The McCain Story

February 20, 2008 9:48 p.m.

This afternoon, before the Times story came out, I was working on a post about national political reporters’ tendency not to give much of any scrutiny to various McCain flipflops, contradictions and bamboozlements. Obviously, the terrain has changed a bit since I started writing that one (I’d hoped to finish it up this evening; either tonight or tomorrow early).

This is an odd story for a couple reasons. We know that the McCain Camp went to the mattresses to get this story spiked back in December. And some heavy legal muscle was apparently brought to bear. When a story has to go through that much lawyering it often comes out pretty stilted and with some obvious lacunae. And this one definitely qualifies. Reading the Times piece it struck me as a bit of a jumble. The reference to a possible affair is there in the lede. But then most of the piece is a rehash of a lot of older material about McCain’s record before getting back to the relationship with Iseman.

In terms of a relationship between the two, the Times piece seems quite hedged. According to two staffers, staffers became concerned there was a romantic relationship. They took steps to protect McCain from himself. According to the Times sources, after being confronted by staffers, McCain “acknowledged behaving inappropriately and pledged to keep his distance from Ms. Iseman.”

The Post did a quick follow up in the wake of the Times piece. But the emphasis is significantly different — suggesting the ‘concern’ on the part of the McCain staff was not so much about a potential affair but rather having McCain too close to a lobbyist while running a reformist insurgent presidential campaign, a suggestion that strikes me as rather dubious. (Note the role of John Weaver in the Post story and possibly in the Times story too. Weaver is a key figure in McCain’s turn toward reformism and then turn back away from it.)

At the moment it seems to me that we have a story from the Times that reads like it’s had most of the meat lawyered out of it. And a lot of miscellany and fluff has been packed in where the meat was. Still, if the Times sources are to be believed, the staff thought he was having an affair with Iseman and when confronted about it he in so many words conceded that he was (much of course hangs on ‘behaving inappropriately’ but then, doesn’t it always?) and promised to shape up. And whatever the personal relationship it was a stem wound about a lobbying branch.

I find it very difficult to believe that the Times would have put their chin so far out on this story if they didn’t know a lot more than they felt they could put in the article, at least on the first go. But in a decade of doing this, I’ve learned not to give any benefits of the doubt, even to the most esteemed institutions.

Equally telling, though, is the McCain camp’s response and their clear unwillingness to address or deny any the key charges of the piece. (Read the statement closely. It’s all bluster.) When it comes to sex stories even falsely accused politicians have some reluctance to get into nitty gritty denials. But McCain — or rather McCain’s communications office since it’s in their name not his — doesn’t even address it.

That tells you something. So too does the Post’s decision to jump in very quickly. Charles Kaiser, at Radar, gives some of the backstory on the other publications that were in the hunt and why the Times may have pulled the trigger when they did. Apparently some others were about to jump in too.

Reading all of this stuff I have the distinct feeling that only a few pieces of the puzzle are now on the table. Given unspoken understandings of many years’ duration, a lot of reporters and DC types can probably imagine what the full picture looks like. But we’re going to need a few more pieces before the rest of us can get a sense of what this is all about.

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