The image of John McCain has long been something of a straight-talking maverick.
Some of those qualities were forged following an early chapter of McCain's political life, when he was one of the so-called Keating Five. That was a group of senators whose meetings 20 years ago with the owner of a failed Arizona savings and loan led to an ethics investigation and almost derailed McCain's career.
An Improper Proposal
In the spring of 1987, McCain was just beginning his first term in the Senate. Charles Keating was a friend, a campaign contributor, and owner of Lincoln Savings and Loan. At the time, Lincoln was under investigation by federal regulators. As McCain recounted the story in an NPR interview two years later, Keating came to his office and offered to do certain things for him, as McCain put it, in return for McCain's interceding with regulators.
"I don't remember the exact details," McCain said. "It was clearly quid pro quo. I told him that was improper, (that) I could not do such a thing (and that) I could only see that he was fairly and equitably treated. He became angry, left my office, and that ended our relationship."
McCain and four other senators did meet twice with the regulators, however. McCain said he did so because he felt an obligation to the employees of Lincoln, and he said he felt uncomfortable even being there.
McCain had received some $112,000 in contributions from Keating, his relatives and employees for the House and Senate campaigns. But he told the Senate Ethics Committee in 1991 that the money was not a factor.
"First of all, there's no tie-in between any action that I took and any campaign contribution. ... Second of all, I think that until the day that we publicly finance campaigns, people who live in your state will contribute to your campaign," McCain said.
'The Absolute Worst Thing'
The Ethics committee ultimately decided that McCain was guilty of nothing more than poor judgment in meeting with the regulators. But the incident was a body blow to McCain, according to biographer Robert Timberg.
"He said, 'You know, this is the worst thing, the absolute worst thing that ever happened to me,' and I said it can't be the worst thing. I'm sort of amazed that he uses the superlative, considering what had come before that, and he said, 'No, this is worse.' That's how bad it was for him," Timberg said.
McCain had been held as a prisoner of war for five-and-a-half years in Hanoi. He was injured when he was shot down by the North Vietnamese and was tortured while in captivity.
At the time, Timberg was a reporter for the Baltimore Sun. He is now editor of the U.S. Naval Institute's magazine Proceedings.
"What had been one of the most happy-go-lucky senatorial offices suddenly seemed to have an aura of political death about it, because it was John McCain himself — it hit him so hard, the idea that his honor was being questioned," Timberg said.
To McCain, honor was everything. As a POW, he had refused opportunities to be released ahead of those captured before him because he didn't want special treatment for being an admiral's son.
A Legislative Link?
Probably the most lasting effect of McCain's involvement with the Keating Five is the legislation that he co-authored with Wisconsin Democrat Russ Feingold. The McCain-Feingold law overhauled the way campaigns are funded. McCain denies that the legislation stems directly from that incident, but Timberg isn't so sure.
"There's no question in my mind that the Keating Five experience was a major factor in John McCain taking up this issue. I'm not aware that it was ever on his scope before," Timberg said.
McCain's legislation was not a popular issue with his fellow Republicans, reinforcing his maverick image, and it was lauded by editorialists, burnishing his reputation with the media.
Twenty years later, the Keating Five scandal has all but receded into the mist, but its effects are with McCain each day as he runs for president.