A Hole in McCain’s Defense?
An apparent contradiction in his response to lobbyist story.
A sworn deposition that Sen. John McCain gave in a lawsuit more than five years ago appears to contradict one part of a sweeping denial that his campaign issued this week to rebut a New York Times story about his ties to a Washington lobbyist.McCain's damage control may end up causing even more damage. That brings us to the bursting bubble. Matt Yglesias
On Wednesday night the Times published a story suggesting that McCain might have done legislative favors for the clients of the lobbyist, Vicki Iseman, who worked for the firm of Alcalde & Fay. One example it cited were two letters McCain wrote in late 1999 demanding that the Federal Communications Commission act on a long-stalled bid by one of Iseman's clients, Florida-based Paxson Communications, to purchase a Pittsburgh television station.
Just hours after the Times's story was posted, the McCain campaign issued a point-by-point response that depicted the letters as routine correspondence handled by his staff—and insisted that McCain had never even spoken with anybody from Paxson or Alcalde & Fay about the matter. "No representative of Paxson or Alcalde & Fay personally asked Senator McCain to send a letter to the FCC," the campaign said in a statement e-mailed to reporters.
But that flat claim seems to be contradicted by an impeccable source: McCain himself. "I was contacted by Mr. Paxson on this issue," McCain said in the Sept. 25, 2002, deposition obtained by NEWSWEEK. "He wanted their approval very bad for purposes of his business. I believe that Mr. Paxson had a legitimate complaint."
While McCain said "I don't recall" if he ever directly spoke to the firm's lobbyist about the issue—an apparent reference to Iseman, though she is not named—"I'm sure I spoke to [Paxson]." McCain agreed that his letters on behalf of Paxson, a campaign contributor, could "possibly be an appearance of corruption"—even though McCain denied doing anything improper.
McCain's subsequent letters to the FCC—coming around the same time that Paxson's firm was flying the senator to campaign events aboard its corporate jet and contributing $20,000 to his campaign—first surfaced as an issue during his unsuccessful 2000 presidential bid. William Kennard, the FCC chair at the time, described the sharply worded letters from McCain, then chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee, as "highly unusual."
One thing reporters like about McCain is that he offers shoot-from-the-hip statements on topics that come up in discussions. Reporters like this for good reason -- the carefully worded, artfully hedged statements in which the vast majority of politicians speak nowadays is really annoying. That said, politicians don't talk like that because they're all douchebags, they talk like that because that's how you have to talk. If you make the slightest slip-up or misstatement, the press will pounce all over you.
Unless, that is, you're John McCain. If you're John McCain you can make an obviously false statement like claiming you've "never done favors for special interests or lobbyists" or saying that "no representative of Paxson or Alcalde & Fay personally asked Senator McCain to send a letter to the FCC" when you yourself said in the past that you'd been contacted by Paxson and the press just lets it slide. Why? Because they like him. But they like him because he's spontaneous. But he's spontaneous because they let him get away with this stuff. And they let him get away with it because they like him. It's what makes him such a formidable political figure -- he can run around doing things no other politicians could get away with and actually attract praise for it.
Unless, of course, it all comes crashing down. If reporters start judging McCain by their usual rules, then he'll have to turn himself into just another carefully-hedging pol. But one who's a million years old, one who thinks the problem with the Bush foreign policy is that we haven't started enough wars, and one who doesn't even care about the economic challenges facing the country.