Jack Abramoff’s School Days

The making of a sleazeball.

For some time now I’ve been looking for the right opportunity to boast, casually, that I had the goods on Washington’s sleazeball of the moment as early as 1975. The sleazeball in question is Jack Abramoff, a Republican lobbyist whose outrageous bilking of various Native American clients may or may not have met the legal definition of fraud. Although he has not as yet been charged with committing any crime, it seems beyond dispute that Abramoff represents everything nauseating about Washington’s influence-peddling industry, right down to his pinstriped contempt for the suckers who pay him. (In a private memo, he called one Native American client a “fucking moron.” He has also used the terms “troglodytes” and “monkeys.”) The Washington Post led the way on the Abramoff story, but many others have now followed, including the Weekly Standard, which doesn’t exactly make a habit of eviscerating movement conservatives on its cover. The Senate Indian Affairs Committee also cut him a new one. “If I read the articles about me, and I didn’t know me, I would think I was Satan,” Abramoff replies feebly in a New York Times Magazine interview to be published this weekend. (He claims he is being sabotaged by business rivals.)

Back in 1975, I saw all this coming—and I didn’t even know it!

Abramoff was a year behind me at Beverly Hills High School. I don’t remember that we ever had a single discussion. But I observed, from a distance, that he was kind of a glad-hander. (I had no idea that he was a conservative, but apparently he already was, as I was already a liberal.) And so, behind his back, I began referring to him as “Abraham Jackoff.” Was it cruel? I won’t deny it. Was it adolescent? Of course. Please remember, though, that I was … an adolescent. I was 17 years old. And I never dreamed it would get back to him.

But it did. One day my best friend John Schwimmer told me he’d run into Abramoff and, for a reason he was never able to articulate satisfactorily, said, “My friend Tim Noah thinks your name should really be Abraham Jackoff.” I was mortified, but Abramoff didn’t say anything about it, to John or to me. (I probably wasn’t the first person to confront Abramoff with this witticism.)

Over the next 30 years, as Abramoff became ever more powerful in Republican circles, I waited for the ax to fall. By the turn of the century, the mere sight of Abramoff’s skybox at Oriole Park at Camden Yards filled me with dread and remorse. This guy can crush me like a bug, I thought. It’s coming.

But it never did. Now that Abramoff has been called out, I suppose it never will. And so I’ve shifted to marveling that I stumbled into the correct assessment of Abramoff fully three decades before his disgrace. Perhaps Malcolm Gladwell, author of Blink, is right: Maybe our shallow first impressions and petty prejudices really do get the job done.