Cliffs Notes for the NY Times’ McCain Story

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Every now and then, the New York Times writes a story that requires Cliffs Notes. It is a story that doesn’t exactly say what it is saying, or only says part of what the reporters seem to believe, or seems to be saying something it is not, or something like that. No doubt the story is beautifully written and edited, but one can read the thing three or four times and still not entirely be sure what is going on.

Past examples of this include a 2006 front-page blowout called, “For Clintons, Delicate Dance of Married and Public Lives,” which seemed to be written simply to leave open the possibility that Bill Clinton was still fooling around with other women. Key cryptic sentence: “Interviews with some 50 people and a review of their respective activities show that since leaving the White House, Bill and Hillary Clinton have built largely separate lives.” Hmmm.

Then there was the recent story about Barack Obama’s drug use, which seemed to make news of the fact that he was often NOT stoned in his youth, despite his obvious afro and his own account of drugs in his book. The headline: “Old Friends Say Drugs Played Bit Part in Obama‚Äôs Young Life.” Hendrik Hertzberg at the New Yorker has penned a helpful guide to this bizarre story here.

Now we get a much-muttered about, front-page almost-jaw dropper about John McCain, called “For McCain, Self-Confidence on Ethics Poses Its Own Risk.” The story contains at least four different intertwining narrative threads, and a ponderous structure that will leave even the most expert newspaper readers scratching their heads. Here is my Cliff Notes guide to reading the story:

1. John McCain may, or may not, have had a “romantic” entanglement with a much-younger lobbyist about eight years ago. The Times reporters don’t know, or refuse to say they know, but they are quite happy to speculate. We learn that anonymous “top advisors” became “convinced the relationship had become romantic.” The evidence for this is that the two seemed to hang out together. She came to his fundraisers. He flew on the private jet of one of her clients. Both McCain and the lobbyist deny any romantic relationship.

2. After dropping this speculative bomb, the Times reporters change the topic. They say it doesn’t really matter whether McCain cheated on his wife. What matters is that there was “the appearance of a close bond with a lobbyist.” In other words, since McCain is a campaign finance reformer, he calls himself under a newsworthy cloud simply by being friendly with a lobbyist who is doing business with his office, even if that friendliness is platonic and otherwise above board, which it may well have been.

3. The third thread concerns McCain’s long-time history as a reformer, who has often prompted criticism that he is not enough of a reformer all the time. Despite his crusades against improper influence in Washington, he has also participated in the influence game, including, famously, a role in the “formative” Keating Five scandal, which, of course, has absolutely nothing to do with the lady lobbyist. But McCain also may have done favors for telecommunications companies represented by the lady lobbyist, a fact that was more or less known to the public eight years ago.

4. Finally, there is the meta story: Current and/or former aides to McCain, it seems, are dishing dirt about him to the Times. This is the sort of thing that is very important to reporters in Washington. But most Americans, with good reason, don’t care. And they shouldn’t. Except for this fact: Because of this story there are now dozens of reporters chasing down all kinds of similar threads so they can try to “follow” the big murky scoop on the front page of the nation’s most powerful newspaper. Let’s all hope they can come up with something a bit more definitive.