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Shoddy story, brilliant politics

This week’s New York Times expose on Sen. John McCain’s alleged relationship with a telecommunications lobbyist nearly a decade ago was a shabby piece of journalism.

The carefully planned and superbly executed riposte by the top-flight lobbyists with whom the Republican presidential nominee currently surrounds himself was a brilliant bit of politics.

The article was posted online Wednesday evening and, by Thursday night, the Times and not McCain had become the only story anybody wanted to discuss. Connoisseurs of campaign jujitsu had to award the Arizona senator and his staff a perfect 10.

What made the story controversial was its wink-and-nod insinuation that the 71-year-old lawmaker was sleeping with Washington lobbyist Vicki Iseman, an attractive blond 30 years his junior, and that -- as chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee -- he did special favors for her clients.

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So, what’s the proof? According to two unnamed “former McCain associates,” both of whom described themselves as “disillusioned” with the senator, “some of the senator’s advisors had grown so concerned that the relationship [with Iseman] had become romantic that they took steps to intervene.”

Oh.

So, there are no incriminating letters or e-mails; no tapes or pictures or phone records -- you know, the sort of stuff the more literal-minded among us call evidence. At the end of the day, what you’ve got here are two anonymous individuals saying that other people thought something was going on. According to the two associates, “they joined in a series of confrontations with Mr. McCain, warning him that he was risking his campaign and career. Both said Mr. McCain acknowledged behaving “inappropriately.” Just what “inappropriately” means here is anybody’s guess. But doesn’t a newspaper of record owe its subjects -- and its readers -- something more than ambiguity?

There’s been a lot of discussion about the months-long internal drama that supposedly attended the Times’ reporting and editing of this story. Four reporters were involved; one has since left the paper. There was apparently a lot of back and forth between editors in Washington and New York.

All of this, by the way, tends to put the lie to the McCain campaign’s allegations that the story came as a bolt from the blue. From the evidence, nearly as many people around Washington watched this story’s progress this winter as followed the Redskins. The New Republic was so well-versed on the Times’ internal deliberations that it had a story on them ready to post online as soon as the paper published.

McCain’s people, moreover, had retained a lawyer -- Beltway go-to guy Robert Bennett -- to deal with the Times reporters months before the story appeared. That was another of the campaign’s master strokes because, as counsel to the Senate Ethics Committee investigating the so-called Keating Five nearly two decades ago, Bennett concluded that McCain was “an honest man” and recommended that he be exonerated. The committee didn’t agree, but Bennett -- a “registered Democrat” -- got to repeat those conclusions in all his TV interviews Thursday.

Meanwhile, while the Times went on the defensive, others were doing compelling journalism on just how important lobbyists are to the McCain campaign.

As the Washington Post reported Friday, “when McCain huddled with his closest advisors at his rustic Arizona cabin last weekend to map out his presidential campaign, virtually everyone was part of the Washington lobbying culture he has long decried. His campaign manager, Rick Davis, co-founded a lobbying firm. ... His chief political advisor, Charles R. Black Jr., is chairman of one of Washington’s lobbying powerhouses, BKSH and Associates.”

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Friday morning, the political news website Politico posted a detailed breakdown on exactly how the McCain campaign mounted “a sophisticated 24-hour counterattack and turned a potentially lethal story in the New York Times into a conservative call to arms.” According to the report, “McCain campaign officials began their daylong effort by working furiously behind the scenes to reassure donors, and coordinate an anti-Times message with Republican supporters and conservative commentators.” They even sent out a fundraising e-mail urging followers to “help to counteract the liberal establishment and fight back against the New York Times.”

Tactically, the McCain campaign executed flawlessly and quickly to put this story back in the box, said GOP strategist Phil Musser. “They reshaped the coverage from dawn to dusk.”

Meanwhile, over on the New York Times website, Executive Editor Bill Keller mused that he “was surprised by how lopsided the opinion was against our decision, with readers who described themselves as independents and Democrats joining Republicans in defending Mr. McCain from what they saw as a cheap shot.”

McCain and his people must be wishing they could run against the New York Times in November.

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timothy.rutten@latimes.com


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