Examining McCain's Ethics

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On Wednesday night, The New York Times posted a story on its Web site about the nature of a relationship between Sen. John McCain and a female lobbyist. NPR's Washington editor, Ron Elving, weighs in on the story's substance and significance.

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LYNN NEARY, host:

This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Lynn Neary in Washington, sitting in for Neal Conan.

For most of this hour, we're going to focus on identity politics. But before we do that, we want to talk about an article receiving a lot of attention. It's about Senator John McCain and it appeared in today's New York Times.

Ron Elving, NPR's senior Washington editor joins us here in studio 3A to talk about it.

Good to have you with us as always, Ron.

RON ELVING: Good to be with you, Lynn.

NEARY: Ron, this is a very long article but a lot of it centers on news that's been reported before. What exactly is new here?

ELVING: I think the thing that's primarily new here, at least in print, is the innuendo with respect to the senator's relationship with one particular lobbyist. Her name is Vicki Iseman. She's 40 years old now. But the story is mostly about what their relationship was or might have been eight or nine years ago when she was lobbying the Senate Commerce Committee, he was chairman of that committee and she was representing a number of telecommunications companies.

NEARY: Is there anything conclusive about that relationship and how it may have affected anything that McCain did in the Senate?

ELVING: Not really. There does not seem to be anything in the article that firmly establishes that there was anything improper about their personal relationship or that any of her lobbying resulted in improper favors being done for any of her clients.

NEARY: Now, of course, Senator McCain is the presumptive Republican nominee for president. He held a news conference today to respond to this article. What did he say?

ELVING: He said that it was gutter politics. He said it was a smear. He said that he and members of his staff had tried to remonstrate with the newspaper and indeed we believe that this story has been in some degree of preparation for a number of months and that both senator and a hired criminal attorney, Bob Bennett, rather well-known fellow, had spoken to The New York Times about it and told them that there really was no basis for publishing it. But the newspaper decided that the story was solid and they decided to put it on their Web site last night and then the printed paper this morning.

NEARY: Well, how about the timing of this, exactly? I mean…

ELVING: The timing is going to be controversial on a couple of different directions. There are going to be conservative Republicans who don't like John McCain who will say that if this story had come out fall, he would not have gotten the miracle comeback that he got in January and in February that has made him now, as you say, the presumptive nominee of the Republican Party. There will be others who say, well, it shouldn't come out now because its hurting him as the presumptive Republican standard bearer in the fall.

NEARY: Now, how is it likely to affect his campaign now?

ELVING: Terribly difficult to say what the mix will balance out to. What will be the preponderance of effect? There's obviously nothing good about seeing your face and that of member of the opposite sex on the front of a tabloid newspaper all over New York, the Daily News, for example, with the word scandal in between the two pictures. That has been a torpedo that has done in many end of a candidate in the past.

On the other hand, if the story is adjudged to have been unfair, if it's seen as being a smear as John McCain put it this morning, it could actually have the affect of rallying some hesitant conservatives behind the candidacy of a man they've been very suspicious of over the years.

NEARY: But I would think Republicans who haven't been particularly happy this election year, up until now anyway, there's a lot of dissension within the party, now that everybody is behind Senator McCain as the candidate - they can't be happy about this.

ELVING: They can't be happy about it. But if the indications of this morning are consistent and if that goes on, I think, there will be a certain rallying effect among people who are much more suspicious of The New York Times than they are of John McCain.

NEARY: All right. Thanks so much for joining us today.

ELVING: Thank you, Lynn.

NEARY: Ron Elving is NPR's Washington editor. He joins us here in studio 3A.

And you can find a link to The New York Times story on our blog at npr.orh/blogofthenation. And stay tuned to NPR News for more on this story.

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McCain Denies Report of Improper Relationship

Sen. John McCain paused in his presidential campaign Thursday morning to deny reports that he may have had an inappropriate relationship with a female lobbyist. The allegations arose in a story in The New York Times.

"I'm very disappointed in the article. It's not true," McCain said in Toledo, Ohio.

Speaking at a news conference in which he was accompanied by his wife, Cindy, McCain said that the woman in question, lobbyist Vicki Iseman, is a friend.

But the Times story describes aides urging McCain and Iseman to stay away from each other during McCain's failed 2000 bid for the White House.

The Arizona Republican denied that account when asked if any of his campaign staff had been concerned about his relationship with Iseman.

"If they were, they didn't communicate that to me," McCain said.

As a lobbyist, Iseman represented commercial interests that had business before the Senate Commerce Committee, of which McCain was a member.

But the senator insisted Thursday that his work on the committee was never influenced by Iseman, or any other lobbyists.

"I made those decisions on the basis of what I thought was in the best interests of the American citizen," McCain said.

Asked if he sought to have the newspaper bury the story, McCain said he had not. But he acknowledged that his campaign staff had been in touch with Times reporters about the story.

"For months, The New York Times has submitted questions and we have answered them fully and exhaustively," McCain said. "And unfortunately, many of those answers were not included in the rather long piece in The New York Times."

McCain, who is now closing in on the Republican nomination, said that he will not dwell on the issue. Instead, he said, he will focus on challenges that face the country, such as the economy and national security.

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