Thursday, April 13, 2006

Taibbi gets around to Abramoff

Lots of great juicy and ludicrous details in this one.
It is not easy to find anyone who actually encountered Abramoff during his South Africa experiences, although one source who was involved with South African right-wing student politics recalled "Casino Jack" as a "blue-eyed boy" who rubbed people the wrong way with his arrogant demeanor. On his first trip to Johannesburg in 1983, Abramoff met with leaders from the archconservative, pro-apartheid National Students Federation, which itself is alleged to have been created by South Africa's notorious Bureau of Security Services. Together with NSF member Russel Crystal -- today a prominent South African politician in the Democratic Alliance, an anti-African National Congress party -- Abramoff subsequently, in 1986, chaired the head of a conservative think tank called the International Freedom Foundation.

The creation of the IFF officially marked the beginning of the silly phase of Abramoff's career. According to testimony before Democratic South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission in 1995, the IFF was not a conservative think tank but actually a front for the South African army. Testimony in sealed TRC hearings reportedly reveal that the IFF was known by the nickname "Pacman" in the South African army and that its activities were part of a larger plan called "Operation Babushka," designed to use propaganda to discredit the ANC and Nelson Mandela at home and abroad. Among other things, Abramoff managed during this time to funnel funds and support from the IFF to a variety of stalwart congressmen and senators, including Rep. Dan Burton and Sen. Jesse Helms, all of whom consistently opposed congressional resolutions against apartheid. These members of Congress would deny knowing that the IFF's money came from the South African government, because that, of course, would have been illegal; Abramoff himself denied it too, although he has been largely quiet on the subject since the TRC testimony in 1995.

In a hilarious convergence of ordinary workaday incompetence and pointlessly secretive cloak-and-dagger horseshit, Operation Babushka's grand opus would ultimately turn out to be the production of the 1989 Dolph Lundgren vehicle Red Scorpion, in which American moviegoers were invited to care about an anti-communist revolutionary targeted for execution by a sweat-drenched jungle version of Lundgren's overacting Ivan Drago persona. The film, which Abramoff wrote and produced, was instantly derided by critics around the world as one of the stupidest movies ever made.

Veteran character actor Carmen Argenziano, who played the heavy, Col. Zayas, in Red Scorpion, recalls the "Cimino-esque" film shoot in Namibia as one of the most surreal experiences of his career. "It was pretty weird," he says. "What was going on was fishy, and then in the middle of production the word spread that there was some kind of weird South African/CIA connection. And that bummed everyone out."

Argenziano, whom history will likely absolve for being, with Lundgren, one half of the film's only memorable scene, which also perhaps represents the apex of Jack Abramoff's literary career (Argenziano: "Are you out of your mind?" Lundgren: "No. Just out of bullets"), laughs almost nonstop as he recalls his Namibia experiences.

"We were all staying in this hotel called the Kalahari Sands in Windhoek, the capital," he says. "There was this huge new escalator in the hotel. I guess it was the only one in the country, because little African kids kept coming in to stare at it. But the South Africans we had on the shoot [Abramoff was reportedly provided free labor by the South African army] kept shooing them away, literally pushing kids off the escalator, shouting these racist words at them. Wasn't exactly good for morale."



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