ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
Now, the latest report in our series, Crunch Time, about key moments in the lives of presidential candidates. Republican Senator John McCain often projects the image of a straight-talking maverick. And 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. It was a group of senators who met 20 years ago with the owner of a failed Arizona savings and loan. The meetings led to an ethics investigation and almost derailed McCain's career.
NPR's Brian Naylor takes a look at how McCain's brush with scandal led to the road that he's on now.
BRIAN NAYLOR: In the spring of 1987, John 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. He offered to do certain things for him, as McCain put it, in return for McCain's interceding with regulators.
Senator JOHN McCAIN (Republican, Arizona; Republican Presidential Candidate): I don't remember the exact details. It was clearly quid pro quo. I told him that was improper. I could not do such a thing. I could only see that he was fairly and equitably treated. He became angry, left my office, and that ended our relationship.
NAYLOR: McCain, however, along with four other senators did meet twice with the regulators. He says he went out of an obligation to the employees of Lincoln and felt uncomfortable even being there. McCain had received some $112,000 in contributions from Keating, his relatives and employees for his House and Senate campaigns, but he told the Senate Ethics Committee in 1991 that money was not a factor.
Sen. McCAIN: First of all, there's no tie-in between any action that I took and any campaign contribution, most importantly. So there is no connection there. Second of all, I think that until the day that we publicly finance campaigns, that people who live in your state will contribute to your campaign.
NAYLOR: The Ethics Committee ultimately decided McCain was guilty of nothing more than poor judgment in meeting with the regulators. But the episode was a body blow to McCain, according to biographer Robert Timberg.
Mr. ROBERT TIMBERG (Biographer): 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, you know, uses the superlative, considering what his life had been before that. And he said, no, this is worse. That's how bad it was for him.
NAYLOR: McCain had been held prisoner of war for five and a half years in Hanoi, injured when he was shot down by the North Vietnamese, tortured while in captivity. Timberg is editor of the U.S. Naval Institute's magazine, Proceedings. At the time, he was a reporter for the Baltimore Sun.
Mr. TIMBERG: What had been one of the most happy-go-lucky senatorial offices suddenly seemed to have almost an aura of political death about it because of John McCain himself. It hit him so hard, the idea that his honor was being questioned.
NAYLOR: To John McCain, honor was all. As a POW, he had refused opportunities to be released ahead of those captured before him because, as an admiral's son, he didn't want special treatment. 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 paid for. McCain himself denies it stems directly from that episode, but biographer Robert Timberg isn't so sure.
Mr. TIMBER: 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.
NAYLOR: McCain's legislation was not popular with his fellow Republicans, reinforcing his maverick image. And it was lauded by editorialists, burnishing his reputation with the media. 20 years later, the Keating Five scandal has all but receded into the mist, but the changes it made on John McCain are arguably with him each day as he runs for president.
Brian Naylor, NPR News.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.