February 23, 2008—In journalism, it’s a safe bet that if you write a story with the suggestion that a prominent male politician is bedding an attractive female lobbyist, whatever other point you hoped to make will be overlooked.
Yet, despite the Times’ best efforts to explore this complicated history of McCain as both ethics sinner and ethics reformer, the public and pundits never got much past the sex angle, an insinuation that McCain, 71, and Iseman, 40, both adamantly denied.
Thus, McCain succeeded in deflecting the story’s more significant question: Is McCain’s reputation as a straight-talking politician a sham?
Put differently, is the presumptive Republican presidential nominee – like Colin Powell – a media darling whose reputation for honesty is largely undeserved? The question is not an insignificant one.
In 2003, Secretary of State Powell exploited his sterling image to help mislead the nation into the Iraq War. [For details on Powell, see our book Neck Deep.] Now, McCain hopes his “straight-talk-express” appeal will help keep U.S. troops in Iraq indefinitely.
So, there’s urgency for Americans to know whether John McCain is a sanctimonious phony and a self-assured liar, who’s just masquerading as the guy who tells it like it is and disdains the self-serving ways of Washington.
As we noted in an article on Feb. 21, McCain’s assertion in response to the Times article -- that during his quarter-century congressional career, he “has never violated the public trust, never done favors for special interests or lobbyists” -- just isn’t true.
For instance, the Times story recalled how 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 wife, the beer fortune heiress Cindy Hensley, had invested with Keating in an Arizona shopping mall.
In the years that followed, however, McCain not only got out from under the shadow of the Keating Five scandal but found a silver lining in the cloud, transforming the case into a lessons-learned chapter of his personal narrative.
McCain, as born-again reformer, soon was winning over the Washington press corps with his sponsorship of ethics legislation, like the McCain-Feingold bill limiting “soft money” contributions to the political parties.
However, there was still the other side of John McCain as he wielded enormous power from his position as chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee, which helped him solicit campaign donations from corporations doing business before the panel.
The Times story suggested that McCain did favors on behalf of Iseman’s lobbying clients, including two letters that McCain wrote in 1999 to the Federal Communications Commission demanding that it act on a long-delayed request by Iseman’s client, Florida-based Paxson Communications, to buy a Pittsburgh television station.
In the furious counter-offensive against the Times article, McCain’s campaign issued a point-by-point denial, calling those letters routine correspondence that were handled by staff without McCain meeting either with Paxson or anyone from Iseman’s firm, Alcalde & Fay.
"No representative of Paxson or Alcalde & Fay personally asked Senator McCain to send a letter to the FCC," his campaign said.
But that turned out not to be true. Newsweek’s investigative reporter Michael Isikoff dug up a sworn deposition from Sept. 25, 2002, in which McCain himself declared that “I was contacted by Mr. Paxson on this issue. … He wanted their [the FCC’s] approval very bad for purposes of his business. I believe that Mr. Paxson had a legitimate complaint.”
Though McCain claimed not to recall whether he had spoken with Paxson’s lobbyist [presumably a reference to Iseman], he added, “I’m sure I spoke to [Paxson],” according to the deposition. [See Newsweek’s Web posting, Feb. 22, 2008]
McCain’s letters to the FCC, which Chairman William Kennard criticized as “highly unusual,” came in the same period when Paxson’s company was ferrying McCain to political events aboard its corporate jet and donating $20,000 to his campaign.
After the Feb. 21 Times article appeared, McCain’s spokesmen confirmed that Iseman accompanied McCain on at least one of those flights from Florida to Washington, though McCain said in the 2002 deposition that “I do not recall” if Paxson’s lobbyist was onboard.
First Amendment lawyer Floyd Abrams, who conducted the deposition in connection with a challenge to the McCain-Feingold law, asked McCain if the benefits that he received from Paxson created “at least an appearance of corruption here?”
“Absolutely,” McCain answered. “I believe that there could possibly be an appearance of corruption because this system has tainted all of us.”
When Newsweek went to McCain’s 2008 campaign with the seeming contradictions between the deposition and the denial of the Times article, McCain’s people stuck to their story that that the senator had never discussed the FCC issue with Paxson or his lobbyist.
“We do not think there is a contradiction here,” campaign spokeswoman Ann Begeman told Newsweek. “It appears that Senator McCain, when speaking of being contacted by Paxson, was speaking in shorthand of his staff being contacted by representatives of Paxson. Senator McCain does not recall being asked directly by Paxson or any representative of him or by Alcalde & Fay to contact the FCC regarding the Pittsburgh license transaction.”
That new denial, however, soon crumbled when the Washington Post interviewed Paxson, who said he had talked with McCain in his Washington office several weeks before McCain sent the letters to the FCC.
The broadcast executive also believed that Iseman had helped arrange the meeting and likely was in attendance. “Was Vicki there? Probably,” Paxson said. [Washington Post, Feb. 23, 2008]
A day earlier, the Post also noted the discrepancy between a central tenet of McCain’s campaign – his denunciation of lobbyists and the corrupt revolving-door ways of Washington – and his reliance on lobbyists for his congressional work and his campaign.
“When McCain huddled with his closest advisers at his rustic Arizona cabin last weekend to map out his presidential campaign, virtually every one was part of the Washington lobbying culture he has long decried,” the Post reported on Feb. 22.
In its article about McCain and Iseman, the New York Times also noted that in 2001, McCain helped found a non-profit organization called the Reform Institute supposedly to advance McCain’s signature cause of political ethics.
But the institute drew much of its funding from companies trying to ingratiate themselves with McCain and his Commerce Committee. Though denying any impropriety, McCain severed his ties to the Reform Institute in 2005 because of the “bad publicity.”
So, one of the pressing questions for American voters as they look toward the formal nomination of McCain as the Republican presidential candidate is whether he is a phony who’s long been protected by his gilded reputation or whether he suffers from severe – or at least convenient – memory loss.
McCain also may have learned some tricks from watching his former rival, George W. Bush, whose tendency to lie grew increasingly brazen after 9/11.
As Commander in Chief for a nation at war, Bush brushed aside questions about his statements not squaring with the facts: From his insistence that waterboarding is not torture to Saddam Hussein not letting the UN inspectors in. [See, for instance, Consortiumnews.com’s “Bush’s Favorite Lie.”]
Or maybe he just believes his own press clippings – that he is such a straight-talker that whatever comes out of his mouth must be the truth.
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This story was published on February 25, 2008.