The New York Times has uncorked a lengthy, long-awaited, weirdly written, (mostly) anonymously sourced, six-reporter article about John McCain that people will remember mostly for hinting in a not-quite-convincing way that he was having an extra-marital affair in the late 1990s with a telecom lobbyist three decades his junior. Before getting to the semi-salacious business, it may be useful before reading the whole thing to consider the lawyerized mess as three overlapping stories in one:
1) John McCain, despite two decades of railing against lobbyists and running on personal rectitude, has a long history of associating with lobbyists and doing special favors for big donors. This is by far the biggest chunk of the article, and pretty much nothing in it is new. (To read more details about the nexus between McCain, lobbyists, and campaign contributors, read past pieces by U.S. News & World Report, Politico, the Wall Street Journal, City Journal, and reason twice.)
2) Several McCain aides were worried enough about his close relationship with lobbyist Vicki Iseman during the 2000 campaign that they told her to get lost. This sounds plausible.
3) Maybe they were having an affair?
The attacks on this article will focus on door #3, and how the Times tries inartfully to link it back to #1. For a version that actually just focuses on the pretty interesting question of #2, go straight to the sexless Washington Post.
Without further ado, here's the NYT beef:
Convinced the relationship had become romantic, some of his top advisers intervened to protect the candidate from himself—instructing staff members to block the woman's access, privately warning her away and repeatedly confronting him, several people involved in the campaign said on the condition of anonymity. […]
That February, Mr. McCain and Ms. Iseman attended a small fund-raising dinner with several clients at the Miami-area home of a cruise-line executive and then flew back to Washington along with a campaign aide on the corporate jet of one of her clients, Paxson Communications. By then, according to two former McCain associates, some of the senator's advisers had grown so concerned that the relationship had become romantic that they took steps to intervene.
A former campaign adviser described being instructed to keep Ms. Iseman away from the senator at public events, while a Senate aide recalled plans to limit Ms. Iseman's access to his offices.
In interviews, the two former associates said they joined in a series of confrontations with Mr. McCain, warning him that he was risking his campaign and career. Both said Mr. McCain acknowledged behaving inappropriately and pledged to keep his distance from Ms. Iseman. The two associates, who said they had become disillusioned with the senator, spoke independently of each other and provided details that were corroborated by others.
Separately, a top McCain aide met with Ms. Iseman at Union Station in Washington to ask her to stay away from the senator. John Weaver, a former top strategist and now an informal campaign adviser, said in an e-mail message that he arranged the meeting after "a discussion among the campaign leadership" about her.
"Our political messaging during that time period centered around taking on the special interests and placing the nation's interests before either personal or special interest," Mr. Weaver continued. "Ms. Iseman's involvement in the campaign, it was felt by us, could undermine that effort."
Mr. Weaver added that the brief conversation was only about "her conduct and what she allegedly had told people, which made its way back to us." He declined to elaborate.
The Kremlinology here is all about the on-the-record quotes from John Weaver, McCain's former right-hand man who was ousted last July after a bitter struggle. There's a lot of acrimony and half-buried bodies near the dissolution of that particular relationship, I've always been told.
McCain's team is blowing the dog whistle of "New York Times" and "smear," and that should work well enough, but they're going way too far in trying to claim that, as McCain capo Bob Bennett said on Hannity & Colmes, "I cannot find, nor can they, a single instance where John McCain did something contrary to his beliefs." Or, as campaign spokeswoman Jill Hazelbaker said,
John McCain has a 24-year record of serving our country with honor and integrity. He has never violated the public trust, never done favors for special interests or lobbyists
This is a lie disprovable many times over by McCain's own writings. For instance, this bit in his most recent book about doing special favors for Charles Keating himself:
I did so for no other reason than I valued [Charles Keating's] support. … Had I weighed the question of honor it occasioned and the public interest more than my personal interest to render a small service to an important supporter, I would not have attended the meeting. … I lacked humility and an inspiration to some purpose higher than self-interest.
There's no doubt about it—selling yourself as a preternatural straight-talker while simultaneously participating in the hurly-burly of politics requires almost comical and constant hyperbole.
But what of the charges themselves? Those who really care about such things have known since at least 2000, and likely much earlier, that McCain does favors for campaign contributors, and has not always been the most faithful of husbands. I care not at all about the latter; while the former is one of many constant, low-level irritants people like me experience when reading yet another newspaper editorial about what a saint the guy is. The only thing new today is the name and details of a specific woman deemed by McCain's 2000 campaign as particularly radioactive for whatever reason.
What about the newspapers? Clearly, there is an interesting story-behind-the-story, which The New Republic says it will detail tomorrow, for whatever that's worth. I think the Post story kicks the Times' behind, and was certainly worth printing. But their combined impact, I guess, will mostly be limited to people who haven't heard stuff like this about McCain before. In the scheme of things, knowing that the 2000 campaign got the heebies about a galpal lobbyist is not the biggest issue in the world.