The New York Times must really like John McCain. Twice in the span of one month the paper has printed endorsements of the senator. The first of these came in January, courtesy of the Times’ editorial board, which magnanimously pronounced the senator the least contemptible of the Republican candidates. The second, and ultimately the more helpful to McCain, came yesterday, when the Times published a thinly sourced page-one hit piece alleging ethical improprieties and a possible affair by the senator.
The facts of the case are few and readily related. Some eight years ago, McCain had contact with one Vicki Iseman, a telecommunications lobbyist whose clients sometimes came before the Senate Commerce Committee, then chaired by McCain. This relationship, which the paper suggestively describes as the “appearance of a close bond,” is intended to cast doubt on McCain’s much-touted reputation as a foe of special interests. But in fact it does nothing of the kind, since, as the Times reporting also points out, there is no evidence that Iseman ever received special treatment from McCain. As ethics scandals go, this is less than compelling stuff.
Less impressive still is the charge, also aired in the Times piece, that McCain carried on an affair with the Iseman. Both McCain and Iseman deny any romantic relationship, while the anonymous aides who serve as the paper’s primary source for the charge can offer nothing more convincing in the way of proof than private suspicion. Thus does the Times’ reporting collapse under the weight of its own insubstantiality.
In fairness, the Times has every right to investigate ethical misconduct on the part of elected officials. Moreover, by making his distaste for money in politics into a personal crusade, Sen. McCain more than most opens himself up to scrutiny. It would be interesting to hear the senator explain why, given his famous disdain for even the semblance of impropriety, he deemed it appropriate to write letters to the Federal Communications Commission on behalf of Iseman’s employer, Paxson Communications, urging it to consider the company’s proposal to acquire a television license. True, McCain never asked the FCC to rule in the Paxson’s favor. But considering that the company’s CEO, Lowell Paxson, would become a contributor to McCain's 2000 presidential campaign, it seems only reasonable to press the senator about what would be, by his own exacting standards, a possible conflict of interest.
Had the Times confined its inquiries to the factual record, and had the release of its story, just as McCain is on the verge of winning the Republican nomination, not been so patently calculated, there would be little to object to in its reporting. As it is, the paper chose to traffic in tabloid-style rumors of sex and scandal.
In so doing, it has accomplished what until yesterday seemed impossible: it has made John McCain popular on conservative talk radio. Laura Ingraham, last heard endorsing McCain’s ex-rival Mitt Romney, devoted her show yesterday to defending McCain against the Times’ charges. Calling the story “one of the more ridiculous pieces I have read in some time,” Ingraham pointed out that on a number of occasions, Sen. McCain staked out positions that were directly at odds with the interests of Iseman and her clients -- a crucial detail that somehow failed to command the attention of the Times’ reporters. Despite her lament earlier this month that “Ronald Reagan would not have been happy” with John McCain at the top of the GOP ticket, Ingraham has ended up in John McCain’s corner, the Gipper notwithstanding.
Rush Limbaugh, similarly, would have been able to win a libel suit had someone referred to him as a McCain supporter. For months, he had insisted that McCain was the enemy of all things conservative, his nomination a betrayal to principle and party. But yesterday the most prominent voice on talk radio concentrated his fire on the Times for what he called its “Page Six-type gossip,” while extending what sounded tantalizingly like an olive branch to his erstwhile bête noir: Observing that the media was an unreliable ally for even a political maverick, Limbaugh said that the Times piece represented “a great opportunity…for Senator McCain to learn the right lesson and understand who his friends are and who his enemies are.”
As one might expect from a savvy campaign, the McCain camp was way ahead of him. In a perfectly pitched fundraising appeal, the campaign asked supporters to “help to counteract the liberal establishment and fight back against The New York Times” and its attacks on a “conservative Republican” like John McCain. Until recently, that description of the senator would have inspired mutinies in the Republican ranks. It is one of the more interesting ironies of this campaign season that it took the New York Times to make it credible.