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McCain's 'Never' Is a Long Time

by Robert Parry

John McCain must hope that Americans won’t read the entire New York Times story about his friendship with a female lobbyist, because if they do, they’ll realize that his statement – that he “has never violated the public trust, never done favors for special interests or lobbyists” – simply isn’t true.

Though the article focuses on the friendship between the 71-year-old Arizona senator and Vicky Iseman, an attractive 40-year-old lobbyist for telecommunications companies, it also recounts McCain’s complicated history as both a violator of congressional ethics and a champion for ethics reform.

Most memorably, McCain helped one of his early financial backers, wheeler-dealer Charles Keating, frustrate oversight from federal banking regulators who were examining Keating’s Lincoln Savings and Loan Association. At Keating's urging, McCain wrote letters, introduced bills and pushed a Keating associate for a job on a banking regulatory board.

In 1987, McCain joined several other senators in two private meetings with federal banking regulators on Keating’s behalf. Two years later, Lincoln collapsed, costing the U.S. taxpayers $3.4 billion.

Keating eventually went to prison and three other senators from the so-called Keating Five saw their political careers ruined. McCain drew a Senate reprimand for his involvement and later lamented his faulty judgment. “Why didn’t I fully grasp the unusual appearance of such a meeting?” he wrote in his 2002 memoir, Worth the Fighting For.

But some people close to the case thought McCain got off too easy.

Not only was McCain taking donations from Keating and his business circle, getting free rides on Keating’s corporate jet and enjoying joint vacations in the Bahamas. McCain’s second – and current – wife, the beer fortune heiress Cindy Hensley, had invested with Keating in an Arizona shopping mall.

As the Times reported, William Black, one of the pressured banking regulators, argued that Mrs. McCain’s investment with Keating created a clear conflict of interest, although Sen. McCain said a prenuptial agreement separated his and his wife’s assets.

Black said McCain should not be able to “put this behind him.”

The Ethics Champion

But McCain did put the Keating case behind him, not only surviving his brush with scandal but incorporating it in his personal narrative as an important lesson learned, much the way George W. Bush cited his rejection of boozing and accepting Christ as turning points in his life.

McCain wowed the Washington press corps with his sponsorship of ethics legislation, such as the McCain-Feingold bill limiting “soft money” contributions to the political parties, but his self-righteousness often rubbed other politicians the wrong way.

During Campagin 2000, for instance, some Bush supporters called McCain’s lectures about ethics “sanctimonious” Others, including Bush himself, cited the hypocrisy of McCain soliciting campaign donations from corporations which did business before the Senate Commerce Committee under McCain’s control.

In 2001, McCain also helped found a non-profit organization called the Reform Institute that supposedly would advance McCain’s cause of political ethics. However, the organization drew much of its funding from companies that wanted help from McCain and the Commerce Committee.

Though denying any impropriety, McCain severed his ties to the Reform Institute in 2005 because of the “bad publicity.”

So, if American voters read the full New York Times article, they will see the story of lobbyist Vicki Iseman in the context of McCain’s conflicted attitude toward ethics and the compromising relationships that always surround power in Washington.

Both McCain and Iseman deny that their friendship was romantic in nature despite that concern among members of McCain’s staff who reportedly fretted over her frequent meetings with the senator and their use of a corporate jet owned by one of Iseman’s telecommunications clients, Lowell Paxson.

The implication of sexual impropriety surely fed McCain’s anger against the Times in a statement released by his Republican presidential campaign, accusing the newspaper of having “lowered its standards to engage in a hit-and-run smear campaign.”

The statement then goes further: “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, and he will not allow a smear campaign to distract from the issues at stake in this election.”

However, McCain’s categorical denial of "never" simply doesn’t square with the historical record.

Robert ParryRobert Parry broke many of the Iran-Contra stories in the 1980s for the Associated Press and Newsweek. His latest book, Neck Deep: The Disastrous Presidency of George W. Bush, was written with two of his sons, Sam and Nat, and can be ordered at His two previous books, Secrecy & Privilege: The Rise of the Bush Dynasty from Watergate to Iraq and Lost History: Contras, Cocaine, the Press & 'Project Truth' are also available there. Or go to

This article is republished in the Baltimore Chronicle with permission of the author.

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This story was published on February 21, 2008.