Big turkey at center of latest 'culture of corruption'


WASHINGTON -- "Wall Street loves bulls and bears, but not hogs," a stockbroker friend once told me. As the scandal now unfurling around superlobbyist Jack Abramoff illustrates, something similar might well be said of the busy boulevard at the center of Washington's lawyer-lobbying activities: K Street loves hawks and doves, but not turkeys.

Mr. Abramoff was quite the flamboyant gobbler. That was before a battalion of FBI agents went to work on him and his friends. His plea deal after the New Year's holiday to various charges of conspiracy, fraud and tax evasion has sent some of Washington's biggest political movers and shakers running into the tall grass as their aides feverishly started sending Mr. Abramoff's campaign donations to charities.

His suddenly forgetful friends include dozens of members of Congress, most of them Republicans, because they have had the most influence.

Even President Bush's campaign returned $6,000 in Abramoff donations, although that does not include the more than $100,000 in donations Mr. Abramoff solicited from others to qualify him for the exalted "Pioneer" status among Bush donors.

Some Republicans have been quick to point out that Mr. Abramoff had Democratic friends, too. Indeed, of the $4.5 million Mr. Abramoff funneled to politicians since 1999, about a third went to Democrats, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.

And, certainly, there's nothing new about graft and corruption in government, as evidenced by Abscam, the Keating Five, former House Speaker Jim Wright's bulk book sales to the Teamsters and numerous other scandals that occurred during the decades when Democrats were in charge of Congress.

But, as former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, among other thinking conservatives, has pointed out, it is not enough to kick the old rascals out, if you only are going to bring new rascals in. Led by the Gingrich "revolution" in the wake of Mr. Wright's scandal, Republicans came to power in both houses of Congress in 1994 as reformers.

After Mr. Gingrich's departure in 1999, after 84 ethics charges filed by Democrats, and after the beginnings of the Bush-DeLay era, Washington's Republicans increasingly looked less like a movement and more like a machine.

House Majority Leader Tom DeLay of Texas and fundraiser-activist Grover G. Norquist, an Abramoff pal, initiated the K Street Project to enforce preferences for lobbying firms that were as pro-Republican as possible. It apparently didn't hurt if they also hired former Republican House staffers.

Now there is lots of talk about how Republicans need to clean up their own house: For starters, put some real teeth into the House Ethics Committee and dump the rascals who have brought on these new headaches.

The Abramoff scandal has given Democrats a new theme: Clean up the "culture of corruption" in Washington. So far, the theme has given Democrats a surprising boost in some polls.

But as we head toward midterm elections, Democrats need to offer something more substantive than just sarcastic attacks on the other party.

A lot of voters remember when a similar culture of corruption flourished among powerful Democrats. But the big difference with the Abramoff scandal is volume. He squeezed more money out of unsuspecting Indian tribes and other clients and spread more of it around in the last five or six years than the great swine of the past funneled in their entire careers.

There is a big lesson here for Democrats, if they can temper their glee at their adversaries' misfortune: There, but for fortune and voters' wishes, go what could have been some greedy Democrats. It's not enough to tell voters what to vote against; you also need to offer appealing programs for which they can vote.

Clarence Page is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune. His column appears Tuesdays and Fridays in The Sun. His e-mail is

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