It's Not Personal, Jack, It's Strictly Business

By MAUREEN DOWD

New York Times

December 4, 2006

WASHINGTON

The sight of Jack Abramoff striding out of federal court here yesterday, looking like a stocky gangster from a 40's movie in black fedora and trench coat, may seem like the strongest evidence so far of how graft and hubris have overwhelmed the capital.

It could have been a scene from "The Godfather," a favorite film of the felonious lobbyist. The Washington Post reported that he "did business with people linked to the underworld," bilked Indian tribes of tens of millions and then lavished a bundle in tribal gambling profits on greedy members of Congress.

The Post said Mr. Abramoff loved to amuse colleagues by imitating Michael Corleone as he rejected a corrupt politician's demand for a share of Mafia gambling money: "Senator, you can have my answer now if you like. My offer is this: nothing."

But just because this is a scale of amorality and blatant sale of government that astonishes even Washington cynics, why look on the dark side?

The Abramoff plea bargain may have left his former business partners and political pals panicking, wondering if the rat will rat them out. The Republican congressmen Tom DeLay and Bob Ney are among the sleazy solons caught up in the scandal, and the House speaker, Dennis Hastert, scrambled yesterday to launder $69,000 in dirty Abramoff contributions, donating the wad to charity. And then there's Ralph Reed, the choirboy Bible thumper who used his links to Christian groups to immorally play Indian tribes off against each other.

But looking at the big picture, in some ways the imperial presidency is working out quite well for everyone.

Think about it: all those congressmen don't really need to do their jobs anymore. With the president able to make war more or less as he chooses, treat the enemy as he sees fit and snoop on Americans at will, our representatives have more time for the duty many are clearly best suited to: playing golf gratis in Scotland. (Remember how the White House press used to give poor Bill Clinton such a hard time about mere mulligans?)

Now that Dick Cheney has freed Congress from the bother of advising and/or consenting, lawmakers can work on new ways to game the system and wallow in the G.O.P.'s culture of corruption - while tut-tutting about the decline in American moral values.

Since the Republican-run Capitol doesn't have to worry about holding the Bush White House accountable for excesses in torture and spying and the other myriad ways it has placed itself above the law, congressmen have more leisure hours for Abramoff successors to treat them to some Redskins games and steak dinners.

Checks and balances are now as quaint as the Geneva Conventions. Congress is complicit in putting its thumb on the scale for the executive branch.

The Post reported that W. had taken advantage of an innovation started years ago by Samuel Alito Jr. to shore up executive privilege. As a young Justice Department lawyer in the Reagan administration, Mr. Alito created a strategy that has the president declare what laws mean when he signs them. Mr. Alito wanted the courts to focus as much on the president's interpretation of a law as on what he called "legislative intent."

W. has issued at least 108 such statements, The Post said, rejecting "provisions in bills that the White House regarded as interfering with its powers in national security, intelligence policy and law enforcement."

And since the imperial presidency is run by the vice president, W. has a lot of free time to do the things he likes to do. Confined with his wife and mother-in-law at the Crawford ranch, he spent his Christmas vacation mountain-biking and clearing brush.

He left the ranch for a brief visit at Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio, where he kidded in a way that again showed his jarring lack of empathy with the amputees from Iraq and Afghanistan: "As you can possibly see, I have an injury myself - not here at the hospital, but in combat with a cedar. I eventually won. The cedar gave me a little scratch. As a matter of fact, the colonel asked if I needed first aid when she first saw me. I was able to avoid any major surgical operations here, but thanks for your compassion, colonel."

W. also used the occasion to defend the Nixonian eavesdropping program that even made John Ashcroft and his deputy, James Comey, skittish. As The Times reported, Andy Card and Alberto Gonzales had to make an emergency trip to see the reluctant Mr. Ashcroft in the hospital in March 2004 to get the program recertified because Mr. Comey had balked.

You know you're in trouble when John Ashcroft is worried about overreaching.