In Vice, I Mask

The story that will set the political agenda over the next week is about whether John McCain is really as squeaky clean on Washington ethics as he claims to be. Except you won’t hear that side of the story. Instead, everybody will be buzzing about McCain’s possible affair with a lobbyist named Vicki Iseman—which will distract everyone from the real allegations that could harm his campaign.

Nobody quite knows what to make of the Times piece . Most of the intrigue focuses on the Times ’ handling of the “scoop,” which included delaying the story’s publication and relying on several anonymous sources. (The New Republic will reportedly have a story on this today.) Plus, the article relies on the juicy Iseman allegations as its lede, then deserts that narrative entirely for a history lesson on McCain’s Keating Five past , only to return to the Iseman subplot at the end. The authors go 1,567 words without mentioning Iseman’s name at one point. (The whole article is 2,909 words.) It’s like a jelly donut—the shell looks tasty, the middle is just filler, and the whole thing makes you feel a little slimy.

The ethical subtext of the Iseman allegations could do the most damage to McCain’s campaign, but it will be overshadowed by the sexier romance rumors. The central question of the Times piece is whether McCain’s religious attention to ethics reform has made him less self-aware of his own transgressions: “Even as he has vowed to hold himself to the highest ethical standards, his confidence in his own integrity has sometimes seemed to blind him to potentially embarrassing conflicts of interest.”

Iseman’s story is used as the key and most prevalent example of McCain’s “conflict of interest”—and there’s reason to believe it may have been. McCain wrote letters to the FCC urging deregulation after Iseman requested as much of his office. He flew on her plane, and she kept showing up at his events as well. All of this is damaging to McCain’s candidacy, but none of it will matter—attention is more easily drawn to the flickering neon sign pointing to a romantic affair.

Even if voters and the media cut through the distractions and get to the ethical questions involved, it’s still unlikely to make a dent. Because these allegations come from a poorly sourced New York Times story, conservative stalwarts will be more interested in the Gray Lady than the Graying Maverick. Rush Limbaugh and company will say are already saying * the story is concrete proof that the Times has it out for McCain (this despite the editorial board’s endorsement ). In that sense, it’s just as likely McCain’s detractors will rally behind him as it is his supporters will turn against him. Nothing like a common enemy to fuel a presidential run.

Moreover, the timing of this couldn’t have been better for McCain. He already has the nomination all but locked up, and there are eight months before the general election. Even if there’s another Republican rebellion against him, he has plenty of time to move past the allegations. By the time the real campaign starts, he’ll probably have other distractions to worry about.

Note: The headline of this post is the all-too-fitting anagram of Vicki Iseman’s name: In vice, I mask.

*UPDATE 12:40 p.m.: McCain’s former critics are already rallying in his defense.