In the Dock

I just attended a public interview by Larry Lessig of Jack Abramoff, under the banner of the Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics, of which Lessig is the director. The interview was billed as the first of a (potential) series of public interviews of people whose unethical behavior has led to their imprisonment. (In this case the title is something of a misnomer; Abramoff was released almost a year ago.) My friend Chris was there too.

The exchange was distinctly more cordial than one might have expected between a famously ethical professor of law and an infamously corrupt convicted felon. I attribute this above all to Abramoff’s uniformly apologetic attitude; it’s hard to stay angry at someone who says, over and over, “I was a really bad person, and I did a lot of terrible things. Now I’m trying to make up for it.”.

Another reason why the two could hardly joust with any spirit is that both have recently published books that recommend detailed plans for eliminating pernicious corruption in Congress by imposing aggressive restrictions on donations to political campaigns. (Lessig claims to have the better proposal, and I think he’s right, but the difference is mostly in the details of how the limits are structured.)

Instead of a debate or deconstruction, what I heard was a conversation between two great orators. Lessig is famous for his public speaking abilities, but Abramoff was hardly worse. His combination of emotional intelligence and verbal skill is extraordinarily persuasive; it was immediately apparent why he had been so tremendously successful — and dangerous — as a lobbyist.

A few choice (approximate) quotations from the discussion:

Lessig: I’d like to thank Jack Abramoff for coming here tonight to help us better understand a system that practically none of us respect.

Lessig: Is it your sense that there’s a shift toward indirect payment from lobbyists, things that could contribute toward getting re-elected and away from things that could contribute toward, say, getting a boat?

Abramoff: Most people think of a Congressional Hearing as something like a court of law, with lawyers on both sides, some sort of high-minded debate about an issue. It’s not. It’s a kangaroo court, and if it goes badly enough for you, you can be locked up in the basement for Contempt of Congress. Even if it goes well, you’re going to spend at least a million dollars.

Abramoff: The most important influence to establish isn’t influence over the congressmen. It’s influence over the staffers. Congressmen are busy; it’s a staffers who make the real decisions about legislation.

Lessig: This reminds me of Jim Cooper’s quote that Congress has become “a farm league for K street”.

Abramoff: Early in my career I used to hire staffers immediately. I would say “when can you start?” and hire them to start the next day, or the next week. Later I learned to say “when are you thinking about leaving the hill?”. They would say “in two years”, and I would say “great, I’ll hire you in two years”. For the next two years, that staffer is my staffer. In fact he’s better than my staffers, because he’s right there in the congressman’s office.

Lessig: Your campaign finance plan would silence a whole lot of people, despite your supposed libertarian leanings.

Abramoff: You know how they say “a conservative is a liberal who’s been mugged”? Well, a libertarian is a conservative who’s been indicted.

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