A Feb. 21 New York Times article examined the relationship between Sen. John McCain and lobbyist Vicki Iseman.
The article created a firestorm by asserting, “Convinced the relationship had become romantic, some of his top advisers intervened to protect the candidate from himself.”
The Times quoting John Weaver, a friend and adviser to McCain reported, “He [Weaver] had warned Ms. Iseman away [in 1999] because of 'what she had told people' that had 'made its way back' to the McCain campaign." According to the Daily News, McCain, when asked directly if he ever had a romantic relationship with Iseman, replied, "No." He added that if aides were concerned about the possibility of such a relationship, as the Times article said, "They didn’t communicate it to me.”
According to a Feb. 23 article in the Times, Ms. Iseman was lobbying for clients seeking to retain a loophole in an existing law that “enabled one of the nation’s largest broadcasting companies, Sinclair, to use a marketing agreement with Glencarin . . . to get around a restriction barring single ownership of two television stations in the same city.”
Reaction by McCain to the Times report on Vicki Iseman was swift. According to The Times, “at a news conference on Thursday [the day of the Times’ first article], Mr. McCain 'said he never had any discussions with his advisers about Ms. Iseman and never did any favors for any lobbyist.' Later, he amended his statement, admitting that he had sent letters to the FCC on behalf of one of Ms. Iseman’s clients at the request of Lowell Paxson, not at her request."
That letter, according to the Times, “contained a suggestion that a failure [of the agency] to act [on the application before it] would result in the possible overhaul of the agency." The language of the letter itself should be published, instead of our having to rely on the reporter’s characterization “it contained a suggestion . . .” At the time, McCain was chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee and his position on the applicability of the loophole was favorable to both the Glencarin company and Paxson.
The follow-up story by Stephen Labaton in the Times on Feb. 23rd, appears to me to be flawless in recounting the senator’s actions on behalf of these two clients of Ms. Iseman. Concerning one of the clients, the Paxson Company, the senator said he had not discussed the matter with Ms. Iseman, but admits that he did discuss the company’s problem with its president, Lowell Paxson, and had sent letters on behalf of the company’s application to the FCC “after meeting with Mr. Paxson.”
Labaton writes, “The letters Mr. McCain wrote to the Commission in the Paxson matter were sent in late 1999 and prompted the agency’s [FCC] chairman to chastise him for interfering in a licensing matter. The incident embarrassed Mr. McCain then making his first presidential run because Mr. Paxson was a campaign contributor and fund raiser.”
As for Ms. Iseman’s other client, the Glencarin company, the Labaton article reported, “On Glencarin, the [McCain] campaign said Mr. McCain’s efforts to retain the loophole were not done at Ms. Iseman’s request. It said Mr. McCain was merely directing the Commission to ‘not act in a manner’ contradictory to congressional intent. Mr. McCain wrote in the letters that a 1996 law, the telecommunication act, required the loophole; a legal opinion by the staff of the commission took the opposite view.”
The Times reports, “Ultimately, the FCC loosened the rules to permit a company to own two television stations in some markets.”
The effect of the Times articles has been to strengthen McCain’s position with conservative radio commentators like Rush Limbaugh and the right-wing blogs who rushed to McCain’s defense welcoming McCain home and conveying, in effect, We told you to stay away from consorting and working with those liberals. Had the Times not introduced the element of sex as a possibility in the McCain-Iseman relationship, it would have been on safe ground. The Times’ own public editor (ombudsman), Clark Hoyt, on Feb. 24, evaluating the Times’ original story, concluded, “And if a newspaper is going to suggest an improper sexual affair, whether editors think that is the central point or not, it owes readers more proof than the Times was able to provide.”
The vast majority of Times’ readers, I believe, doesn’t care if McCain slept with a lobbyist or was otherwise romantically involved with her. They do care if a public official provided unwarranted or inappropriate assistance to the lobbyist’s clients, which on its face, as described in Labaton’s second article, he did. Regrettably, the second Labaton article did not undo the damage caused by the sexual innuendo.
Congressmen and senators are often asked by constituents to pursue a constituent’s claims with a regulatory agency. They do, and generally appropriately so.
One of the first rules that I learned and applied during my nine years as a congressman between 1969-77, was always to write in any letter sent on behalf of a constituent that the agency should respond “subject to your regular rules and procedures.” Agencies normally would and should do that anyway. I don’t know how they would respond to a letter from the chairman of a committee having jurisdiction over them, particularly over their budget.
I suspect that the response and attention given might depend on the seniority and perceived power of the sender, as well as the morality and strength of spine of the chairman of the regulatory agency.
I’m for Hillary Clinton in the upcoming election. The bottom line is, having used an unsupported sex allegation, The New York Times handed McCain a gift.
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