Flim-Flam and Hoo-Hah 

Democracy in America: a system of legalized bribery.

Sometimes it helps to draw back from what's going on, to see if any patterns emerge from the chaos of daily events. In the news biz, attempts to see the Big Picture are known as thumbsuckers and regarded with appropriate contempt.

On the famous other hand, it's also sometimes the only way to see the much bigger stories that seep and creep all around us without anyone ever calling a press conference, or issuing talking points, or having a gong-show debate over them.

Everybody and his dog in the political-commentating trade now agrees the Bush administration is experiencing hard times -- the going is getting tough, and Bush is getting testy. Bush always gets testy under stress. This is not news.

What we are looking at was put best by noted journalist Bill Moyers, formerly of Marshall, Texas, who last week observed that the Republican right came to Washington to start a revolution and stayed to run a racket. It has become a game of ideological flim-flam, a scam in which all manner of distracting hoo-hah -- abortion, judicial activism, even "the war on terra" -- is used to obscure the fact that the government has been taken over by people who are using it to make money for themselves and their friends.

In the business world, this is called "control fraud," and it refers to an organization, like Enron or Tyco, that is rotten at the head. One of the key figures in this web of malfeasance is Jack Abramoff, the super-lobbyist, top fund-raiser for Bush's reelection, and close buddy of Representative Tom DeLay, himself the architect of the "K Street Strategy" to convert the entire business lobby into the fund-raising arm of the Republican Party in return for whatever legislative favors the major donors want. Abramoff is also the close ally and former college roommate of Grover Norquist, a key right-wing political activist and major leader of the "movement conservatives" in Washington. Abramoff has also bragged that he contacted Karl Rove on behalf of Tyco.

Tim Flanigan, who was Bush's nominee to be deputy attorney general, left the White House Office of Legal Counsel in December 2002 to become the top lawyer for Tyco. Flanigan hired Abramoff to lobby for Tyco. He was to work against proposed legislation that would take away tax breaks from "Benedict Arnold" corporations that locate in tax havens outside the United States in order to get out of paying corporate taxes. Tyco is based in Bermuda.

Abramoff told Flanigan he would use his contacts with DeLay and Rove to lobby for keeping the tax breaks for Tyco. Think about it. Bush proposed to put in as second in command of the Justice Department investigating this whole mess the man who is Tyco's lawyer and who hired Abramoff. Late last week, Flanigan withdrew himself from consideration for the post, but he did demonstrate that he had the only quality that truly matters in a Bush appointee: absolute loyalty to the administration.

Then there is the arrest of David Safavian, former head of procurement at the White House Office of Management and Budget, for impeding justice by lying or covering up material facts. Safavian was previously a partner in Norquist's consulting firm Janus-Merritt. Safavian also worked with Abramoff at another law-lobbying firm.

The descent of politics from the noble doings of democracy into a system of legalized bribery seems to me to be complete. Taking huge campaign contributions from special interests and doing legislative favors in return is so common one barely blinks at it.

Representative Roy Blunt, whom Republicans chose to replace DeLay while he's under indictment, tried to alter a Homeland Security bill in 2003 with a last-minute provision to benefit the cigarette company Philip Morris. Philip Morris had not only contributed heavily to Blunt's campaign, it also employed both Blunt's girlfriend and his son. DeLay gets indicted, and the Republicans replace him with another DeLay.

With the exception of The Washington Post and the Los Angeles Times, the Washington press corps appears to be standing around waiting for word from the official investigation. This is just a straight, old-fashioned corruption story of the sort uncovered by many Washington reporters earlier in their lives at various city halls. Why aren't they ahead of the official investigators? Did everyone forget how it's done?

Molly Ivins writes for Creators Syndicate.

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