by John C Abell
The New York Times is the story today after running a lengthy front-page article in which anonymous sources allege that some top advisers to John McCain became "convinced” during his 2000 presidential campaign the candidate’s relationship with a much younger female lobbyist “had become romantic.”
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.”
Both McCain and the lobbyist, Vicki Iseman, denied the relationship to the newspaper. McCain vehemently denied a romantic relationship at a press conference this morning, as well as any breach of the public trust and even the contention he had ever been approached by aides urging him to end a potentially problematic relationship with a lobbyist on behalf of whose clients the senator had written letters to government regulators.
John Weaver, a former top McCain strategist and now an informal campaign adviser, does go on the record as having met with Iseman at Washington’s Union Station to "ask her to stay away from the senator." Weaver told the Times, without elaborating, that he spoke about “her conduct and what she allegedly had told people, which made its way back to us.”
Iseman confirms the Weaver meeting, but disputes the account.
Weaver today denied that he was also an anonymous source in the story, and thus not a source for the “romantic” aspect.
McCain’s campaign is seething. “It’s not every night I stay up to read the National Enquirer,” top McCain aide Charlie Black told Politico. “We’re going to go to war with them now,” he said. “We’ll see if that hurts or helps.”
There appears to be little middle ground between what the Times reports might have happened and what McCain says absolutely did not. In addition to expressing “disappointment” with the Times, McCain denied all the key points in the article without equivocation. He took questions from reporters and directly answered each one, often starting with a succinct
The “romantic” relationship is clearly the bombshell in the article, and yet the article is not the lead story in Thursday’s edition (it broke on nytimes.com Wednesday evening). That peg is not in the headline: “For McCain, Self-Confidence On Ethics Poses Its Own Risk.”
The story has been in the works for months; it was referenced by the Drudge Report in December, before the first-in-the-nation caucus in Iowa (which McCain lost to Mike Huckabee) and New Hampshire primary (which he won). McCain declined repeated interview requests beginning in December, the paper reports, but spoke directly to Keller “to complain about the paper’s inquiries”. The Times endorsed McCain in the Feb. 5 “Super Tuesday” Republican primary in New York (it endorsed Hillary Clinton among the Democrats).
"On the substance, we think the story speaks for itself,” Executive Editor Bill Keller said in a statement. “On the timing, our policy is, we publish stories when they are ready.
"'Ready' means the facts have been nailed down to our satisfaction, the subjects have all been given a full and fair chance to respond, and the reporting has been written up with all the proper context and caveats.”
Nevertheless, there is a legitimate question about whether the Times placed too much emphasis on a subjective allegation proffered by sources granted anonymity – aides “convinced” the relationship had turned romantic but who didn’t explain why, beyond the recitation of publicly-observable things which they seem to have interpreted in a particular way, and unspecified chatter allegedly originating with Iseman that got back to the campaign.
Shorn of the romance aspect, would not have the objective observation of a close friendship with a female lobbyist who “had been turning up with him at fundraisers, visiting his offices and accompanying him on a client’s corporate jet” been enough fuel for the rest of the story -- which, in every other respect, reads like a routine character profile that the paper runs occasionally on all of the presidential candidates?
The Times also makes a curious decision to tell readers the ages of McCain – a matter of public record – and Iseman – presumably not a matter of public record. They are separated by 31 years; and she was 32 and he 63 when the incidents in question allegedly occurred. Is this an innocent fact or one which merely serves to feed an inference of inappropriateness or even that McCain might have been flattered into unprincipled behavior by the attentions of a younger woman? Is this specific fact necessary when pictures of both accompany the story and the fact of a significant age difference (for whatever that is worth) is evident?
It will be interesting to see what the Times’ Public Editor decides about the piece, and, presumably before he weighs in, what additional reporting the Times will do. In their second-day piece they will have to thoroughly cover McCain’s strong denials and, presumably, offer some additional evidence about the veracity of their original story besides just standing by it and defending their policy on the use of anonymous sources.
In effect, McCain has thrown down the gauntlet as President Bill Clinton did when he wagged his finger and insisted “I did not have sexual relations with that woman, Monica Lewinsky” and presidential candidate Gary Hart did when he challenged reporters to follow him around.
Coming as it has in the midst of a presidential campaign, the Times must have known that it would be accused -- rightly or wrongly -- of becoming part of the story and acting in a way which could affect the outcome of the election. One hopes the Times is prepared to both defend itself against having an agenda and fill in the gaps in its reporting on McCain’s alleged affair.