her tactics, would end. Members of Congress would no longer be allowed to attend lavish convention parties thrown in their honor. Gifts, meals and travel funded by lobbyists would be banned, and travel on corporate jets would be restricted.” In addition, “bundles” — small campaign contributions packaged together — will now have to be disclosed, along with political contributions by lobbyists and the identities of the lobbyists themselves.

Of course, the bill still has to pass the Senate, where some conservatives are threatening to force a filibuster vote (in part due to the weakening of earmark rules, which is admittedly rather annoying.) But that was before Stevens’ unfortunate run-in with the FBI, so we’ll see. Right now, I’m cautiously optimistic that the right-wing will have to fall in line. As Meredith McGehee of the Campaign Legal Center put it: “It may not be a grand slam, but it’s a home run…There is no credible excuse to oppose this legislation.

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