Editorial: Abramoff Brings Down the House By BECKY O'MALLEY

Friday January 13, 2006

The picture said it all. Jack Abramoff was photographed on his way to court wearing a black trenchcoat and a black fedora. To San Francisco opera-goers, the outfit meant that he was soon going to be facing the music. Abramoff, The Opera, was about to begin. 

During the reign of San Francisco Opera General Manager Pamela Rosenberg, now on her way back to Germany where she got her start, a large percentage of S.F. Opera characters were costumed in trenchcoats and/or fedoras, regardless of the roles they were playing. Even the angels in Messaien’s St. Francis wore trenchcoats. Perhaps one in three productions was mounted in this style, reminiscent of the film noir gangster opuses of the thirties and forties. Cynics began keeping box scores for operas according to the number of trench coats they featured. For those of us in the nosebleed seats, too high to see the faces of the singers even with binoculars, the ubiquitous trenchcoats and hats were particularly annoying—they made it hard to keep track of the characters, who all looked alike.  

Now that Abramoff’s started singing, it’s time for John Adams, Berkeley’s most famous opera composer, to get to work on the score. Even the name is perfect—those of us with a couple of years of college Russian can roll it mellifluously off the tongue: Ah-BRAHM-off. Sounds like it could be a work by Tchaikovsky.  

And the plot’s a classic too: well-brought-up Beverly Hills boy makes pact with devil, gets rich, falls from grace. It’s been done before (all those Fausts by various composers) and it will be done again. Despite all of the doom-and-gloomers who are saying that things are worse today than they’ve ever been, there have always been crooks and influence peddlers buzzing around the Washington honey-pot, and there always will be. And state legislatures are even worse. As the sainted Jess Unruh used to say when he was speaker of the California Assembly, money is the mother’s milk of politics. So the libretto of Abramoff, The Opera, will be familiar to many.  

What’s truly shocking, however, is not how much money is involved, but how little. The Center for Responsive Politics has charted the money that flowed through the Abramoff apparatus, and it’s still hovering under four million dollars. To the ordinary wage earner, that might seem like a lot of money, but considering what it seems to have bought, it’s nothing. It’s the total value of five or six median priced Bay Area houses, for example. But the added value which it purchased for the donors has been multiplied by a factor of hundreds in legislative concessions of all kinds. The names of some of the recipients on the list are surprising—Boxer, Waxman, Stabenow, Leahy for example, good liberals all, who got a thousand or five, though there’s no evidence that they did anything for the money. A lot of recipients did, however, but proving who did what for their money will not be easy. 

Another familiar plot which has re-surfaced lately is government spying on citizens. What’s shocking here is Dubya’s baldfaced admission that he broke the law and he’s proud of it. At least Nixon (cf. John Adams’ opera by the same name) had the good grace to lie about his transgressions. It used to be the case that when government groups in this country spied on citizens they did it covertly, and were a bit ashamed if they got caught. Peter Dale Scott and Earl Ofari Hutchinson have chronicled past episodes in these pages recently. 

Martin Luther King’s birthday holiday this weekend reminds me of a fellow I knew in Michigan who left the FBI after he was assigned to place bugs under the beds of Dr. King’s hotel rooms. He came from one of those Norman Rockwellesque small towns in the rural Midwest where people grow up believing that life in America is just like the civics textbooks say it is. He joined the FBI because he wanted to protect the American Way, and when he realized that the person he was supposed to spy on was the good guy and his organization was the bad guys, he quit and became a campus radical.  

The reason grand operas (and soap operas) have always had so many fans is that they faithfully mirror human failings, which don’t change much. Many of us Americans, on both the left and the right, still believe that our government isn’t supposed to spy on us, even though governments spying on the governed has always been the rule, not the exception. We believe, again on the right as well as on the left, that legislative votes should be based on principles, not payoffs. We’ve seen these operas before, and we’re hoping that they will again come out the way they always have. We have faith that Abramoff, like Faust, will be brought down in the last act for his sins. We believe that that the virtuous citizen will eventually triumph over the corrupt government, as Beethoven’s Fidelio did. For the classic drama now being played out in Washington, the overture for the finale is beginning.