47 Minutes With Jack Abramoff

Photo: Stephen Voss/Redux

Can you explain the rules?” I ask Jack Abramoff outside the racquetball court at a Washington, D.C., YMCA. He flashes a big grin. “So here they are,” he says, “as I see them.”

“The rules according to Jack!” clarifies Jason Hickox, a former employee and friend who is now Abramoff’s racquetball opponent most weekday mornings. Abramoff proceeds to explain who serves when, which lines the ball can and cannot cross, and so on. In his own life, he has a new perspective on the crossing of lines. After serving 43 months in prison for his role in one of the worst corruption scandals in political history, Abramoff has reinvented himself as a government reformer.

Though he played football and lifted weights in his youth, Abramoff, at 54, is a bit paunchy. Hickox, he had noted in an e-mail before we even meet, “is about 15 years my junior and not as corpulent. But my stubborn hypercompetitiveness usually enables me to beat him!” It turns out Hickox is only twelve years younger, but otherwise the e-mail was accurate. Jack Abramoff does not like to lose.

“Come on!” he barks after Hickox takes a solid lead in the first game. One rally goes on for maybe twenty shots until Abramoff blows it. He looks up at me, bares his teeth, and grunts—either disappointed that he’s losing while I’m watching or blaming me for jinxing him or both. Hickox takes the first game, 15–3.

The second game starts with Hickox again in the lead and Abramoff again berating himself. “Come on, Jack! What are you doing?!” Abramoff yells after missing another shot. He has said that the nasty words he used to describe his American Indian tribal clients in e-mails—he called them “morons” and “troglodytes”—he also uses to describe himself (and his own children). After seeing him on the court, I believe that’s not implausible.

“What am I doing?” Hickox is up 10–2. “Shoot me.”

I start to feel bad, not just that Abramoff is losing but that I’m going to write about him losing. And that’s how it happens: I find myself cheering for Jack Abramoff, disgraced super-lobbyist, right-wing backer of African warlords, manipulator of Native American communities. At one point, he was one of the most influential power brokers in America, and here he has me rooting him on as if he were the underdog.

Since his incarceration, Abramoff has claimed a change of heart, insisting that he now realizes that his aggressive lobbying was not only unethical and at times illegal but also deeply corrosive of democracy. He has turned his experience exploiting loopholes into insights on how to close them for good, which he relays through a radio show and speeches to state legislators and college students; he’s also written the best seller Capitol Punishment. It’s certainly easier to pantomime remorse after you’re caught, but face-to-face, Abramoff seems genuinely earnest, even sad, as improbable a villain as he is an athlete. He rallies to win the second game, 15–12.

“I’ve been portrayed as some caricature that I’m not,” says Abramoff, “a bad guy in a black hat.” In his version, he was merely the most extreme example of an extremely corrupt system. Everyone traded political favors for money; Abramoff just got more favors and gave out more money. Everyone had Redskins tickets to give away; he happened to have 72 of them. “We fought not just to win but to obliterate our opponents,” he says.

Before his downfall, Abramoff took a similarly no-holds-barred approach in racquetball, too. He played regularly with Michael Scanlon, his partner in business and, eventually, in scandal; it was widely reported that they hatched their “Gimme Five” kickback scheme during a match. Abramoff says that’s not the case, but their face-offs were in a way the physical incarnation of their vicious business practices. “Scanlon and I would try to kill each ­other,” Abramoff says. Today’s match, by comparison, is tame. “Jack has gotten soft in more ways than one,” says Hickox, gesturing toward Abramoff’s midriff.

By the middle of the third game, Hickox is dragging, while Abramoff is as energetic now as when the two started playing. “I’ll play all day if I have to to win,” he says, tightening his grip on the racquet. He wins the next five points in less than a minute, then accuses Hickox of throwing the game so Abramoff can look good for a reporter. He starts heckling Hickox for blowing shots.

Abramoff wins the third game and, with it, the match. But still, he knows history will always judge him a loser. “I think the way I’m seen won’t change,” he says, his shoulders slouching a bit. “It’s written in indelible ink.” He pauses. “I try not to care.”

Have good intel? Send tips to intel@nymag.com.

47 Minutes With Jack Abramoff