NYT Hit Piece on McCain Alleges Adultery, Favoritism

The New York Times today fronts a long exposé on John McCain, which the campaign describes as a “hit-and-run smear campaign,” under the headline “For McCain, Self-Confidence on Ethics Poses Its Own Risk.” The piece alleges that McCain did favors for a female lobbyist nine or more years ago and insinuates that they were romantically involved.

NYT Hit Piece on McCain

Early in Senator John McCain’s first run for the White House eight years ago, waves of anxiety swept 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.

When news organizations reported that Mr. McCain had written letters to government regulators on behalf of the lobbyist’s client, the former campaign associates said, some aides feared for a time that attention would fall on her involvement.

Mr. McCain, 71, and the lobbyist, Vicki Iseman, 40, both say they never had a romantic relationship. But to his advisers, even 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.

It had been just a decade since an official favor for a friend with regulatory problems had nearly ended Mr. McCain’s political career by ensnaring him in the Keating Five scandal. In the years that followed, he reinvented himself as the scourge of special interests, a crusader for stricter ethics and campaign finance rules, a man of honor chastened by a brush with shame.

But the concerns about Mr. McCain’s relationship with Ms. Iseman underscored an enduring paradox of his post-Keating career. 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.

Nine years ago, aides were concerned that there might be an appearance of impropriety and sought to distance a candidate running on the need to reform lobbying from a lobbyist. Why is this front page news in the most important paper in the country?

When did the Times start this “investigation”? Clearly, they haven’t finished it since they have nothing here beyond allegation. Yet they’ve given it the most prominent space in the paper. But when did they start? Since all this happened during McCain’s last presidential campaign — which famously had flocks of reporters tagging along on the bus the whole way — didn’t they have some inkling of all this then. For that matter, were they working on the story when they endorsed McCain for the nomination only three weeks ago?

Noam Scheiber suggests that the Times has been sitting on the story for a while and was forced to run this now because a competing New Republic story on the infighting in McCain’s 2000 campaign was about to be published. Josh Marshall, who ironically was working on a piece about how the media never scrutinizes McCain, says the Times was working on this in December and McCain’s folks initiated legal action to stop it. Matt Drudge also had rumors about such a story in late December.

The story takes care to remind us, early and often, of the Keating Five scandal — about which “some people” thought McCain “got off too lightly.” To get quotes from people about McCain being “imprudent.” To get numerous denials that the relationship between McCain and Iseman was anything but professional — without giving any indication as to why one would think otherwise.

Rich Lowry thinks it’s all about the sex: “Let’s be honest: this story is all about the alleged affair, and all the Keating Five and campaign finance reform re-hash is window dressing.” Certainly, that’s the only thing “new” here.

Marshall muses,

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.

Maybe so. Stay tuned, I guess.

The Times ownership and editorial board is left-of-center and will certainly endorse the Democratic nominee in the fall. But John Hinderaker‘s assertion that “The Times is a mouthpiece for the liberal wing of the Democratic Party, nothing more” and that “no sophisticated person takes the Times seriously as a news source” is unfair and untrue. With rather rare exception, they provide fair and honest reporting. This one, though, is simply bizarre. And the juxtaposition with a giant picture of a joyous Barack Obama is surreal.

UPDATE: Patrick Hynes, who handles blogger relations for McCain, reports that Jim Rutenberg has declined interview requests to appear on his show and that he was “left with the impression that the NYT will be doing NO media in defense of its story.” I’d be surprised if they agreed to appear on a radio show hosted by a McCain staffer. But odd indeed if they’re doing no interviews at all.

You can read dozens of blogger reactions to the story at memeorandum. Some of the more prominent and interesting:

  • Kevin Drum has some interesting musings about the decision to blog or not blog about these manufactured Scandals of The Day. He terms this one a “kinda-sorta-maybe-John-McCain-had-a-non-affair non-story .”
  • Publius (ObWi): “Gotta say, I’m underwhelmed by the NYT’s McCain bombshell.” And a good point: “[C]omplaints about timing seem overblown. If anything, the NYT leaked it at the best possible time. If they leak it earlier, it looks like they’re trying to knock McCain out. If they leak it later, it looks like they’re trying to influence the general.”
  • Steve Benen: “Now, reading through the Times’ very lengthy article, one notices that it feels at least a little thin. The evidence is hardly overwhelming, and the article is padded with extraneous details. […] But one also gets the sense that this NYT piece is the opening salvo.”
  • Ed Morrissey: “The New York Times launches its long-awaited smear of John McCain today, and the most impressive aspect of the smear is just how baseless it is.”
  • Matt Welch: “The New York Times has uncorked a lengthy, long-awaited, weirdly written, (mostly) anonymously sourced, six-reporter article about John McCain that people will remember mostly for hinting in a not-quite-convincing way that he was having an extra-marital affair in the late 1990s with a telecom lobbyist three decades his junior.”
  • Megan McArdle: “CNN notes ‘This may end up being a story about the New York Times as about John McCain.’ One does kind of wonder why they’re breaking an eight year-old story now.”
  • Mary Katharine Ham: “This doesn’t reflect badly on anyone but the Times, as far as I’m concerned. The innuendo and full-on craptastic nature of the lede alone is enough to damn any actual facts that follow, which are few and far between.”
  • Betsy Newmark: “It really is a nothingburger of a story all wrapped up with the sexual innuendo that McCain has been having an affair with an attractive lobbyist.”
  • Steven Taylor: “Given that key portions of McCain’s appeal are supposed to be his character and his anti-corruption stances, this story has the potential to be quite damaging, especially if he ends up facing off against Obama, who has a visible, and seemingly quite stable, marriage1 and is running against lobbyists.”
  • Mark Kleiman: “Apparently this has been an open secret for years. Personally, I don’t see anything wrong with a senator doing to a lobbyist what the lobbyists do to the rest of us. But it says something about a man’s morals when he isn’t even faithful to his trophy wife.”
  • Pam Spaulding: “Just imagine all the moralist McCain haters on the far right are thinking right about now, after all, they all want into your bedroom and women’s wombs.”
  • Digby: “I don’t know if McCain is crooked. But you have to wonder, after his close call with the Keating Five and public association with campaign finance reform, how anyone could be so arrogant as to think he could get away with this stuff if he actually became the Republican nominee?”
  • Logan Murphy: “Could this be the reason Mike Huckabee is still hanging around and Mitt Romney merely suspended his campaign instead of ending it altogether?”
  • Jane Hamsher: “No jokes about ‘lobbyists’ and ‘pork.'”
  • Michelle Malkin: “If you lie down with MSM dogs, you wake up with stories like this.”
  • John Hawkins: “When a Democrat is accused of some sort of affair, the mainstream media is extremely concerned about making 100% sure the story is drop dead accurate, down to the last detail, before they’ll even begin to think about printing the story. That’s why Drudge broke the Monica Lewinsky story to the public, not the MSM. It’s also why stories about affairs involving John Kerry, John Edwards, Barack Obama, and Bill Clinton have been buried or not printed at all in most MSM outlets over the last few years.”
  • Brent Baker: “[Keith] Olbermann insisted the alleged efforts of staffers to ‘protect’ McCain sound ‘eerily similar’ to Clinton-Lewinsky. Later in his 45 minutes of ‘Breaking News’ coverage, Olbermann proposed: ‘If this doesn’t sound like deja vu all over again, I don’t know what does.””
  • Dan Riehl: “When it falls to your lawyers to defend you on Fox, as Bennett is doing now for McCain, you’re screwed. McCain can survive it. But on top of Keating Five and who knows what else, this faux conservative is a flawed, old candidate.”

UPDATE: Politico reports that “Aides to Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) have released a remarkable 1,500-word document outlining what his campaign calls ‘some of the facts that were provided to the New York Times but did not end up in the story.'” They reprint the document in its entirety; it’s basically a timeline refuting the dates and allegations in the story.

UPDATE: McCain has held a press conference denying the allegations.

“I’m very disappointed in the article. It’s not true,” the likely Republican presidential nominee said as his wife, Cindy, stood beside him during a news conference called to address the matter. “I’ve served this nation honorably for more than half a century,” said McCain, a four-term Arizona senator and former Navy pilot. “At no time have I ever done anything that would betray the public trust.” “I intend to move on,” he added.

McCain described the woman in question, lobbyist Vicki Iseman, as a friend.

The newspaper quoted anonymous aides as saying they had urged McCain and Iseman to stay away from each other prior to his failed presidential campaign in 2000. In its own follow-up story, The Washington Post quoted longtime aide John Weaver, who split with McCain last year, as saying he met with lobbyist Iseman and urged her to steer clear of McCain. Weaver told the Times he arranged the meeting before the 2000 campaign after “a discussion among the campaign leadership” about Iseman.

But McCain said he was unaware of any such conversation, and denied that his aides ever tried to talk to him about his interactions with Iseman. “I never discussed it with John Weaver. As far as I know, there was no necessity for it,” McCain said. “I don’t know anything about it,” he added. “John Weaver is a friend of mine. He remains a friend of mine. But I certainly didn’t know anything of that nature.”

His wife also said she was disappointed with the newspaper. “More importantly, my children and I not only trust my husband, but know that he would never do anything to not only disappoint our family, but disappoint the people of America. He’s a man of great character,” Cindy McCain said. The couple smiled throughout the questioning at a Toledo hotel.

McCain’s remaining rival for the Republican nomination, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, called McCain “a good decent honorable man” and said he accepted McCain’s response. “I’ve campaigned now on the same stage or platform with John McCain for 14 months. I only know him to be a man of integrity,” Huckabee said in Houston. “Today he denied any of that was true. I take him at his word. For me to get into it is completely immaterial.”

UPDATE: TNR’s Gabriel Sherman reports:

The publication of the article capped three months of intense internal deliberations at the Times over whether to publish the negative piece and its most explosive charge about the affair. It pitted the reporters investigating the story, who believed they had nailed it, against executive editor Bill Keller, who believed they hadn’t. It likely cost the paper one investigative reporter, who decided to leave in frustration. And the Times ended up publishing a piece in which the institutional tensions about just what the story should be are palpable.

via Ann Althouse @ Instapundit

FILED UNDER: *FEATURED, Campaign 2008, Media, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is a Security Studies professor at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. FireWolf says:

    If you needed to wait for papers like the NYT to come out with hit pieces on Presidential Candidates you are too late to the game.

    John McCain certainly isn’t worth voting for even if the Keating 5 scandal, or the pop-tart lobbyist McCain was presumed to have an affair with were true.

    It’s laughable that McCain has been on a crusade to clean up his credibility and reputation, but one has to wonder at what cost.

    If you’re a realist you know that this presidential season will see a Democrat in orafice.

  2. anjin-san says:

    So this is a “hit piece”?

    What is it when Steve calls Obama a pimp… a gentlemanly discussion of the issues?

  3. James Joyner says:

    What is it when Steve calls Obama a pimp… a gentlemanly discussion of the issues?

    It’s an opinion piece intended to spark discussion.

    OTB isn’t the newspaper of record. We strive for fairness in our coverage of the controversies which arise but we don’t pretend to be unbiased.

    Some of our authors are likely to vote for Obama in the fall (presuming he’s the nominee) and others for McCain but you’ve already seen defenses and attacks on both candidates from most of us.

  4. Anderson says:

    Greg Sargent and Matt Yglesias are both agreeing that the NYT blew this one, and shouldn’t have reported such a story without tight confirmation.

    Unless someone else steps forward to corroborate, I think this is a huge hit on the NYT’s already-damaged credibility, and if anything a boost for McCain.

    At the very least, should he lose in November, he’s got a line on Bob Dole’s Viagra sponsorship.

  5. LaurenceB says:

    I’m filing this under “Things Not To Base My Vote On”. Right next to what Obama’s wife said about being “really proud”.

  6. anjin-san says:

    It’s an opinion piece intended to spark discussion.

    Actually, its very thinly veiled racism. And I guess you are sanctioning it…

  7. legion says:

    Well, as you note, there are strong rumors that the NYT had this piece ready to go over a month ago, but McCain’s legal beagles put the kibosh on it. Assuming that’s true, it wouldn’t have been published _now_ without having a buttload of additional support; McCain’s been the presumptive nominee for too long for this to have been a spur-of-the-moment decision by NYT.

    Besides, the GOP should be absolutely thrilled about this story. When was the last time a Republican sex scandal actually involved a woman? Hell, I wouldn’t be surprised if John-boy’s people leaked this stuff deliberately just to boost his image as a “virile young man”…

  8. James Joyner says:

    I’m filing this under “Things Not To Base My Vote On”. Right next to what Obama’s wife said about being “really proud”.

    No argument from me there. This is, however, the kind of thing that can influence voters.

    Actually, its very thinly veiled racism. And I guess you are sanctioning it…

    Isn’t it racist to assume that pimps are black?

    It’s not a word I use in a colloquial sense but it’s one that’s often used. I defended David Schuster’s use of the term against the Clintons–who are, Toni Morrison notwithstanding, white–even though I thought his argument was silly.

    I think Steve’s use of the term is problematic for reasons Triumph alludes to but not because of race. If anything, Obama is acting like a whore, not a pimp. Personally, I think it’s just garden variety pandering.

  9. anjin-san says:

    I guess I just confused you with someone who had some class James. My mistake…

  10. Peter from NH says:


    I think your opinion points to the reason that this story ran. It got Obama out of trouble. Good work NYT.

  11. Triumph says:

    Personally, I think it’s just garden variety pandering.

    This is where McCain has an advantage over B. Hussein. Since Hussein has been pretty explicit and relatively forthcoming about his policy proposals, he opens himself up to scrutiny.

    McCain–by keeping discussion of issues strictly in the realm of platitudes–shows a weakness for policy, but it keeps him relatively immune from criticism. The luxury of being a policy lightweight like McCain is that it offers nothing for your opponents to analyze.

  12. Anderson says:

    Assuming that’s true, it wouldn’t have been published _now_ without having a buttload of additional support

    Legion, you have a little more faith in the NYT than I do. Surely they wouldn’t have published those stories about Saddam’s WMD without having lots of support for them … right?

    McCain’s cheated on his wife before, no reason he wouldn’t do it again … but I am not giving the NYT the benefit of the doubt here. They seem to have been rushed to “get there first,” without having all the goods. Maybe the other goods exist, maybe not.

  13. Bandit says:

    NYT hits the campaign trail

  14. Elmo says:

    Off topic ….

    Am I the last little idiot in blogdom, to notice Ann Althouse contributing to a Pajamas Media blog?

    (And of course … who cares?)

  15. This Pro War Agnostic Atheist Activist says the New York Times is total garbage and a bunch of liars No one with a brain should waste their time reading their one sided BS.