Sunday, January 22, 2006

Now, Smile Pretty for the Camera

[[S C A N D A L S]] * As the influence-buying scandal surrounding Jack Abramoff has expanded over the last few weeks, ever since the ex-“dean of Republican lobbyists” began ratting out his influential GOP friends on Capitol Hill, the White House has sought to downplay George W. Bush’s contacts with the disgraced former D.C. “golden boy.” Even though Abramoff has been a friend of presidential adviser Karl Rove and a deep-pocketed contributor to Bush’s presidential campaigns, and once charged “two of his clients $25,000 for a White House lunch date and a meeting with the President,” according to The Texas Observer, administration spinners have tried to put some distance between the already scandalized prez and Abramoff--just as they previously sought to deny any history of close connections between Bush and Enron Corporation CEO Ken Lay, the man inveterate nicknamer Bush called “Kenny Boy.” And in the same way as the White House has recently endeavored to separate the prez from Tom DeLay (R-Texas), the indicted former U.S. House majority leader.

At one point, White House press secretary “Stonewall Scotty” McClellan suggested that the closest Abramoff had ever gotten to Bush was when he attended a couple of crowded holiday receptions and a few insignificant “staff-level meetings.” “The President does not know him, nor does the President recall ever meeting him,” McClellan said.

Of course, as with so many other statements made by the Bush administration, that wasn’t true. This week’s Time magazine contains a story explaining how its reporters have “seen five photographs of Abramoff and the President that suggest a level of contact between them that Bush’s aides have downplayed.” The article continues:
While TIME’s source refused to provide the pictures for publication, they are likely to see the light of day eventually because celebrity tabloids are on the prowl for them. And that has been a fear of the Bush team’s for the past several months: that a picture of the President with the admitted felon could become the iconic image of direct presidential involvement in a burgeoning corruption scandal--like the shots of President Bill Clinton at White House coffees for campaign contributors in the mid-1990s.

In one shot that TIME saw, Bush appears with Abramoff, several unidentified people and Raul Garza Sr., a Texan Abramoff represented who was then chairman of the Kickapoo Indians, which owned a casino in southern Texas. Garza, who is wearing jeans and a bolo tie in the picture, told TIME that Bush greeted him as “Jefe,” or “chief” in Spanish. Another photo shows Bush shaking hands with Abramoff in front of a window and a blue drape. The shot bears Bush’s signature, perhaps made by a machine. Three other photos are of Bush, Abramoff and, in each view, one of the lobbyist’s sons (three of his five children are boys). A sixth picture shows several Abramoff children with Bush and House Speaker Dennis Hastert, who is now pushing to tighten lobbying laws after declining to do so last year when the scandal was in its early stages.
None of this proves, by itself, that Bush and Abramoff were blood brothers, or that Dubya had knowledge of the lobbyist’s longtime corrupting practices. But the photos certainly suggest closer ties between the two men than McClellan has so far acknowledged. And that impression is only exacerbated by Time’s quote from an anonymous White House official, who, when asked about the administration’s reticence to disclose everything regarding contacts between Abramoff and Bush or other White House officials, said, “The decision was made--don’t put out any additional information.” Which seems like a pretty dumb strategy in retrospect. “Once they knew there were pictures, the Bush gang should have released them and gotten it over with,” writes Steve Benen of The Carpetbagger Report. “Instead, they’ve built up the significance of the pics and alerted the entire political establishment, including every political reporter in town, to the fact that the pictures’ existence is embarrassing and damaging.”

This is not the week to be standing in Stonewall Scottie’s shoes.

UNCOVERED TRACKS: More than a week ago, I posted an item about connections between Abramoff and Ralph Reed, former director of the Christian Coalition and now a candidate for Georgia’s lieutenant governorship. Now, The Texas Observer goes much further. “Evidence is mounting,” the paper reports, “that ... [Reed], along with a former leader of the Texas Christian Coalition, may have illegally lobbied Texas state officials on behalf of crooked federal lobbyist Jack Abramoff and his clients.” Read on.

CASH AND CARRY ON: The Carpetbagger Report piles on with an interesting story about how Ralph Reed has “actually been reduced to using cash handouts to bolster his support” on the campaign trail. Read on.

READ MORE:Bush and Abramoff--Say Cheese?” by Kim Eisler (Washingtonian); “More Than ‘a Picture in a Photo Line,” by Steve Benen (The Carpetbagger Report); “Abramoff Shopped Bush Photos Himself” (Think Progress); “‘As I Was Saying to the President ...’: Washington and the Art of the ‘Glory Wall,’” by John Dickerson (Slate).

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