When Jack Abramoff was a high school football and weightlifting jock and an indifferent young Jew growing up in Beverly Hills, he saw the movie version of “Fiddler on the Roof,” and it changed his life.
The musical about God-fearing folks in the fictional shtetl of Anatevka had such a profound impact on the young Abramoff that he became a ba’al teshuvah, teaching himself Hebrew and transforming himself into an observant Jew, with some Conservative touches. He chose to study at Brandeis University, reportedly because it had a kosher kitchen.
As unlikely as it may seem to a secular observer to view “Fiddler” as a life-changing spiritual experience, the story is vouched for by Alex Gibney, producer, writer and director of “Casino Jack and the United States of Money.” Gibney’s previous work includes an Academy Award for the 2007 documentary feature “Taxi to the Dark Side” and an Oscar nomination for “Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room.”
Gibney spent about a dozen hours talking to Abramoff during visits to the federal prison where the latter is serving a four-year sentence after pleading guilty to three felony counts for conspiracy, fraud and tax evasion.
Stories of obscenely rich financial manipulators who betrayed their clients, the public and the government have become so common that it may be necessary to remember that between the late 1990s and the early part of this century, Abramoff reigned as the super lobbyist and king of corruption in Washington. He funneled gobs of money to some 210 U.S. senators and representatives, hosted lavish overseas junkets and triggered the resignation of Tom DeLay as the powerful House majority leader.
Abramoff also was the chief lobbyist for a number of Native American tribes, seeking favorable treatment for their lucrative gambling casinos, which were promptly taken for a ride by “Casino Jack.”
Abramoff was forbidden by prison authorities to speak on camera, but Gibney recruited a rogue’s gallery of lawmakers and their top aides, augmented by journalists and civic watchdogs, to draw a picture of the man and his complex machinations.
What we get, as one associate observes, is “a lobbyist from central casting” — good-looking, charming and intelligent — who, from adolescence on, championed hard-line Republican ideology (though he spread some of his favors to Democrats, as well).
Some samples of Abramoff’s services boggle the mind. In a film clip, we see former Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad denouncing international Jewish conspiracies, though that did not prevent Mahathir from approaching the Jewish lobbyist with a personal request, Gibney recounted.
In return for a $1 million payment, Abramoff was asked whether he could arrange for Mahathir to meet President George W. Bush for a joint photo. Abramoff could and did.
It is hardly a secret that the recent roster of financial manipulators includes, beside Abramoff, such Jewish names as Bernard Madoff and, currently, Goldman Sachs CEO Lloyd Blankfein.
In an earlier generation, when the public shame of one Jew sent nervous shivers down the collective spine of the entire Jewish community, such numerous revelations might have led to a communal heart attack.
It may be a sign of a certain maturation and heightened sense of security that, so far, the Jewishness of the convicted or suspected miscreants has been accepted with relative equanimity both by the Jewish community and the American public at large.
Nevertheless, we put it to Gibney, self-described “lapsed Catholic,” whether he had any concerns beforehand that his film might be met with protests by members of the Jewish community and their ever-alert defense agencies.
Gibney acknowledged that such considerations had been very much on his mind, and, given the indicated prevalence of Jewish names involved in recent financial scandals, the filmmaker murmured,
“Thank God for Ken Lay” (the non-Jewish Enron chairman).
“When I visited Jack in prison, I found him to be funny, a great storyteller and repentant about some of the pain he had caused,” Gibney said. “In the film, I try to show him as a certain universal type, rather than a specifically Jewish one.”
What struck Gibney, however, was that some of the most corrupt actors in the Abramoff drama were at the same time profoundly religious. Among them were DeLay and his chief of staff, Ed Buckham, both ferrvently born-again Christians, as well as Ralph Reed, founder of the Christian Coalition, turned politician.
“A lot of people think it’s the height of irony that these guys were zealots and idealists and highly religious, but I don’t think it’s ironic at all,” Gibney said. “I think sometimes when you believe you are on the side of right, you also believe that you can’t do a bad deed, because it’s all for a holy cause. In my experience, that’s how corruption starts.”
One drawback of “universalizing” Abramoff is that the film makes no mention of his initiative in establishing and supporting Orthodox religious schools in the nation’s capital and his readiness to aid needy Jews.
His defenders also point out that rather than spending his wealth on flashy mistresses and cars, the private Abramoff was a solid family man who lived relatively modestly with his wife and five children.
Abramoff is due to move from prison to a halfway house in June and to complete his sentence by the end of this year.
After his period of relative obscurity, Abramoff is likely to come to renewed public attention. In addition to the release of the Gibney documentary this week, a feature film starring Kevin Spacey as the lobbyist and also (tentatively) titled “Casino Jack,” is to open toward the end of the year.
“Casino Jack” opens May 7 at the Sunset 5 in West Hollywood, Landmark 2 in West Los Angeles, Town Center 5 in Encino, Playhouse 7 in Pasadena and South Coast Village 3 in Santa Ana.