My Dinner with Jack
The Jamboree in Jamba, the making of ‘Red Scorpion,’ and other tales of the Abramoff era.
Apr 3, 2006, Vol. 11, No. 27 • By MARK HEMINGWAY
ONE OF ABRAMOFF’S REDEEMING QUALITIES is that he was an unrepentant Cold Warrior. His story that night began when he was a young activist obsessed with ending communism. According to another unrepentant Cold Warrior, former Reagan speechwriter Dana Rohrabacher, who now represents Orange County in Congress, Abramoff back in those days was “a young idealist with so much energy that it just bubbled over. He was irrepressible during the Cold War and in trying to end the threat of communism.”
In the summer of 1985 Abramoff helped plan and organize an event that, as Abramoff told me, inspired Red Scorpion. Abramoff joined forces with Jack Wheeler, another anti-Communist activist, to create the “Jamboree in Jamba”–known more formally as the Democratic International. The pair approached Lewis Lehrman, a conservative benefactor who made a fortune off his Rite-Aid drugstores, with the idea: For years the Soviets had been sponsoring what amounted to supervillain summits, where Sandinistas, African Communist insurgents, and representatives of the PLO and Cuba convened presumably to stroke their fluffy white cats and update their arms-dealer Rolodexes.
Abramoff convinced Lehrman that this put the “good guys” at a comparative disadvantage–the Nicaraguan contras, the Afghan mujahedeen, Savimbi’s rebels in Angola, and other freedom fighters needed a meeting of their own. Congress was in the process of cutting off aid to the contras, and anything that could be done to bolster the group’s public reputation would be politically helpful to Reagan. Lehrman agreed to fund it, and Rohrabacher was brought in to help muster support from inside the White House. Abramoff and Wheeler would handle the details on the ground.
According to Abramoff, the event was a goat rodeo from the start. Hardly a government in the world was enamored of the idea, and simply deciding where to hold the event was no small affair. Only two governments were publicly supportive: South Africa and Israel, and for PR reasons it was quickly decided that neither country was a suitable venue.
So they settled on Jamba, Angola, the home base of Savimbi’s UNITA movement (National Union of Total Independence for Angola), which was fighting the Cuban troops that propped up the Soviet-backed Angolan government. Not exactly the most hospitable locale.
Logistically, the event was a nightmare. Simply trying to get the attendees into the Angolan hinterland provoked international incidents. Pakistan blocked some Afghan rebels from leaving, and skittish Thai officials almost stopped Laotian anti-Communist leader Pa Kao Her from departing Bangkok.
Facilities consisted of little more than grass huts and an airstrip, and managing the various cultures and egos proved challenging, as demonstrated by Abramoff’s deft and hilarious impersonation of a frenzied Afghan warlord who insisted on ranting and raving for 45 minutes, long after the translator who had been procured on his behalf proved worthless. Not only was Abramoff’s mimicry compelling, he gestured wildly with his hands in a way that caught me totally off guard, making me laugh harder. He clearly wasn’t afraid to embarrass himself, a quality that was endearing, considering I had started out the evening somewhat intimidated. I also became aware of how carefully he was gauging my reaction to his tale. He didn’t care about impressing me; it was obvious he had little to prove. But he did tell his story in a generous way–he wanted me to enjoy it, and I did.
The final insult in Jamba was running out of food. Abramoff, who keeps kosher, had packed all his own provisions into the African jungle. Upon leaving the event early, he stood on the stairs of the plane auctioning off his remaining cans of tuna for as much as $20 to ravenous members of the press who had yet to leave.
The jamboree itself ended up being largely ceremonial. Everyone pledged to share intelligence, and Lehrman read a letter Rohrabacher had drafted on Reagan’s behalf, expressing solidarity with those struggling against the Soviet empire. The Time reporter on the scene concluded that the meeting marked the beginning of “a new lobby to urge Congress to support the Nicaraguan contras and other anti-Communist guerrillas.” Considering the improbability of the thing coming together at all, everyone involved considered it a success.