Full text of interview from print edition of The Progressive, 8/10
Two years and one global financial crisis later, Gibney is back with another meticulously researched and eerily timely piece of nonfiction about the ways that power and influence are wielded in Washington. Casino Jack and the United States of Money, which opened in theaters nationwide on May 7, takes a close look at the rise and fall of America’s most notorious super lobbyist, Jack Abramoff—recently out of prison after serving a four-year stint in a federal lock up on felony counts of conspiracy, wire and mail fraud, and tax evasion. Abramoff was not the only one to fall from a scandal that touched on casinos in the Southwest, campaign donations illegally laundered through a “think tank” headquartered at a Rehoboth, Delaware, beach house, and out-and-out bribery. The fallout eventually led to the conviction of Congressman Bob Ney, Republican of Ohio, and the resignation of then-House Majority Whip Tom “The Hammer” DeLay.
But while justice may have finally caught up with Abramoff, the system of pay for play politics in which he thrived has by most any measure only gotten worse. According to the Center for Responsive Politics, lobbyists spent almost $3.5 billion in 2009—a billion more than what was spent in 2006, the year Abramoff was convicted. And the Supreme Court’s January ruling in the Citizens United case, which swept away decades-old limits on political spending by corporations in candidate elections, only opened the door to the betting parlor even wider.
On the week of the film’s release, I caught up with a very busy Alex Gibney to get his betting odds on cleaning up the American casino, prospects for campaign finance reform, and what he and Abramoff talked about when he went to visit “Casino Jack” in prison. A few weeks later, I followed up with questions about his broader work, and his three films releasing this fall (among them a film about the rise and fall of Elliot Spitzer). He was accommodating both times.
Q: When you started to make Casino Jack in 2006, did you imagine that things could actually deteriorate?
Alex Gibney: What Jack represented was really just an exaggeration of business as usual. It’s systemic. With Citizens United, the situation has gotten much, much worse.
Q: You never interviewed Abramoff on camera, but you talked to him in person in prison grounds. What was that exchange like?
Gibney: It was fascinating. He was a charming guy, a good storyteller, and a big movie buff. But he’s also very insightful, from the point of view of how to manipulate the government. From Jack’s perspective, it was all about relationships, getting young staffers from key members of Congress who were important to your success. But it was always coupled with the money and the favors. Jack admits that he did stuff that was wrong. He seemed quite sincere about it; he felt he had crossed a line. But he felt scapegoated because when he was king of the Hill, everybody wanted to know him, since he could dispense enormous amounts of money. But when he got caught, suddenly nobody knew him.
Q: Did your own thoughts about how to reform the system change over the course of making this film?
Gibney: A hidden goal in this film is to undermine the notion that the market lies at the root of every human relationship, and is the only value worth following. If what we want is a truly free market, why should we care if Tom DeLay says what you buy is what you get? But if we want equality of opportunity, then, no, that’s not fine.
When I first started making the film I thought the problem was lobbyists, but now I don’t think lobbyists are the main problem. The problem really is campaign finance and the revolving door. Right now, the career path in Washington is not about serving the country; it’s about serving the country for a brief period so you can cash in on K Street, and that’s a pretty terrible model of government. It’s a free market of money, and the ideas that seem to be most persuasive are the ones attached to the biggest amount of cash.
Q: When did you decide to use the footage of Tom DeLay in Dancing with the Stars as the final scene?
Gibney: We started working on the film a long time ago, and then DeLay goes on Dancing With the Stars, and we said, “This is it.” Because what did Fitzgerald say, “There are no second acts in American life”? Well, in America there are always second acts, and here is the guy who did more than anybody to destroy our government, and he’s dancing the tango with a huge grin on his face.
Q: How does Casino Jack relate to Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room?
Gibney: With Casino Jack, you have political corruption as opposed to economic corruption; it’s a different kind of problem. What’s interesting to me and similar to Enron is that the Enron people were very ideological. They had a sort of agenda, and they felt they were pure-hearted warriors. But that idea leads quickly to corruption because the ends justified the means. You can cook your books because Enron is a force of good. Same thing with Jack and his cronies, because after all what you’re seeking is good and true, so again the ends again justify the means. I’m always interested in the path of corruption because ultimately it’s about deception.
Q: Do you think Wall Street today is run by the same kind of guys?
Gibney: Of course. Economic man is not rational; he’s a rationalizer.
Q: Is there a way to rein them in?
Gibney: It’s called regulation.
Q: You have a new film coming out on Eliot Spitzer. Why?
Gibney: It was an interesting story. It was hard to parse and hard to understand. It ended up being about a lot of things, the political blood sport that is politics, the attitudes we have about sex, and hypocrisy. How somebody who went after the biggest scions of Wall Street, because they felt they didn’t have to live by any rules, and then how he fell in to the very same trap.
Q: Your Oscar-winning film, Taxi to the Dark Side, tried to get American audiences to think about the torture perpetrated in our name. Why were people willfully shielding their eyes to our complicity in torture?
Gibney: If audiences have a choice between Toy Story 2 and Taxi to the Dark Side, I get it. But as to the larger question of why people chose to avert their eyes, I think it was a combination of fear and willful ignorance. And it’s a little bit hard to understand how central the issue is to us as a nation and what we represent. People may be thinking that horrible things are happening—that war is hell and I’m going to put my head down—but there’s something peculiar about the torture aspect. We can debate whether to be in Afghanistan or Iraq, but torture is different. It’s something you do when you have somebody in your power, and theoretically you’re trying to extract information. But you are degrading yourself and not even getting great information. And fundamentally it eats away at the fabric of our society.
Q: You said you hoped we’d move “back to the light.” Have we?
Gibney: I do think we’re in a better place, I don’t think we’re in the best place. Much to my chagrin we haven’t yet closed Guantánamo, and we have set up a new center in Bagram that doesn’t seem concerned with how or why people are being detained there. But relatively speaking, I think the harsh interrogation tactics have come out of use.
Q: Where did you get your politics?
Gibney: I was influenced by both of my parents, my mother and my father. And my stepfather Bill [the peace activist and preacher William Sloane Coffin] had a big impact on me. It was fascinating watching how he exerted such a powerful moral force and how he expressed fundamental problems. Right now I’m working on a film about his life. I’d really like to do it. I’m just having trouble raising money for it.