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The New York Times Story Linking John McCain with Lobbyist Vicki Iseman: Should It Have Been Published?


Friday, Feb. 22, 2008

Recently, I finished writing a book about the late Senator Barry Goldwater, co-authored with the senator's son Barry Jr., and to be published in mid-April. In 1986, Goldwater helped John McCain win his Senate seat. However, as I learned in my research for the book, Goldwater's thoughts on McCain were not always positive - and his analysis has led me to also be less than a fan of McCain. Indeed, as the diplomats say, I hold McCain in minimal high esteem. As a result, I have very conflicted feelings about the brouhaha McCain is currently embroiled in with the New York Times.

The conflict I feel comes from personal experience. I have great empathy for any public figure who is unfairly attacked by any segment of the American media, because I have been there, and I know how difficult it is to keep one's detractors honest. The American media (and those who know how to employ it) can easily hide behind laws that enable them to publish misleading - not to mention false and defamatory -- information with near impunity about public people. Thus, I know well that officials like John McCain confront a body of law that is stacked against them if they seek to use the courts to right a wrong, or to find a remedy for hurt and damages, from a published story.

Often, too, the innuendo is the worst part. After carefully reading and re-reading the New York Times story linking Washington lobbyist Vicki Iseman with McCain, I believe it is quite clear that the story suggests a sex-for-favors-relationship - albeit one that is denied by both Iseman and McCain in the story.

If McCain and Iseman are to be believed, they have been unfairly attacked. But their denials are, in many ways, quite weak.

The Gravamen of the Story: McCain's "Inappropriate" Behavior

The Times put no less than six reporters on the McCain/Iseman story, yet it relies on old news and innuendo. Did they find nothing more? Unless the Times has more information than it reported, it is a real head-scratcher why the story was published at all.

Moreover, if the Times believes, as it has reported, that McCain acted inappropriately, then why did it endorse him as the GOP nominee at a time when it already possessed this information?

Notwithstanding the headline - "For McCain, Self-Confidence On Ethics Poses Its Own Risk" - the story opens with "waves of anxiety" sweeping through McCain's "small circle of advisers" at the outset of his prior run for president in the late 1990s. Unnamed sources told the Times that lobbyist Vicki Iseman had been turning up with Senator McCain "at fund-raisers, visiting his offices and accompanying him on a client's corporate jet." So pervasive was her presence, it convinced these unnamed sources that "the relationship had become romantic."

Accordingly, some of McCain's top advisers "intervened to protect the candidate from himself -- instructing staff members to block the woman's access, privately warning her away and repeatedly confronting him."

The story rehashes how McCain had tarnished himself a decade earlier and then devoted his career to campaign finance reform, in acts of "redemption and rectitude that defined his political identity." But the gravamen of the report is that McCain acknowledged inappropriate behavior with Ms. Iseman to his aides.

More specifically, the Times reported, "In interviews, the two former associates said 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 and pledged to keep his distance from Ms. Iseman. The two associates, who said they had become disillusioned with the senator, spoke independently of each other and provided details that were corroborated by others."

The innuendo is that McCain's inappropriate behavior consisted of keeping company with an attractive female lobbyist three decades his junior while providing senatorial assistance to her clients. As I read this, the Times is suggesting -- but not saying - that this was a sex-for-favors relationship. If that is true, McCain's presidential bid is over. If it is false, then both McCain and Ms. Iseman have been unfairly charged, if not badly damaged.

We have courts to resolve these matters, and if the charge is false, the parties should take appropriate action. In fact, a failure to take appropriate legal action suggests that there may well be more here than has been reported.

The Actions McCain Has Taken In Response to the Times Story

If this charge of sex for favors is untrue, then McCain can slide through this with no serious problems, for it will get buried in succeeding news cycles. But if it is true, and he did have a sexual relationship with this woman, then his wife Cindy may soon be the next senator from Arizona, and John will be an aging bachelor who will not be living in the White House.

Months ago, when the Times was doing its investigation, McCain hired Washington attorney Bob Bennett to deal with this story. Bennett stated on "Hardball" that he has not talked to his client about taking legal action, but that he would counsel against it because McCain is a public figure, making such a lawsuit difficult to win. Bennett also said that McCain must keep focused on his presidential campaign, rather than be diverted by a difficult lawsuit.

This answer was strikingly hasty, however, for this savvy lawyer. While any lawyer might give similar advice, a lawyer convinced of his client's innocence might have added that he was placing the New York Times on notice, and that he would demand a retraction. He might also have said that if the Times failed to retract the story, then his client would take appropriate legal action at the appropriate time. This is precisely what Senator Goldwater did when he was defamed during the 1964 presidential race, when he filed a lawsuit (that he eventually won).

If Ms. Iseman is sincere in her denial, moreover, then she does not have the same problems as McCain. She is not a public figure and she is not running for president. This surely is not a story that will help her career as a lobbyist. To the contrary, she might find her job has been made impossible because of this adverse publicity. In fact, it strikes me that in many ways she has been damaged more than McCain. Yet there is no indication she plans to take any action against the Times.

In sum, it seems that both parties' denials to the Times story are even weaker than the story itself, which give the story added credibility. Unless the Times or another news organization drops another shoe, or McCain and Iseman take no action to protect their reputations, then this highly suggestive story and these weaker responses will no doubt soon vanish. I can understand McCain's taking that route, but I cannot understand Iseman's current position (as I write this, she is hiding from the news media), if she has in fact been falsely charged. Or perhaps she is talking to a lawyer right now.

John W. Dean, a FindLaw columnist, is a former counsel to the president.

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