The Republican ticket of John McCain and Sarah Palin has been dubbed “Maverick Squared,” with much of the U.S. news media hailing the pair as reformers who are above partisanship and eager to challenge corrupt Washington.
Beyond that, Sen. McCain presented himself in his Thursday night acceptance speech as a grandfatherly figure who loves peace and would only go to war reluctantly to protect America’s vital interests.
However, both propositions – McCain-Palin as a reform ticket and John McCain as a man of peace – could only be taken seriously in the up-is-down world that has become American politics.
McCain was a leading – and early – advocate for the neoconservative plan of invading Iraq despite no evidence connecting its government to the 9/11 attacks. He also endorses the neocon concept of a “long war” against Islamic militants and even joked about attacking Iran, singing, “Bomb bomb bomb, bomb Iran.”
Some of his Senate colleagues privately consider McCain an ill-tempered warmonger who would keep the Iraq War going indefinitely and would stoke tensions around the globe. But the press corps offered almost no commentary about McCain’s dark side during the Republican National Convention.
There was near total silence, too, about evidence that McCain – like Palin – is a fake reformer. His support for a few high-profile reform bills became a political necessity in the 1980s after he got caught in a savings-and-loan influence-peddling scheme with Cindy McCain’s business partner, Charles Keating.
Even in recent years while cultivating his reform image, McCain – as chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee – has maintained cozy relationships with business lobbyists and, indeed, stocked his campaign staff with many of the insiders he rails against. [See Consortiumnews.com’s “Is McCain a Liar?”]
For her part, Palin pitches herself as an enemy of “earmarks” and pork-barrel projects, such as Alaska’s “Bridge to Nowhere.” But, in reality, she hired well-connected Washington lobbyists to secure earmarked funding for her town of Wasilla and pushed for federally financed Alaskan projects, including the controversial bridge.
However, after a few raps on their knuckles for trying to vet Palin’s record, major U.S. news outlets have fallen into line behind the dual McCain-Palin myths of reform and peace, much as they did in 2000 in helping to sell George W. Bush as a regular-guy, “compassionate” conservative.
With their blinders on, most Big Media pundits saw no disconnect between McCain presiding over a convention marked by a heavy dose of partisan ridicule toward Barack Obama and the Democrats – and then pitching himself as a paragon of bipartisan civility who despises “partisan rancor.”
Though barely noted by the political press corps, the St. Paul, Minnesota, convention was more like the infamous Houston convention in 1992 during which militant right-wing Republicans, led by Pat Buchanan, advocated “cultural wars” against their enemies on the Left.
In St. Paul, the overwhelmingly white convention delegates hooted and booed at almost every mocking reference to Obama, the first African-American nominee of a major party. Plus, there were many reminders of the strategies of Richard Nixon and Spiro Agnew who won votes by stirring up resentments toward supposed “elitists.”
This week’s high-profile speeches by Fred Thompson, Mike Huckabee, Rudy Giuliani and Sarah Palin dripped with ridicule toward Obama, who was repeatedly mocked for his post-college time as a “community organizer” in Chicago, working with church groups to help unemployed steelworkers.
Palin unleashed one of the uglier smears when she suggested that Obama was soft on terrorism because he opposes the use of torture and believes in respecting the U.S. Constitution.
“Al-Qaeda terrorists still plot to inflict catastrophic harm on America, and he’s worried that someone won’t read them their rights,” Palin said to the delight of the GOP convention delegates, who often broke into chants of “USA, USA” and – regarding the energy issue – “drill, baby, drill.”
Confronted by Palin’s Agnew-like rhetoric attacking the “Washington elites,” the TV pundits fell over themselves to praise her speech as "a home run." By the end of the convention, major networks were following Republican talking points and making her a “Ms. Smith Goes to Washington.”
McCain picked up on that theme in his Thursday night acceptance speech, declaring: “I can’t wait until I introduce her to Washington.”
However, the evidence is that Palin is already well-acquainted with Washington, having traveled there often in pursuit of earmarked federal money for her town and state.
As mayor of the tiny town of Wasilla, Palin hired the powerful Alaska lobbying firm of Robertson, Monagle & Eastaugh, which had close ties to Republican Rep. Don Young and Sen. Ted Stevens, who is now under indictment for taking illegal gifts. Palin’s Wasilla account was handled by Stevens’s former chief of staff, Steven Silver, one of the firm’s partner.
With the help of the lobbying firm and her annual treks to Washington, Palin secured a stunning $27 million in earmarked funds for Wasilla, a town then with about 6,000 residents. Some of Palin’s projects were considered such prime examples of Washington pork that they were cited in anti-earmark reports compiled by Sen. John McCain.
As governor, Palin has continued her pursuit of earmarks for Alaska. The Washington Post reported that last February – only six months before her emergence as a Republican “reformer” – she sent Stevens a 70-page memo outlining almost $200 million of new funding requests, including a $2 million project to research crab productivity in the Bering Sea.
In redefining herself as an enemy of wasteful pork-barrel spending, Palin told the Republican convention that “I've championed reform to end the abuses of earmark spending by Congress. In fact, I told Congress thanks, but no thanks, on that ‘Bridge to Nowhere.’"
However, the truth is that she supported the $223 million bridge linking Ketchikan to an island with 50 residents and only shifted her position when the price ballooned and it became politically untenable.
In its timidity to challenge Palin’s self-serving accounts, the U.S. news media is following a pattern similar to its readiness to allow McCain to remake himself without much interference from inconvenient evidence to the contrary.
At the convention, while McCain’s experience as a Vietnam War POW was recounted again and again, there was virtually no mention of his serious brush with corruption in the so-called “Keating Five” scandal in the late 1980s.
Charles Keating was a financial wheeler-dealer who in 1987 wanted to frustrate oversight from federal banking regulators who were examining his 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. McCain then 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.
On Feb. 21, 2008, the New York Times published an article suggesting that McCain did favors for the clients of telecommunications lobbyist Vicky Iseman, whose close relationship with the senator raised concerns among his staff.
The favors included 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 a furious counter-attack 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 the senator had never discussed the FCC issue with Paxson or his lobbyist.
That 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.
Now, however, this troublesome history seems to have been forgotten by a national press corps that McCain once called his “base” and that now is stinging from GOP rebukes for its few efforts to investigate Gov. Palin’s record.
Having reestablished the old status quo – of press favoritism toward McCain – the Republican ticket of McCain-Palin has emerged from St. Paul as “Maverick Squared,” even if a more appropriate title might be “Phonies Squared.”
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This story was published on September 6, 2008.