Mr. McCain: Impropriety, or “just” the appearance of it?

First let’s try a little exercise in fairness.

While living in London as a young man (1957-1971), I was introduced to the concept of “The Man on the Clapham Bus”, an oft-invoked synonym for “The Common Man”. He was the classic if mythical average reasonable man originally posited by Walter Bagehot, an early editor of “The Economist” and wellknown critic, and perhaps most famous for the clarity of his prose.

We will not here have an argument about what in New York might be the equivalent of “The Clapham Bus”. The Number 1 subway? The M6 bus? Incorrect. (The proper equivalent, as it happens –trust me, this has been fully researched– is the 78 bus in Staten Island. But –no matter.)

Instead of wasting time trying to locate the “Reasonable Man” –there might not even be one!– let us ourselves take a shot at reasonableness. Do not get alarmed: this is only a test.

To be “Reasonable”, presumably we have to be rational, to weigh the evidence, to think things out for ourselves. We have to be fair, not partisan. We have to listen to all sides.

John McCain has told us that he is “very disappointed” with the “gutter politics” of the New York Times for running a long story about him under the headline “For McCain, a Risky Confidence on Ethics” in today’s paper.

In essence the piece said “As his relationship with a female lobbyist underscores, John McCain’s confidence in his own integrity sometimes seems to blind him to potential conflicts.”

It was essentially that: “seems”. This was a story about
“appearances”.

Mind you, it did not say what the nature of that relationship was. But –there was the photograph, an attractive woman of forty with a “winning smile” (are those smiles ever “losing” or even “drawing”) –the female lobbyist herself, slim and blond and in a gold tightfitting dress.

Apparently she and The Senator had been together quite a lot…here, there, on a private (not “public”?) yacht, on a private (ditto) plane. No, private jet. No, corporate jet. No, “private corporate Lear jet”. Whatever.

And, no doubt, “influence-peddling” was involved.

The BIG question however, the question that seemed to pre-occupy everybody (change that to “most people”; no, “many people”, “quite a few”; no, “too many people”. I think I’m going with that, “too many people”. Especially since I have NO IDEA how many people.

Back to “influence-peddling” and the BIG question.

The Big question in the minds of…too many people…was: was there “canoodling” in there with that “peddling”? In the subsequent media-flareup, I heard more than one commentator comment on the physical similarity between female lobbyist (Vicki Iseman) and McCain’s wife Cindy.
Which observation added its own spin to the “shenanigens” theory –the so-called “psychological insight”, irresistible to many if dropped in in the right way. (“Oh yeah, you’re right. She is like her.)

Yes, she is like her.

Only….Cindy looks like a wife, an adoring wife (we saw her turn on that Nancy Reaganesque “what a guy” gaze up at her spouse) while our Female Lobbyist, Vicki (that’s Vicki with a ‘K’ –for K-street?) is not gazing. She’s more what they used to call “lighting up the room” with her smile. Presumably that’s rule number one in the Lobbyist’s Handbook: By all means Light Up Rooms, but do not Gaze Adoringly at the object of your lobbyistic intentions. At least not in public. And that probably goes for male lobbyists, too.

Was the NYT saying there was an actual “romantic relationship” between the Maverick and the Influence-Peddler? The answer is “No”.
Next question. Was the NYT suggesting there had been such a relationship?

This is where “The Reasonable Person on the Clapham Bus” will be on his or her guard; the “Reasonable Person”, to BE a “Reasonable Person” must be able to tell the difference between a plain statement and a suggestion. And to be able to resist a suggestion.
No doubt we have all encountered situations of unwarranted “jumping to conclusions”, situations where A says to B “I never said that. That’s what you took out of it. That’s what you wanted to believe.”
The Reasonable Person will note the suggestion and put it in the “possibly true; not necessarily true” category. The Reasonable Person will be aware of any inner-tendancy towards “wanting it to be true” –because that is the most fertile field for the clever suggester to operate in.

So, now the question is: how come so many of our media-commentators, among many others, saw the NYT as accusing McCain of having a “romantic” relationship with Ms. Iseman? Victims of a cynical suggestion, or just wanting to believe it, for whatever reason? (Be it cynicism, prurience or political exploitation or anything else.)
(I will confess to you: in the first five seconds of scanning the NYT piece, I thought: “What’s this? Have they caught McCain doing something he shouldn’t be doing?” But almost immediately following that I could see from the headline “For McCain, a Risky Confidence on Ethics” that this seemed to be something quite different.)

What I got from NYT piece was that the issue was not “actual impropriety” on McCain’s part –though it could turn out to be that too– but “the appearance of impropriety”. And what the Times was claiming was that McCain had an “appearance of impropriety” history with a number of lobbyists over the years, and not just Vicki Iseman, –appearances in fact that had subsequently upset McCain so much that he became a crusader on the subject of lobbying, and vowed to himself (it’s in his autobiography) that he never would allow himself to be compromised like that again.

Never again would he even appear to be too close to a lobbyist. He had, he said, learned his lesson.

So, the time when he ran for President against George Bush in 2000 was the time that Vicki Iseman was around and lobbying him, and spending “a lot” of time in his company, being seen with him.
So much so –the Times tells us–that the folks running his campaign began to suspect there might be an improper, a “romantic relationship” between the two. Talk about appearances!

And that wasn’t McCain’s enemies. It was his good friends –including John Weaver, who told the story to the NYT– who suspected an improper “romantic” relationship with the lobbyist, but who also regarded him as too-close to the lobbyist.
In Weaver’s terms, McCain was breaking his own rule about the appearance of impropriety with lobbyists, whether or not there was also a romantic relationship involved.
And so it goes.

“It’s an ill wind that blows nobody good,” they say. And “they” were proved right in all this yet again. The Republican/Conservative team sprang into attack/defend mode. Rush Limbaugh, who had been attacking McCain mercilessly for weeks, now was defending him; Hannity, too. (You could tell that they both had received the same list of talking points, and were working through them in order.) They attacked the NYT as the gutter press; they excoriated it for saying there was a “romantic relationship”. Which the Times had not said.

But it suited the rightwing machine to play it that way –acting outraged. It was SO unfair to this good man. And how hypocritical of the NYT who had just endorsed McCain as the Republican candidate. As if it couldn’t do both.
In any event the Right Wing has been congratulating itself on its moral victory over The Gray Lady of Liberal Evil, and sticking it to the Times, saying that its nefarious malice had backfired on it, and sarcastically thanking it for galvanising the Republican party, and helping raise a whole bunch of money for it as well.

But, as if to underscore McCain’s (and the Republican Party’s) vulnerabity to the headlined charge of “a risky confidence on ethics”, the next day the (no doubt equally evil) Washington Post ran a story that there are several bigtime lobbyists running McCain’s campaign for free. McCain denounced the story (with a risky confidence?), saying that the lobbyists were “good friends of mine.”

John! They’re lobbyists! That’s their job!


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