The Sources of Our Discontent - The American Spectator | USA News and Politics
The Sources of Our Discontent

Reputation, reputation, reputation! O, I have lost
my reputation! I have lost the immortal part of
myself, and what remains is bestial. My reputation,
Iago, my reputation!
— Michael Cassio in Othello

The above line relates quite nicely to a report from the New York Times today stating that John McCain may have had an affair. Or that he may have acted unethically as a legislator. Or, that he may have simply committed the sin of giving the appearance of both. What it has revealed, most importantly, is that John McCain has trouble living up to his own standards, no matter how inadvertently he strays from them. (Full disclosure: I used to work for the Times as a researcher in the editorial department with libertarian columnist John Tierney. My office was in the Washington Bureau, and so I freely conversed with the journalists there — including a few of the reporters who worked on this story.)

It was inevitable that McCain would be questioned on ethics, considering his visibility on the issue. But the pseudo-muckraking philosophy underlying McCain-Feingold, “ethics reform,” and other “do-gooder” bills that placed him at odds with conservatives has come back to bite him in a Times article that highlights moments in his career where he could have been seen as doing something unseemly. Though his campaign vigorously denies doing anything wrong, it’s well worth noting that McCain’s philosophy would still require punishment for groups of citizens wishing to exercise their first amendment rights prior to an election. In other words, citizens are expected to take McCain at his word when he won’t do the same for them.

Make no mistake: The Times story is thinly sourced, and heavy on already-reported information. Admittedly the former is necessary to investigative political reporting, and drives campaign teams up the wall (which makes it worth it). But the timing is key. According to Jonathan Martin and Jim Geraghty, this article had been leaked to Drudge in December, when it was to be published among other articles in a series (“The Long Run“) about the candidates running in the primaries. At that time, the Times had already published a rather favorable piece about McCain as a father. The editors, apparently, decided to hold this story rather than run it earlier, with the bulk of the series, which places them (and not the reporters) squarely in the center of yet another bias controversy. Those flames were fanned by Matt Drudge’s headline: “NOW THAT HE’S SECURED NOMINATION: NYT DOWNLOADS ON MCCAIN.”

Taken from the perspective of former McCain staffers, the new report leads with its chin, as “waves of anxiety sweep through his small circle of advisers”:

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.

Not only was McCain suspected of being romantically involved, but he had to be chained to the mast of his campaign ship so as not to heed the lobbyist’s siren call. Yet the notion of a sex scandal is aborted — quickly — because of denials by the parties involved, and most importantly, a complete lack of evidence.

The insinuation of the affair is questionable, and perhaps libelous (even repeating an unsubstantiated rumor is considered libelous, especially when in a top national publication). The rest of the report discusses similar episodes — moments where McCain probably didn’t do anything wrong (see this post by David Freddoso on the Washington Post version of the story) So the story is simply a catalogue of potential sins that are never realized, offered by sources that are never named. No wonder McCainiacs are ticked. Yet this is precisely the sort of scrutiny of moral conscience that McCain has supported.

The NRA and the ACLU both can’t buy ad time in the days before an election because doing so, by virtue of the ethical senator’s own philosophy, is manipulating the people and hurting democracy. But when McCain hops a flight with a campaign contributor, it ought to be obvious that he’s maintaining his integrity. Why is it that associations comprised of every day citizens are suspect, but a powerful politician is not?

Sure, it’s a bait and switch. But it’s a very good one because it demonstrates the very problem presented by the John McCain School of Ethics. This is not a story about what happened. It’s a story about what could have happened. What was feared to have happened. What, it must be assumed in good faith, did not happen. Campaign advisers were afraid that “the appearance of a close bond with a lobbyist whose clients often had business before the Senate committee Mr. McCain led threatened the story of redemption and rectitude that defined his political identity.”

While it’s clear that supporters and passers-by will dismiss the Times report as overblown in its importance (and, of course, heap onto the Times for being incautious about its use of sources), the dredging up of a real ethics flap will not help a man who has made ethics a cornerstone of his campaign. But the story might have a few positive effects after all.

Conservatives will likely rally for McCain. McCain will have the opportunity to show just how comfortable he is with transparency and talk to the press in a way that Americans will appreciate. He’ll have a chance to highlight his record as a reformer in Congress. And the New York Times‘s public editor, Clark Hoyt, will have a very entertaining column attempting to explain what happened.

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