The Fitzgerald Hypothesis Tested

F. Scott Fitzgerald famously wrote that ‘There are no second acts in American lives,” but it would seem this applied chiefly to him alone for the obvious reason: Fitzgerald’s literary career peaked in his twenties, with Gatsby.  There have been lots of notable second acts: Ronald Reagan’s political career, for example, or numerous actors like Leslie Nielsen, who went from being a serious dramatist to the straight-man comic.  You can name lots more examples in 30 seconds without much effort.

The Last Tycoon after all?

The “Fitzgerald Hypothesis” comes to mind in noting today’s New York Times story on the attempted rehabilitation of Jack Abramoff (“For Ex-Lobbyist, A Multimedia Effort at Redemption”), the GOP-leaning lobbyist who flamed out in spectacular fashion a few years ago and went off to federal prison for corruption.  I caught his mea culpa interview on “60 Minutes” last week, which turns out to be simply the first of many steps in his campaign to climb back in the saddle:

Mr. Abramoff had come to Manhattan to roll out his rehabilitative media campaign, and with a dozen friends and colleagues — among them his lawyer; his publicist; his literary agent; and the evening’s host, a wealthy Israeli equities investor — he now sat to watch himself on “60 Minutes,” his debut interview since getting out of prison last December.

He’s leaving nothing to chance here: a lawyer, a publicist, and a literary agent?  That’s only the beginning.  As the story goes on:

There is, for instance, his Facebook game app, “Congressional Jack” (think “Farmville” for armchair lobbyists), or his still-developing venture into what his partner-producer, Roy Bank of “Are You Smarter Than a 5th Grader?” fame, likes to call the “unscripted television space.”

Mr. Abramoff is available for speaking engagements (“The Secret of Power,” “A Congress for Sale”) and has briefed F.B.I. agents on the nature of corruption. There is also a feature film in the works about the lobbying milieu, one being financed by the host of Sunday’s party, Eli Zicherman. . .

I’m guessing those speaking engagements will not come cheap.  He’s represented by the Lavin Agency, but like most speakers’ bureaus, the price tag is not advertised and is always subject to negotiation.  And a feature film?  Well, way back in the 1990s I pitched a book tentatively titled Show Business for Ugly People: How Washington and Hollywood Are Coming to Resemble Each Other, and What It Means for America.  I actually got a couple bites on the book, but two things happened—The Age of Reagan project came along instead, and reality overtook my idea too quickly (think “West Wing”) and rendered it somewhat obsolete.  Still, the Hollywoodization of DC proceeds apace in multiple senses of the term, and perhaps someday I’ll come back to that topic more fully.

It is hard to know just how to come down on this.  On the one hand, Abramoff’s newfound clarity about the sleaziness of lobbying activities falls easily into the hand-caught-in-cookie-jar category of now you tell us, or perhaps the better analogy is the defendant who murdered his parents and asks for mercy because he’s now an orphan.  On the other hand, Abramoff is on the hook for $40 million in restitution for the Indian tribes he bilked, and if his new Redemption Tour business model works for him, this might prove a rare case when the restitution gets paid back.

But on the other hand, it appears that Abramoff may simply offer confirmation of the liberal narrative about political corruption—not that it’s isn’t widespread, but that the answer to it will be more regulation and “reform.”  The description of his speech on the corruption of lobbying goes as follows:

But you’ll walk away with a nuanced understanding of how widespread the corruption is, how deep the money flows, why the public good is rarely on the agenda, and how we might attain transparency among our leaders. With verve and authority, Abramoff makes a powerful and practically-minded case for how to bring about urgently-needed change to the world of lobbying — and to government itself.

I’m down with the part about “the public good is rarely on the agenda,” as I hate dealing with lobbyists (I do get called from time to time) because even when I agree with their industry position, they are always so single-mindedly self-interested that they can never be counted upon to be helpful to a larger point of view about good government or good policy, or even sometimes to make the right argument about their position.  (Plus I hate it that they tend to regard think tankers like me as essentially free help.)  Okay, that’s what they’re paid to do.  I get that.  But how easily we have all lost sight of how this very state of affairs that liberals especially decry is the precise outcome of the Progressive design for modern government, which explicitly seeks to divide up Americans into discrete interests to be ministered to by a bureaucracy.  Will Abramoff point this out?  Doubtful.  It might mess up a business opportunity to say something so original or unconventional.  Sort of like his old line of work.

I haven’t heard yet what specifics Abramoff might be proposing (what?—no more golf trips to Scotland?  That’s already done) rather than indulge another round of complicated “reform” ideas (that will chiefly benefit who?  Compliance lawyers mostly), how about this simple thought: The way to get rid of corruption in high places it to get rid of high places.  In other words, the smaller the government, the less opportunity for corruption.  If there hadn’t been a stupid $35 billion energy loan guarantee program, there’d be no Solyndra scandal.  Etc.

So we’ll have to see how Abramoff’s attempted second act goes for him, and whether it’s really a second act at all, or just a continuation of the first act with a costume change.

(Full disclosure: My spouse is a board member of the Office of Congressional Ethics, which Nancy Pelosi set up in the aftermath of the Abramoff scandal.  No, I don’t get to see the files.)