Is McCain's Reputation at Issue?

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The New York Times says the point of an article that implied John McCain had an improper relationship with a lobbyist was about his inability to see how his behavior might look to others. His behavior in financing his campaign is also being questioned.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

The leading Republican candidate got a reminder yesterday that he may get some help even from conservatives who don't necessarily like him. Some top conservative talk radio hosts are no fans of John McCain. But when the New York Times questioned McCain's past ties to lobbyists, the radio hosts knew the enemy they'd prefer to attack. Rush Limbaugh and Laura Ingraham went after the Times. The candidate himself says he's disappointed by the article but he wants to put it behind him. NPR's Scott Horsley reports.

SCOTT HORSLEY: Whatever was really going on, or not going on, a decade ago between John McCain and telecommunications lobbyist Vicki Iseman, it didn't look right. According to the New York Times and a subsequent story in the Washington Post, that's why McCain advisor John Weaver met with Iseman in 1999 and urged her to keep her to keep her distance.

The newspapers also quote unnamed sources from McCain's 2000 presidential campaign who say they confronted the Senator himself about what looked like an improper relationship. At a news conference in Ohio yesterday, McCain said Iseman was nothing more than a friend and that he never gave her lobbying clients any special treatment.

Senator JOHN McCAIN, (Republican, Arizona; Republican Presidential Candidate): As chairman of the commerce committee there were hundreds of issues, including many telecommunications issues that came before the committee. I had to make decisions on those issues and I made those decisions. Sometimes they were agreed with, sometimes they were not. Any observer will attest to the fact that I made those decisions on the basis of what I thought was in the best interests of the American citizen.

HORSLEY: McCain says he didn't have a romantic relationship with Iseman and he denied being confronted by his staff about their friendship. McCain's wife, Cindy, also rose to her husband's defense.

Ms. CINDY McCAIN: 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.

HORSLEY: Executive editor Bill Keller says the New York Times isn't suggesting there was any quid pro quo between McCain and Iseman or other lobbyists mentioned in the article. Rather, he says the point of the story was McCain's apparent inability to see how his behavior might look to others. Keller says that was especially striking for a lawmaker who was scalded years ago by his relatively minor role in the Keating Five scandal.

McCain had attended meetings with savings and loan regulators investigating his friend and campaign contributor Charles Keating, who later went to prison. The Senate Ethics Committee found McCain guilty of nothing worse than poor judgment, but Keller says McCain was deeply affected.

Mr. BILL KELLER, (Executive Editor, New York Times): If you read his books it was clearly just a humiliating event for him. And he subsequently built his political life on themes of redemption, reform, and became the scourge of lobbyists, the champion of campaign finance reform and so on, yet according to some of the people who know him best, he can be surprisingly careless about his reputation.

HORSLEY: After addressing the article in the morning, McCain uncharacteristically kept his distance from reporters and cancelled a planned news conference later in the day. He did hold a pair of fundraisers yesterday, but McCain faces a potentially major challenge on that front as well.

Just after his Super Tuesday wins earlier this month, campaign contributions were pouring in and McCain decided to opt out of the federal matching funds program. That would allow him to spend as much money as he can raise between now and the GOP convention. This week though, the chairman of the Federal Election Commission suggested McCain might not be allowed to opt out because he may have relied on the promise of federal funds to secure a bank loan.

McCain, the champion of campaign finance reform, says he can win this argument.

Sen. McCAIN: We think it's perfectly legal. We have - one of our advisors is a former chairman of the Federal Elections Commission and we are confident that it is an appropriate thing to do.

HORSLEY: If McCain is not allowed to opt out, he'll find himself bumping up against spending limits almost immediately. But the campaign doesn't seem worried by that. Yesterday, campaign manager Rick Davis lashed out at both pieces of bad news in a single email, urging supporters to, quote, "fight back against the New York Times" by making an immediate contribution.

Scott Horsley, NPR News.

INSKEEP: And you can read an interview with New York Times executive editor Bill Keller by going to our Web site, NPR.org.

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'Times' Draws Criticism for Timing of McCain Story

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More from Bill Keller

Hear more from "New York Times" Executive Editor Bill Keller:

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Thursday's controversial scoop in The New York Times started with a tip about a confrontation between Arizona Sen. John McCain and some of his staff involving a lobbyist during his first run for the presidency in 2000, according to the newspaper Executive Editor Bill Keller.

Then, Keller says, the story became more complex.

"If, hypothetically, we had established that he had a romantic relationship with a lobbyist — and had done favors for that lobbyist — that would have been a different story," he says.

But the newspaper was not able to confirm any relationship. Instead, Keller tells NPR that the article that ran Thursday morning provided a slightly different insight into one of the nation's leading candidates for president.

"It's not a 'gotcha' story about some kind of quid pro quo," he says. "We don't know if there was a quid or a quo in this case. What we do know is that people very close to him, who watched him day after day, were worried enough by his behavior that they felt that he was endangering his career."

The editors and four reporters at the Times who were involved in the story wrestled for months over this potentially explosive scoop. But what did they have?

As far back as December, the reporters thought they could show an inappropriate relationship between McCain and telecommunications lobbyist Vicki Iseman. Some of her clients had business before the Senator Commerce Committee that McCain then chaired. The reporters wanted the story in print — and Gabe Sherman wrote about the reporters' frustrations in a piece posted Thursday by The New Republic.

"Oftentimes, the reporters will have reporting and just such a strong intimate sense of the story that they know it to be true. They know it in their veins to be true. And, there's always that editor that says, 'What can we print? What can we go with?'" Sherman says.

Keller wanted harder proof — and that took more reporting. Meanwhile, McCain called Keller to complain that the reporters' questions about his personal life were spurring rumors around town. He urged the editor to hurry up and wrap up his staffers' reporting. Blogger Matt Drudge splashed a gossipy item about it on his Web site in December.

But the story did not run until late February — and that has prompted questions about the timing. Did the newspaper hold the article while McCain's nomination by the Republican Party was in doubt? Or, was its hand forced by the imminent appearance of Sherman's magazine article on the newspaper's handling of the story?

Keller says the piece ran only because it was finally ready.

Keller says the relevance of McCain's relationship to Iseman stems from his political identity as someone who wages war against monied powerbrokers seeking to exert influence on Capitol Hill.

"He came back from Vietnam a hero, entered into public life and then was felled by the Keating Five scandal," Keller says. "If you read his books, it was clearly a humiliating event for him. And he subsequently built his political life on themes of redemption, reform, you know, rectitude, if you will — and became the scourge of lobbyists, the champion of campaign finance reform, and so on, in Washington."

"Yet, according to some people who knew him best, he can be surprisingly careless about his reputation," Keller says. "And that's what I think this, his relationship with this particular lobbyist, illustrates, although I think there's a lot of other illustrations as well in the piece."

Thursday morning, McCain played media critic during a news conference to deny the relationship. He also denied that he had done any corporation any favors, assailing the Times' reliance on anonymous sources.

Keller says the Times is judicious in relying on unnamed sources in the McCain story.

"Obviously, you would like to have not just on-the-record sources, but documentary evidence for everything you put in the newspaper," Keller says. "But if you refused to publish stories that included anonymously sourced information, most of the most important things we know about how our country is run would not published. There are things you just cannot find without being willing to protect your sources."

The McCain camp and the Republican Party also sent out fundraising appeals accusing the Times of a sleazy smear.

Sherman says McCain is looking to change the subject.

"The McCain campaign is looking to make this a media story and a referendum on the Times' journalistic standards," he said.

The episode was enough, at least for the moment, to rally the right to his defense, including such luminaries as talk-show host Rush Limbaugh, who has attacked McCain repeatedly this year as insufficiently conservative.

Conservative media critic Brent Bozell took a shot on the Fox News Channel, by saying that The New York Times is giving the National Enquirer a bad name.

Some non-ideological critics focused on the failure to prove the affair, or the favoritism.

Keller says that misses the point.

"I think the story that emerged is actually bigger, and more important and maybe more subtle," he says. "There's not a big market for subtle these days but I think it's an important story."

Keller says people should judge his paper's reporting as journalism, not as part of any political campaign.

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