In the Arena

The McCain Story

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What Scherer said. And some additional thoughts:

1. Huh? What do we make of a story with this headline:

For McCain, Self-Confidence on Ethics Poses Its Own Risk

Once again, huh?

2. The sex angle. Sex is, or should be, an issue in politics only when it raises larger character questions about the politician involved–a fatal recklessness–or when it is illegal (sex with pages), or when the hypocrisy is just stunning (Newt Gingrich and assorted other Republicans who attempted to impeach Clinton for a peccadillo). I don’t think any of those exceptions apply here…at least, not so far.

3. The influence angle. More interesting:

A champion of deregulation, Mr. McCain wrote letters in 1998 and 1999 to the Federal Communications Commission urging it to uphold marketing agreements allowing a television company to control two stations in the same city, a crucial issue for Glencairn Ltd., one of Ms. Iseman’s clients. He introduced a bill to create tax incentives for minority ownership of stations; Ms. Iseman represented several businesses seeking such a program. And he twice tried to advance legislation that would permit a company to control television stations in overlapping markets, an important issue for Paxson.

In late 1999, Ms. Iseman asked Mr. McCain’s staff to send a letter to the commission to help Paxson, now Ion Media Networks, on another matter. Mr. Paxson was impatient for F.C.C. approval of a television deal, and Ms. Iseman acknowledged in an e-mail message to The Times that she had sent to Mr. McCain’s staff information for drafting a letter urging a swift decision.

Mr. McCain complied. He sent two letters to the commission, drawing a rare rebuke for interference from its chairman. In an embarrassing turn for the campaign, news reports invoked the Keating scandal, once again raising questions about intervening for a patron.

Not good if Vicki is drafting letters for McCain. But the bottom line is this: McCain wasn’t compromising any of his principles–repeat, his oft-stated views on deregulation–by taking these positions. Members of Congress have these sorts of relationships with lobbyists all the time…and will continue to do so. Lobbyists have first amendment rights, too. (Bribery is not among those rights, of course.) No doubt, teachers union lobbyists have influence with democrats on education legislation, and the ACLU offers its expertise to Senators on FISA. You can disagree with McCain’s position on telecommunications law, but I don’t see anything even vaguely illegal here.

3. McCain’s Character. This is the only candidate for President of the United States ever to admit that he attempted suicide–as a matter of honor, after the North Vietnamese tortured a confession out of him. In 2000, he told me, and I reported in the New Yorker, that people wouldn’t think as highly of him if they knew the details of the breakup of his first marriage. In 2004, he told me that his involvement in the Keating Five scandal was more difficult than his imprisonment in Vietnam: “My honor was being questioned,” he said. “There were days I couldn’t get out of bed.”

Clearly, this is a man obsessed with his flaws. In his Wisconsin victory speech Tuesday night, he spoke of himself as a “flawed servant” of his country. I believe the humility and self-flagellation is real, but also a very effective political tactic: a pre-emptive confession that defuses any accusations.

4. What Actually Matters: His positions and temperament as President. I have real problems with his lack of knowledge about many issues, his tendency to skim, oversimplify and mischaracterize even in areas –like national security–where he has expertise. His worldview is tragically out of date: he describes the terrorist threat the same way he described the communist threat, and pretty much sees it the same way. But it’s a real stretch to see this man as corrupt. And it’s very important to hold to a single standard: If this story were written about Barack Obama or Hillary Clinton, how seriously would you take it?

There may be fire beneath all this smoke, but I”ll withhold judgment until I see his pants aflame.

On second thought: I’ve been kicking myself all day for point 2 above. I think I let McCain off too easily, especially when you read the Washington Post version of the story, as Karen suggests, especially this:

At the time he sent the first letter, McCain had flown on Paxson’s corporate jet four times to appear at campaign events and had received $20,000 in campaign donations from Paxson and its law firm. The second letter came on Dec. 10, a day after the company’s jet ferried him to a Florida fundraiser that was held aboard a yacht in West Palm Beach.

Yeah, they all do it…but not all of them complain about it, as McCain does, which means he should be held to his own standard. (But, once again, be prepared for stories about Clinton and Obama doing similar things…ain’t no one clean in this world…which should be a blues lyric, if I haven’t unwittingly plagiarized it already.)