A huge dustup over the last couple of days about the New York Times’ article on John McCain and his ties to lobbyists, and in particular Vicki Iseman. The visceral reaction from the McCain campaign itself and many conservative commentators, bloggers, radio hosts and politicians is now been followed by a more measured approach to evaluating the article.

The Times has indeed erred in several key ways here:

  • it appears to have taken from December until this week to publish an article, virtually all of the details of which were known from the beginning of that period, and appears to have rushed the article to publication in response to a pending article from the New Republic. The Times denies this, but at the very least, this denial requires belief in a huge coincidence of timing. The timing is also convenient in that the Republicans now have their nominee, and the only way it can influence voters’ minds is in the general election, not the primaries, in contrast to, say, three weeks ago.
  • it uses innuendo and implication to suggest a romantic (if that’s the right word) relationship between McCain and Iseman despite the fact that none of its sources – even the unnamed ones – actually outright claimed this was the case.
  • it rehashes old scandals in great detail, even when one of them happened 20 years ago and the other was adequately explained as a non-scandal at the time.

The most egregious excerpt is the following:

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.

That there was a romantic relationship – or any inappropriate closeness – has been denied by the one aide quoted by name in the article and by everyone associated with the McCain campaign now and previously. There is no doubt that the Times screwed up on this one, both in telling a story without basis in fact, and in its claims about the timing. It has also been ridiculously defensive since the publication:

Later in the day, one of Mr. McCain’s senior advisers leveled harsh criticism at The New York Times in what appeared to be a deliberate campaign strategy to wage a war with the newspaper. Mr. McCain is deeply distrusted by conservatives on a number of issues, not least because of his rapport with the news media, but he could find common ground with them in attacking a newspaper that many conservatives revile as a left-wing publication. [my emphasis]

Since the New York Times’ views on war are well known, it’s perhaps not surprising that it sees any counter-attack by an entity it doesn’t like (whether McCain or the United States) as “waging a war”, but this does seem a particularly long stretch even for the Gray Lady. At any rate, it puts its endorsement in exactly the light in which several of McCain’s Republican opponents suggested it should be seen: as ultimately self-interested from a paper with an agenda that includes electing a Democratic President. Since that endorsement came during the time between the paper’s first thoughts about publishing the article and its eventual publication, the contents of the article must have been in the editorial board’s minds as they wrote it. It neatly excludes any positive or negative references to McCain’s character or integrity, leaving the door open to the smear they published this week.

However, despite all this – and the likelihood that the suggestions of an affair are a complete fabrication, the article itself (four pages long in its online version) does make some reasonable points which have more substance to them. The article it should have written is the one the Washington Post wrote today. There are real problems with McCain’s ties to lobbyists, and a big part of the problem is that McCain himself doesn’t seem to realise it. This was also what Mitt Romney was referring to when he said he didn’t have lobbyists running his campaign, although that conversation turned into an argument about semantics as they related to Romney’s own campaign instead of heading where it should have. The Post article summarises as follows:

But 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. His campaign manager, Rick Davis, co-founded a lobbying firm whose clients have included Verizon and SBC Telecommunications. His chief political adviser, Charles R. Black Jr., is chairman of one of Washington’s lobbying powerhouses, BKSH and Associates, which has represented AT&T, Alcoa, JPMorgan and U.S. Airways.

Senior advisers Steve Schmidt and Mark McKinnon work for firms that have lobbied for Land O’ Lakes, UST Public Affairs, Dell and Fannie Mae.

McCain really does have lobbyists running his campaign, but he doesn’t seem to think it matters. While doing all he can through McCain-Feingold and other means to restrict the kinds of activities candidates can engage in to avoid the appearance of impropriety, he seems to believe all he has to do himself to avoid such an appearance is to simply state “there’s nothing to see here”:

“I have many friends who represent various interests, ranging from the firemen to the police to senior citizens to various interests, particularly before my committee,” McCain said. “The question is . . . do they have excess or unwarranted influence? And certainly no one ever has in my conduct of my public life and conduct of my legislative agenda.”

And we’re just supposed to take his word for it? Aren’t there other campaign managers around who aren’t (or haven’t been) lobbyists? The problem is that McCain believes so strongly in his own integrity that he can’t see why others wouldn’t, even when faced with glaring conflicts of interest. It reminds me of Tony Blair (see this previous post) of whom it was said:

Mr. Blair suffered from a condition previously unknown to me: delusions of honesty.

McCain, too, seems to suffer from delusions of honesty, or at least integrity. And he is blind to the things he does which give an alternative view. This is a legitimate cause for concern and legitimate fodder for newspaper articles, from left-wing and right-wing organs alike. He must confront it head on, and ideally he should clean house, as he has occasionally done before when confronted with previous lapses in judgment. He also needs to have someone in his campaign who has his ear and is not afraid to tell him when he’s wrong. This has been a huge problem for President Bush (Rumsfeld’s Rule #20 notwithstanding) and McCain must avoid it being a problem for him too, not just in the campaign, but also in the presidency.

UPDATE: not a huge fan of the Boston Globe, but it appears they made the right call on this and actually did run the article the Post wrote instead of the one the Times wrote, despite being owned by the Times company:

But one interesting aspect of this combined political and professional controversy went widely unnoticed. The Boston Globe, which is wholly owned by the New York Times, chose not to publish the article produced by its parent company’s reporters.

Instead, the Globe published a version of the same story written by the competing Washington Post staff. That version focused almost exclusively on the pervasive presence of lobbyists in McCain’s campaign and did not mention the sexual relationship that the Times article hinted at but did not describe or document and which the senator and lobbyist have denied.

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One Response to “The New York Times and McCain”

  1. rightsideup blog » Blog Archive » Every candidate in denial Says:

    […] to me that every candidate (and in one case their spouse) is in denial a lot of the time. I already wrote about McCain’s denial in the case of his lobbyists a few weeks back. But there are examples […]