Press Box

McCain’s Smoking Blonde

In defense of the New York Times’ takedown.

John McCain

The New York Times served onto the Web last night a meaty sandwich wrapped in slices of thin white—make that blond—bread that’s giving indigestion to critics of the Times. Both Republicans and press observers regard the piece as a low-calorie meal assembled from moldy ingredients and sullied by unethical preparation.

The Times entrée, “For McCain, Self-Confidence on Ethics Poses Its Own Risk,” which runs on Page One in today’s edition, presents a withering historical review of Sen. John McCain’s ethical conduct and examines his close relationship to a skinny blond lobbyist named Vicki Iseman.

So far, I’ve yet to encounter a single critique that faults the article for its portrayal of McCain’s eccentric and self-serving ideas about political ethics. McCain thoroughly soiled himself in the “Keating Five” savings and loan scandal in the 1980s, which the article accurately condenses. Although McCain has devoted much of his post-Keating career to the policing of political ethics, the article notes, he’s often strayed from the path of righteousness. When accused of skirting ethical standards, he usually pleads guilty in an embarrassed, hangdog fashion, as the Times anecdote about a political fundraiser held for his 2000 presidential campaign points out. Scores of lobbyists were invited to the Willard Hotel to feed his campaign treasury, but, as the paper reports, “McCain himself skipped the event, an act he later called ‘cowardly.’ ” Here, McCain has it three ways: He throws the event, he skips it, he criticizes himself for not attending it. Will the real John McCain please stand up?

And so on. The Times reports that the enemy of special interests, money in politics, earmarks, and lobbyists has staffed his presidential campaign with lobbyists and recently hired a lobbyist to run his Senate office. That particular lobbyist, Mark Buse, the paper reports, came to McCain’s staff through the revolving door. Before he was a telecommunication industry lobbyist, Buse was the director of McCain’s commerce committee staff.

When critics question McCain’s integrity, his allies, such as McCain adviser and lobbyist Charles Black, say the man is beyond reproach. “Unless he gives you special treatment or takes legislative action against his own views, I don’t think his personal and social relationships matter,” Black told the Times.

This, of course, is hooey. What the lobbyist craves above all is access, and anything that provides that edge is coveted. In many cases, both lobbyists and their clients know the mission to change the mind of a member of Congress is hopeless. Often the point of the exercise is to be seen and heard by the member. If the lobbyist does not carry the day with the member, the client counts on the “relationship” to pay off in the next visit or the visit after that or the visit after that.

Getting inside the “red zone,” to steal a metaphor from Washington Post reporter Jeffrey H. Birnbaum’s feature about the tourism industry’s recent lobbying efforts, is almost as good as a touchdown. Corruption, if that’s the right word for it, arrives on the installment plan as a lobbyist moves closer and closer to a member.

Few Times critics quarrel with the historical part of the article, of course. What gets their dander up are the piece’s thinly sourced beginning and conclusion. The story portrays McCain as way too close to lobbyist Iseman and cites unnamed advisers who believe that the relationship was “romantic,” although McCain and Iseman deny that specific allegation.

The piece fails for these critics because the newspaper does not produce sheets from McCain and Iseman’s enseamed bed to prove their intimacy.  My friend Anne Applebaum denounces the Times article as “an extended piece of insinuation” in a brief Slate “XX Factor” blog item today.

Applebaum argues that if the Times has “evidence that he showed improper favoritism toward a lobbyist, they should come out with that, too. The fact that they do neither—most of the article rehashes old stories—must mean they don’t have anything at all; perhaps they are hoping the blogosphere will produce it.”

What Applebaum and others miss is that the Times doesn’t have to produce photographic evidence of the hot dog meeting the bun to cast suspicion upon the McCain-Iseman intimacies. If McCain were as close to a male lobbyist as he is Iseman, I’d want the Times to report it. That McCain may have voted against the interests of Iseman’s clients is no vindication. Her extreme proximity to a self-styled political ethicist is.

Consider these undisputed points reported by the Times:

McCain flew on the corporate jet of an Iseman client who was seeking the senator’s support. Iseman, who is a partner at the firm Alcalde & Fay, “represented telecommunications companies for whom Mr. McCain’s commerce committee was pivotal. Her clients contributed tens of thousands of dollars to his campaigns.” The paper also reports that “Mr. McCain and Ms. Iseman attended a small fund-raising dinner with several clients at the Miami-area home of a cruise-line executive and then flew back to Washington along with a campaign aide on the corporate jet of one of her clients, Paxson Communications.” Two former McCain associates anonymously tell the paper that they confronted McCain over his relationship with Iseman because they thought it was putting his career and campaign at risk. Former top McCain strategist John Weaver sent an e-mail about his Iseman worries.

Where there’s smoke, there’s sometimes fire. That the imperfect Times article doesn’t expose a raging blaze isn’t sufficient cause for condemning it. The evidence the paper provides more than adequately establishes that McCain remains a better preacher about ethics, standards, appearances, and special interest conflicts than he is a practitioner, something voters should consider before punching the ballot for him.


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