Jack Abramoff: The Man Who Bought Washington

From deep inside the Republican elite, Jack Abramoff brought new excesses to the lobbying game. Who is he, and how did he get away with it for so long?

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The fact that the scandal is breaking at the beginning of midterm-election season promises that it will be amplified in political ads and coverage around the country. Even though he gave away the contributions he took from Abramoff and his clients, Montana Senator Burns, who heads the subcommittee that controls Interior's budget and is up for re-election, will continue to face questions about every move he made that helped the lobbyist. "I hope he goes to jail and we never see him again," Burns said in yet another interview on the subject with a Montana television station. "I wish he'd never been born, to be be right honest with you."


Jack Abramoff's first venture into politics was probably a clue that the future superlobbyist had a rather flexible view of the rules: he was disqualified in his 1972 race for president of his Beverly Hills elementary school, after a teacher discovered he had violated the school's campaign spending limits by serving hot dogs at an election party. But Abramoff persisted, running again for student-body president in high school and failing. He later recalled those days in an interview with the Beverly Hills Weekly as "probably the last time I've really been involved in totally fair campaigns."

Where the short, thickset Abramoff did make his mark was on the football field and in the weight room. As a Beverly Hills High School senior, the Los Angeles Times reported last week, Abramoff became the first member of the school's 2700 Club, for lifting a combined total of 2,700 lbs. in the power squat, dead lift, bench press and clean and jerk. He was one of the North Side kids, from the more privileged side of the Santa Monica Boulevard line that separated the superrich from the merely wealthy. Abramoff's father Frank had transplanted the family from Atlantic City, N.J., when he became a top executive at the then exclusive Diners Club credit-card company and a protégé of one of Ronald Reagan's closest friends, Diners Club chairman Alfred Bloomingdale.

While his parents were not particularly observant Jews, Abramoff's life took a pious turn when he was 12 and saw Fiddler on the Roof. He began to study Judaism, taught himself Hebrew and walked to temple on Saturday. It was something his parents never fully understood; while they have stayed close and visited him often as an adult, a former associate of Abramoff's tells TIME, they have always stayed at a hotel during visits, rather than following the strictures of the Orthodox household that Abramoff, his wife Pam and their five children keep in Silver Spring, Md.

Abramoff's politics were also conservative. As a student at Brandeis University in Massachusetts, he and Grover Norquist, a Harvard Business School student who later became one of the most powerful G.O.P. antitax activists of the Bush era, undertook the challenge of trying to mobilize the state's famously liberal college students behind Reagan in 1980. Norquist recalls they scored a big political coup in winning over the Bostoner Rebbe, one of the nation's most influential Hasidic leaders, whose endorsement they figured was good for about 3,000 votes. That was just about the size of Reagan's upset victory in the state.

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