The lesson Jack Abramoff taught me
I’VE LONG BEEN involved in the public eye, but only as a largely unassuming policy nerd. A couple of weeks ago, however, I found myself spotlighted as a player in l’affaire Jack Abramoff -- Abramoff is the lobbyist who pleaded guilty Tuesday to conspiracy, fraud and tax evasion.
Luckily, I missed the real action -- so I won’t be joining him in the dock. Instead, I accepted occasional payments to write on issues of interest to him. But that association cost me a think-tank post and a newspaper column.
My deal with Abramoff created an appearance of a conflict of interest; it made it seem that I spoke for him (or his clients) rather than for myself when I wrote. That was a mistake, and I’m paying a high price. Fair enough.
But this episode ought to do more; it ought to spur a serious discussion about the punditry game. After all, isn’t it a little unseemly for Washington to be suddenly shocked, shocked at the fact that those with interests in what government does (such as Abramoff and his clients) seek out like-minded advocates (such as me and hundreds of other commentators and organizations)?
I came to Washington with Ronald Reagan but left the administration early, frustrated by the domination of Republican apparatchiks. Bent on becoming an opinion journalist, I landed a syndicated column, which was a supportive home. But I could never live on what it paid alone. I affiliated with the Cato Institute, which always encouraged my work. But in the early years my wage there didn’t cover my mortgage, let alone anything else.
So I created a patchwork of jobs. I ghostwrote Op-Ed articles, drafted political speeches, prepared internal corporate briefings and strategized business media campaigns. All the while, I also wrote commentary and opinion pieces.
Clearly, the ethical boundaries in all this aren’t always obvious. Virtually everyone I worked with or wrote for had an ax to grind. Even think tanks and opinion journals have explicit ideological perspectives, which they support through fundraising. Certainly politicians, PR firms, companies and associations have explicit agendas. Although none of the people I worked with or for ever asked me to change a commentary I wrote, when you look back at it, conflicts were possible.
Who decides whether such a potential conflict is sufficiently direct to matter? In 1987, I was paid to help a presidential candidate develop a plan to privatize Social Security. Does that mean I can never have a legitimate opinion on the issue or that politician ever again? And what is an aspiring ideologue to do if he believes something in principle and the person or group willing to offer support to write about it has an economic interest in the outcome?
Many supposedly “objective” thinkers and “independent” scholar/experts these days have blogs or consulting gigs, or they are starting nonprofit Centers for the Study of .... Who funds their books, speeches or other endeavors? Often it’s those with an interest in the outcome of a related debate. The number of folks underwriting the pursuit of pure knowledge can be counted on one hand, if not one finger.
These are not excuses for my actions -- these are issues that should be addressed. Is it “journalism” if the research is helped along by a foundation whose board members have some interest in the subject? How can we be sure that newspapers keep advertisers out of news decisions? Don’t broadcast media hire consultants and pollsters to contribute to their news coverage, people who could benefit financially from promoting the ideas of their other clients? And haven’t reporters sometimes pocketed thousands of dollars speaking at conventions or corporate events and then covered those businesses -- or their issues -- in one way or another?
Which brings me to Abramoff. I was never part of his organization. When I met him years ago, he was an activist who seemed to be promoting issues with which I identified -- federalism, self-help, lower taxes and less regulation.
Later, Abramoff said: Look at these issues. If you agree and want to write on them, we’ll help. I never took a position contrary to my beliefs. I wouldn’t have had the luxury of selling out even had I been so inclined. My biases are too fixed and well known to allow a convenient conversion.
In retrospect, it was stupid because it created an appearance that would bring all of my work into potential disrepute. And the appearance was made worse by Abramoff’s other shenanigans. But it’s silly to suggest that $1,000 or so would buy my opinion. I’m pro-drug legalization, antiabortion, pro-market and antiwar. I dislike, rather than love or hate, President Bush. I have repeated these positions in hundreds of articles over the years.
I made a mistake. Even smart people sometimes do dumb things. I particularly regret embarrassing those who were most kind to me: my syndicate and think tank. With this article I’ve said my last word on the past. Never again will I accept money that could be construed as “buying” an article.
Now I’ll take my (well-earned) licks and try to regain my credibility and the trust of my readers, editors and friends. I have to hope that my offerings are judged on the quality of the arguments, not on a misguided but limited relationship with a particular lobbyist.