Consider this a “thinking out loud” moment in the midst of a still-unfolding story. My take at this point is not particularly coherent, and there’s still a lot we don’t know — and maybe never will. But here’s where we — and I — stand two days after the New York Times reported that John McCain had an improper relationship with a female lobbyist during the 2000 presidential campaign.
Sex shouldn’t matter. That’s my beginning point in analyzing such a story. Both McCain and the lobbyist, Vicki Iseman, have denied a sexual relationship, and of course their denials are important. But why is the Times snooping around in McCain’s private affairs in the first place? If McCain and Iseman really did hop into bed with each other, that’s their business, and the media ought to leave it alone.
This may sound awfully cynical, but I think it’s fair to ask, based on what we’ve learned over the past few decades, how many high-profile politicians have not strayed from their marital vows at one time or another. I suspect it’s a very short list. And before you cite Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky as an example of media excess, remember: Clinton was exploiting a young intern in the workplace; there was a perjury angle; and the entire story was being driven by a government investigation. Hardly the same thing.
Anonymous sources aren’t the issue. It’s what they said. Yes, on-the-record sources are always better than anonymous whispers. But the Times, for all its flaws, is a great paper, and the reporters who worked on this story have a stellar reputation. I take it on faith that their two sources are well-connected and were quoted accurately and in context.
But what did they say? No one said McCain and Iseman were engaged in a sexual affair. Rather, they said the two were spending so much time together that aides were afraid they might be having an affair. Look at the second paragraph of the story:
A female lobbyist had been turning up with him at fund-raisers, visiting his offices and accompanying him on a client’s corporate jet. Convinced the relationship had become romantic, some of his top advisers intervened to protect the candidate from himself — instructing staff members to block the woman’s access, privately warning her away and repeatedly confronting him, several people involved in the campaign said on the condition of anonymity.
McCain adviser John Weaver confirmed, on the record, the gist of that paragraph except for the suspicions about sex. So again, anonymous sources aren’t the issue. It’s that they offered nothing other than their suspicions that McCain and Iseman were having an affair. How did the Times reach the point that it’s reporting unconfirmed suspicions about a presidential candidate on page one?
The Washington Post version kicked butt. Because the Post stayed away from sex, it put together a solid look at how McCain’s personal relationship with a lobbyist had played out in his actions as a senator.
The Times, almost embarrassed by its own reporting, sticks in an endless, familiar backgrounder on McCain’s involvement as one of the Keating Five before returning to the matter at hand. It reads like a committee effort. By contrast, the Post offers us relevant details about Iseman — who she is, whom she lobbies for, how her clients’ needs and desires were attended to by McCain.
Timing is everything. Mitt Romney’s campaign was hurt considerably by the Times’ dallying on this story between December and this week. As I noted yesterday, there have been some hints that all of this began with a dime-drop from the Romney camp. Times executive editor Bill Keller has said the story didn’t run earlier because it wasn’t ready.
Let me engage in some wanton speculation. Keller knew the story would have a huge impact on the Republican contest. Could it be that he didn’t want to deal a blow to the McCain campaign on the basis of such a thin story? If the Post’s fine but wonky effort had come out back when the Republican race was still competitive, it probably wouldn’t have caused much harm. It’s the sex that could have cost McCain the nomination. The Times promises sex, but doesn’t deliver.
The Times’ endorsement of McCain is a non-issue. I’ve heard a number of observers question how the Times could endorse McCain knowing that the Iseman story was in the works. That’s nonsensical, given that quality papers maintain a strict separation between the editorial pages and the newsgathering operation — although, as Jay Rosen notes, publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr. may have known about the story and could have warned off the editorial page.
Besides, the Times’ endorsement of McCain was remarkably backhanded, and was mainly an exercise in bashing former New York City mayor Rudy Giuliani, who at that point was still in the race. Given the Times editorial page’s liberal world view, it’s safe to say that it would have endorsed the relatively moderate McCain no matter who he was or wasn’t having sex with. And that it will endorse the Democratic nominee over McCain in November.
It’s all or nothing now. It’s possible that the story will fizzle. But McCain issued a strong denial yesterday, raising the stakes much higher than he needed to. (Maybe it’s because he was telling the truth.) New York Times columnist David Brooks, a McCain cheerleader during his Weekly Standard days in 2000, has a fascinating piece on internal rifts within Camp McCain that concludes with this: “If it turns out that there is evidence of an affair and a meeting, then his presidential hopes will be over.”
Speaking of Brooks’ cheerleading, I dug up this excerpt from a story I wrote in 2000, when I spent a few days following McCain and his worshipful press throng across South Carolina:
In Brooks’s view, many of the reporters certainly have drunk the Kool-Aid, and though they ask tough questions, he notices a lack of bite and follow-up that he doesn’t see when the press questions other candidates. “Obviously he’s just the coolest guy, and people like cool guys,” Brooks says. “Reporters on his campaign enjoy being here, and they don’t enjoy being with other candidates.”
I also found some stuff I wrote about McCain’s exertions on behalf of the Paxson television network, the very issue now being dredged up again. Here’s what I wrote about my encounter with the senator in South Carolina:
On the morning of my second day with the campaign, spokesman Todd Harris told me I wasn’t going to get on the lead bus. Thus liberated from having to play nice, I hung around the elevator of the Greenville Hilton, waiting for McCain. I got between him and the bus and asked him a question I’d had on my mind for a couple of weeks: whether he was aware that 40,000 Pittsburgh residents were opposed to a television-license transfer that he had urged the Federal Communications Commission to act on and that would benefit one of his campaign contributors.
“No, what I had urged them [the FCC] was to act, not to take a specific position. And that was to order them to act after 700 days of not acting,” he replied, repeating an answer he had given many times already. I pressed him on the fact that there was considerable opposition to the transfer, but he didn’t drop a beat: “What the citizen activists wanted was an act against, some wanted an act for. I just wanted them to act, so I wasn’t in any way harming the views of those citizen-activists. I was asking them to act. Now if I had been asking them to act affirmatively, then that would have somehow been in opposition to those activists. So I don’t see how you draw the conclusion that I was in any way in opposition to them.”
I wanted to ask a follow-up. His bus was waiting. I said, “Thank you.” He said, “Thank you,” smiled, asked where I was from, and was on his way, Cindy on one side, an aide on the other.
So much for Straight Talk.
Yesterday I was convinced that this story would be Topic A for political junkies for at least a week. Today I’m not so sure. What I do know is that media analysts will be talking about the New York Times and its standards for some time to come.