McCain: Smeared by The New York Times?

The 2008 presidential race has its first real scandal, said Michael Gerson in The Washington Post. All we

The 2008 presidential race has its first real scandal, said Michael Gerson in The Washington Post. All we’re waiting to find out is who the sinner is: John McCain or The New York Times. In a front-page article, the Times last week alleged that the presumptive GOP nominee had some sort of relationship back in 1999 with a young, blond media-industry lobbyist, Vicki Iseman, and may have improperly used his clout to help her clients. McCain promptly and flatly denied the allegations, which are based primarily on interviews with two disgruntled—and anonymous—former McCain aides, who claim they warned McCain he was spending far too much time with Iseman. Does the Times have anything more than “anonymous sources and sexual innuendo” to support this explosive story? If so, said Stephen F. Hayes in The Weekly Standard, McCain’s “remarkable comeback story will end as a tragedy”; his blunt denials didn’t leave him much wiggle room. If not, however, and it turns out that the Times used its once-hallowed front page to air defamatory gossip about a presidential candidate, then “the episode will be remembered as a monumental embarrassment to America’s newspaper of record.”

Why is anyone surprised? said Andrea Peyser in the New York Post. The New York Times isn’t going to “pass up a chance to mug a Republican” over such a trivial matter as a complete lack of evidence. McCain was always the liberal media’s favorite Republican, said Investor’s Business Daily in an editorial. But if he was hoping the media would continue fawning over him even after he secured the GOP nomination, he “doesn’t know what makes that institution tick.” McCain’s old friends in the media no longer look at him and see the lovable “maverick” who so bravely defied the evil overlords of his own party on tax cuts, illegal immigration, and campaign-finance reform. All they see now is a “Republican seeking the White House.” He must therefore be destroyed.

The Times had no business “opening the door on McCain’s private life,” said E.J. Dionne in The New Republic, but the story was mainly about his public life, and it raised some very real and pertinent questions. Whatever the nature of his relationship with Iseman, it seems to have led McCain into frequently flying free-of-charge on the private jet of one of Iseman’s clients, media magnate Lowell “Bud” Paxson, who also gave $20,000 to McCain’s campaign. At Iseman’s urging, McCain wrote to the Federal Communications Commission to ask that it vote quickly on the sale of a Pittsburgh TV station to Paxson, “drawing a rare rebuke for interference” from the FCC’s chairman. Last week, McCain heatedly denied he ever met with Paxon, but in a 2002 document, he admitted that he had, and that he worried that voters might see the relationship as “corrupt.” Did McCain have a personal relationship with a female lobbyist? Who cares? But journalists are certainly entitled to “explore how McCain’s strong words about lobbyists square with how he’s actually dealt with them.”

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The only problem with that argument is that it’s “an insult to reality and common sense,” said David Brooks in The New York Times. Over his decades in government, McCain has “fought one battle after another against lobbyists and special interests,” voting against powerful telecommunications companies, tobacco companies, the ethanol industry, and defense contractors. In fact, he has done more to limit the corrupting influence of money in politics than literally “any other legislator.” Just ask the Times, said Jonah Goldberg in National Review Online. In its primary endorsements in January, the newspaper’s editorial board supported McCain and spoke warmly of his courage in fighting Washington’s culture of corruption. If the only blot on his record is that he once wrote a letter to the FCC, that’s “hardly a serious transgression.”

In the end, said Steve Chapman in the Chicago Tribune, McCain will thank the Times for its bungled hatchet job on his reputation. Just two weeks ago, McCain was still “straining to ingratiate himself” to a booing crowd of conservatives at the CPAC conference and being denounced as a fake Republican on an hourly basis by right-wing talk radio. Then the Times attacked him, and voilà! “The great Republican civil war was pretty much over,” with conservatives suddenly defending McCain as if he were the second coming of Ronald Reagan. For if there’s one thing conservatives detest more than maverick Republican senators from Arizona, it’s those lying, cheating weasels at The New York Times.

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