On DVD: The Outrageous, Spacey-Less Version of Casino Jack

gibney_abramoff_top.jpgAs hot political documentaries go, Alex Gibney's Casino Jack and the United States of Money (not to be confused with George Hickenlooper's competitive, Kevin Spacey-starring Casino Jack) is a lively, action-packed affair, chronicling the career of famed lobbyist Jack Abramoff from hot shot conservative shaker to D.C. megamind and profiteer to a Congressionally excoriated convict and poster boy for economic megalomania. Gibney, a prolific busybody who's made films about Enron, war-on-terror torture practices and Hunter S. Thompson, keeps the movie light and zesty and evidentiary, and if you didn't quite understand what Abramoff did when his name hit the headlines in 2006, here's where you can get it all straight.

Which is what you should do, because Abramoff's story reveals so much that's rotten and horrifying about the way Washington works that it should be required viewing for all voters. Abramoff is typically labeled a "super-lobbyist," but his Wikipedia entry also defines him as a "con-man" (with footnotes to prove it), and yet neither of those seem to get at what his criminal business was really about. Lobbyists are paid to pester congressmen and Executive Branch staffers on behalf of their special interests, and Abramoff didn't "lobby" as we know it; rather, he took millions from corporations and Indian tribes so as to gain the favor of buddy Tom DeLay, back when DeLay was head honcho of the House.

But often Abramoff took the money and did nothing for it -- his sales pitch was the work. He also squeezed the tribes for other exorbitant fees, bribed bankers, took kick backs from vendors, bribed dozens of congressmen, set up dummy companies and think tanks (one CEO'd by a clueless lifeguard!) to launder money from Chinese sweatshops and the Malaysian government, and much more (not to mention the fact that he may have put out a mob-style hit on a millionaire after a deal for casino ships soured).

Special attention is paid to Abramoff's dealings with Congress, and the extent to which our elected leaders routinely legislate in exchange for raw cash is chilling. In fact, Abramoff's entire arc epitomizes the problem we face today, not only with the economic fallout Abramoff and his fellow deregulation-crazy conservative partners created, but with the hellhound barking of Tea Party reactionaries. Abramoff began as a Reagan-worshipping College Conservative alongside power-mongers like Karl Rove, Grover Norquist and Christian Coalition maniac Ralph Reed. Years were spent by them all trying to "bring down" big government and even eradicate the income tax.

But of course, when they gained power with Newt Gingrich's mid-term sweep and then the presidency of Bush II, the opposite happened: government got bigger, and it got bigger because it profited these men to make it so. This is what sticks like a yak's hairball in my throat: that commentary in this country, including to a certain degree Gibney's film, refers to the neo-cons as ideologues, as fanatics of Milton Friedman's free-market philosophy. In that light, they're crusaders, pure-hearted if mistaken.

But we shouldn't believe it for a second, and Abramoff's story makes it clear why: the only ideology any of these bottomfeeders held close to their hearts was the acquisition of power and money. If they talk about ideals in political thought, they mean only what would be ideal for their bank account: big government, small government, free market, regulated market, Christian, secular, whatever fattens the bottom line. Conservatism was just their means to an end, and nothing mattered except cash. On this scale, laws that prevent you from robbing the populace are made to be ignored or changed.

This shouldn't be a surprise to any of us in the generalized abstract -- it always pays to be cynical. But Gibney's film breaks it down into steps so nakedly evil and abusive that any withering hope you held that we lived in a democracy worthy of the word will be squashed. Still, the mainstream media maintain the illusion, consistently supporting the idea that ideological differences separate the Republican and Democratic parties, when it's merely a degree of hunger for money. That degree may be small, but it's unarguable that the Democrats have tried to distinguish themselves by not defining themselves as the party that makes mercenary profit their only priority. It's the least they can do, apparently.

A few people went to jail -- Abramoff is in a halfway house now, and is due to be freed in December. A congressman in Abramoff's pocket, Bob Ney, did time, and speaks frankly (if with little remorse) of his actions. Amazingly, on the DVD supplements, Gibney got three of the convicted felons to attend the film's premiere, including Ney, who's fierce about how citizens must pay attention to federal activity, because our negligence is all the bastards need for cover.

Alas, I doubt it'll happen. Gibney ends his film with the most rattling fact of all: Tom DeLay, after having had to resign from Congress over the Abramoff scandal, appeared on Dancing with the Stars, waltzing around and karoake-ing to The Troggs' "Wild Thing." We don't live in the USA you're thinking about. We live in a country where our disgraced, corrupt ex-leaders cavort on network TV in Liberace-sequined outfits, mouthing the words to old radio songs. Come to think of it, maybe we deserve every last grift.



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