June 11, 2008—For years now, the U.S. political press corps has traveled with John McCain on his “Straight Talk Express,” buying into his image as a paragon of truth-telling. But the real truth is that McCain routinely makes stuff up, as he did on June 11 in lying about Barack Obama’s “bitter” comment.
During a political talk in Philadelphia, McCain claimed that Obama had described “bitter” small-town voters as clinging to religion or “the Constitution” – when the second item in Obama’s comment actually was “guns.”
But the Arizona senator didn’t stop with a simple word substitution. He added that he will tell these voters that “they have trust and support the Constitution of the United States because they have optimism and hope. ... That’s what America’s all about.”
In other words, McCain didn’t just make a slip of the tongue. He willfully accused Obama of disparaging the U.S. Constitution, a very serious point that, if true, might cause millions of Americans to reject Obama’s candidacy.
Still, when some of the U.S. broadcast networks – including NBC evening news – played the clip of McCain lashing out at Obama’s purported dissing of the Constitution, they didn’t correct McCain's falsehood.
That fits with a long-standing pattern of the political press corps giving McCain a break when he makes statements at variance with the truth. Even in the rare moments when he is caught in an inaccuracy – such as accusing Shiite-ruled Iran of training Sunni extremists in al-Qaeda – the falsehood is minimized as an unintentional gaffe.
However, McCain actually seems to be following a trail blazed by George W. Bush, saying what’s useful at the time even if it’s not true and then counting on the U.S. press corps to timidly look the other way.
Through all his misstatements, McCain’s “straight-talk” reputation survives.
In another instructive case, McCain got away with sweeping denials in his reaction to a New York Times article on Feb. 21. The story led with unsubstantiated suspicions among some McCain staffers that their boss had gotten too cozy with female lobbyist Vicky Iseman, but McCain went beyond simply denying any sexual improprieties.
He put out a statement declaring that in his quarter-century congressional career, he “has never violated the public trust, never done favors for special interests or lobbyists.” But that simply isn’t true.
As the Times story already had recalled, 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 that 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 reported 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.
Rather than simply acknowledge this fact, McCain’s campaign issued another sweeping denial of impropriety, 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 also 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 had 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 crumbled, too, 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]
So, in the months ahead, there’s urgency for American voters to figure out whether John McCain is the maverick “straight-shooter” of his usual press clippings or a sanctimonious phony who’s just masquerading as the guy who tells it like it is.
Is John McCain like George W. Bush, someone who has learned that the mainstream news media – ever sensitive to accusations of “liberal bias” – is hesitant to call a prominent Republican politician a liar, regardless of the facts and the circumstances?
In this political/media climate, McCain appears to believe he can get away with falsifying key details of something even as heavily reported as Obama’s infamous “bitter” remark.
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This story was published on June 11, 2008.