Why Did "Straight-Talk" McCain Lie About Jack Abramoff?

10/17/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Sen. John McCain, for many, is an appealing presidential candidate, because he seems to have followed his conscience, not Republican Party dogma, on so many issues. These include his support of campaign finance reform, and his opposition to the Bush tax cuts, drilling in the Arctic Wilderness, and a constitutional amendment banning abortion. He touts himself as a "straight talker" whose word can be trusted.

Before launching his probe into Jack Abramoff -- one of the most prominent and powerful Republican lobbyists in Washington -- McCain claimed that he had never heard of or met Abramoff. This claim certainly stretches credulity.

In the course of doing extensive research for my new book, I was surprised to discover that McCain's Senate Indian Affairs Report on Indian Lobbying -- which he had touted as "fair, accurate, and neutral" -- was not at all as he had described. This 373-page document -- the culmination of an investigation into Abramoff's tribal lobbying practices -- was actually misleading and deceptive.

McCain's report -- released in June 2006 -- appears to have been a well-orchestrated vengeful attack against Abramoff, who was McCain's long-time political foe. McCain was retaliating against Abramoff for his role in the infamous "black-baby" smear campaign during the 2000 South Carolina Republican primary, which Abramoff had unwittingly funded. (In an effort to block McCain's bid for the nomination, Abramoff had raised $3 million at the urgent request of his close friend Ralph Reed, former executive director of the Christian Coalition and a notorious political assassin. Reed and Karl Rove, unbeknownst to Abramoff, allegedly used it to make anonymous claims -- via phone calls and flyers on windshields -- that McCain had fathered an illegitimate daughter with a black prostitute. The black child who had appeared on stage with McCain at many campaign events was in fact his daughter, adopted from a Bangladeshi orphanage founded by Mother Theresa). McCain lost the South Carolina primary and as a result the Republican nomination and his bid for the presidency. But his indignation over this smear campaign continued to fester for many years.

One day in late February, 2004, McCain picked up the Sunday Washington Post and read that his arch foe had allegedly ripped off $45 million from several Indian tribes. The very next morning, McCain launched his probe against the man he claimed he had never heard of.

McCain's report employed the typical tactics of fraudulent exposition: omission, ellipses to conceal exculpatory information, interviews with only those willing to attack Abramoff, exaggerations, outright falsehoods, and the exclusion or minimization of anything positive about the lobbyist. McCain refused to allow testimony from many of Abramoff's Indian supporters who had asked to speak on Abramoff's behalf. (Abramoff's many victories for his tribal clients, some of whom gratefully rehired Abramoff year after year, were staggering. For example, for three successive years, he successfully fought back Republican-sponsored legislation in Congress that would have taxed tribal casinos at 33%. In a 10-year period, this conservatively saved Indian Country $33 billion, an amount that increases every year in perpetuity. In another example, Abramoff obtained over 9000 acres for one of his tribal clients, who had originally applied to the lethargic Bureau of Indian Affairs for the "land in trust" back in 1927!)

What really caught my attention was the fact that McCain had only released 1% of the 745,000 pages of the Abramoff documents -- e-mails, billing records, memos, etc. -- that McCain had subpoenaed. It made me wonder what he was trying to conceal. Apparently, he figured that with his "straight-talk" reputation, no one would challenge his conclusions. On that score, he was correct. Until now.

If Abramoff was such an evil man and a master manipulator of "unsophisticated" Indian tribes, not to mention gullible members of Congress, why did McCain have to go out of his way to produce such a fraudulent report? Why did he feel compelled to go to such extremes to falsify what appeared to be a black-and-white and open-and-shut case against Abramoff, the international pariah? Why didn't McCain simply present all of the facts -- good and bad -- in support of his conclusions that Abramoff was the most underhanded creature that ever crawled out of the slime?

My guess is that it's not a question McCain will choose to answer.

Gary S. Chafetz is the author of The Perfect Villain: John McCain and the Demonization of Lobbyist Jack Abramoff, which has just been published. (Please see for updates.)