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BACK FROM EXONERATION! The Times got tough on the Keating affair. We’d call it a major reversal: // link // print // previous // next //
TUESDAY, FEBRUARY 26, 2008

THEY’RE STILL COUNTING DONUTS: We plan to return to the donut story—a story of a familiar old type. But at the New York Times, they’re still counting! (This appears on page A16 on today’s hard-copy Times.) As we’ve told you: The culture of this upper-class elite is virtually defined by its stupidity. Here’s the problem: For cultural reasons, many people have a hard time coming to terms with this fact.

WE’RE ALL MATT DRUDGE NOW: We began planning this site in late 1997, for reasons we can no longer clearly recall. At the time, the noxious and inane Matt Drudge was king of the political web—an entity which barely existed.

Ten years later, a vast “liberal web” has come into being. But, by now, we’re all Matt Drudge, as Josh Marshall and Kevin Drum made quite clear in yesterday’s posts. Drudge says it—and our “intellectual leaders” repeat it. Life thus becomes very easy.

But then, as Grover Norquist once said: “Any farmer will tell you that certain animals run around and are very unpleasant. But when they've been ‘fixed,’ then they are happy and sedate. They are contented and cheerful.”

The issue, of course, involves Drudge’s pronouncement about that photograph of Obama. Mooing contentedly, Drum observed that Drudge’s post was “ambiguous—who distributed the photo—who did it go to?” Indeed, Drum’s caveat put matters mildly; as any advanced fifth grader could see, Drudge didn’t say that “Clinton staffers” had sent the photo in question to him; he simply said that unnamed Clinton staffers had “circulated” the photo (where, he didn’t say), and he quoted an accompanying e-mail message—without saying who the e-mail had gone to. Do you mind if we draw two simple conclusions—conclusions so simple a child could reach them? First: In all likelihood, no Clinton staffer sent the photo to Drudge, or the brilliant fellow would have said that they had. Second: For all anyone knows, some Clinton staffer sent the photo to a friend in Obama’s campaign, and the photo and e-mail proceeded from there. Is that what happened? We have no idea. But then, no one but Drudge has the slightest idea what facts (if any) lay behind his report—which didn’t keep a pair of moo-cows from mooing the Drudge story forward.

It would be hard to find words low enough to capture the work of these two cheerful bovines. Even as of this morning, Drum still hadn’t updated his post to include Howard Wolfson’s conference call, in which (quoting Greg Sargent at TPM ), Wolfson “strongly denied any official campaign role in pushing the photo of Obama.” Having mooed his affirmation of Drudge, Moo-cow Kevin withdrew from the scene, failing to comment on Wolfson’s statement. And if anything, Moo-cow Marshall played things even dumber—as he often does in these latter days. As he so often does now, Marshall rushed into print with a premature judgment (the Clinton camp surely did it!), then back-pedaled in a rambling, barely-coherent “update” (same link)—a non-clarification clarification of a type he has come to master. Incredibly, Marshall eventually linked to Sargent’s story—while pretending that Wolfson’s statement didn’t go beyond what had already been said. Not being stable-boys ourselves, we won’t bother to scoop Josh’s piles; you can limn his posts for yourself. But go ahead: Read his original post, then his update, then read his link to Sargent’s report. There’s nothing new here, the moo-cow said, as he linked to a report which opened like this:

“On a conference call with reporters just now, Hillary spokesperson Howard Wolfson strongly denied any official campaign role in pushing the photo of Obama in a turban and Somali garb.”

If you didn’t click on Josh’s link, you wouldn’t know how absurd his characterization was. But certain types have long played this game. The assumption: You rubes won’t bother to click on that link! Therefore, you won’t see that what has been said is pure, Grade A, moo-cow nonsense.

It would be hard to find words sad enough to capture these posts by these two cheerful cows. In 2002 and 2003, these “very serious” fellows were giving assent to an oncoming war with Iraq. (Each of the pipe-puffers flipped, or semi-flipped, in early March 2003.) But as of today, they’re even more content. Today, they just wait for Drudge to declaim. Then, they type this: What Drudge said!

Readers, are you happy? We’re all Matt Drudge now! Drudge says it—and we agree to believe it! Meanwhile, Keith goes on the air to complain about what those *ss-holes at SNL said. We’re all cheerful moo-cows now, given this level of leadership.

Oh yes—one last point. Denial centers scream in your brain (as they scream in ours): What you say just can’t be right! These are our “imaginary hip white friends!” Surely, they’re serving our interests!

Special report: Sexing up McCain!


PART 2—BACK FROM EXONERATION: Uh-oh! We sensed the Times had done a 180 when we spied a rare word—“reinvented.” In his front-page report about McCain’s sexy ways (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 2/25/08), Jim Rutenberg quickly mentioned the solon’s role in the Keating Five affair. And when he did, he used that unpleasant word, right there in his fifth paragraph! This potent code word has rarely been used in discussing a saint named McCain:

RUTENBERG (2/20/08): Mr. McCain, 71, and the lobbyist, Vicki Iseman, 40, both say they never had a romantic relationship. But to his advisers, even the appearance of a close bond with a lobbyist whose clients often had business before the Senate committee Mr. McCain led threatened the story of redemption and rectitude that defined his political identity.

It had been just a decade since an official favor for a friend with regulatory problems had nearly ended Mr. McCain's political career by ensnaring him in the Keating Five scandal. In the years that followed, he reinvented himself as the scourge of special interests, a crusader for stricter ethics and campaign finance rules, a man of honor chastened by a brush with shame.

Good. God. Almighty. The press corps has constantly showered McCain with that “man of honor chastened by a brush with shame” stuff. But the word “reinvented” has long been reserved for tortured, inane, crackpot treatments of Gore—and of other feckless Dems, who constantly make themselves over. And so, the analysts started a bit when they saw this word applied to McCain. And then, reading further, we knew times had changed. Omigod! Look what Rutenberg said!

RUTENBERG: Some people involved think Mr. McCain got off too lightly. William Black, one of the banking regulators the senator met with, argued that Mrs. McCain's investment with Mr. Keating created an obvious conflict of interest for her husband. (Mr. McCain had said a prenuptial agreement divided the couple's assets.) He should not be able to ''put this behind him,'' Mr. Black said. ''It sullied his integrity.''

Some people think McCain got off too lightly? In the past decade, we’ve read a lot of profiles about McCain and the Keating Five—and we don’t think we’ve ever seen a big newspaper print a rude, if accurate, statement like that. (Nor had we ever seen a paper be so rude as to discuss McCain’s “prenuptial.” According to a Nexis search, the New York Times has never used that word with McCain in the past.)

In short, the Times didn’t just “sex up” McCain. They did a 180 on the Keating 5 matter, reinventing their Standard Past Treatment of McCain’s role in this affair. William Black’s views have always been known, but Black—and others who hold such views— were disappeared by the press long ago. So when the Times says this—Some people think he got off too lightly—a major change in the times has occurred. If you doubt that, let’s recall how the Keating 5 was treated the last time McCain sought the White House.

Let’s be clear: There is no single “accurate” way to report McCain’s role in the Keating affair. But the Times seemed to flip on the Five last week. Why would the New York Times do that?

THE KEATING 5 WAS LARGELY DOWNPLAYED the last time McCain sought the White House. According to Nexis, from April 1999 through March 2000, the matter was only mentioned eight times in the New York Times. (There were 13 references in the Washington Post.) Most of these cites were fleeting references, a single sentence in length—sometimes less. But by November 1999, McCain’s polling numbers were moving up in New Hampshire; it was beginning to seem he might have a chance to win the Republican nomination. In the Times, Jill Abramson did a lengthy report—1900 words—about the Keating affair. (Headline: “Senate Inquiry In Keating Case Tested McCain.”) How was the New York Times treating the Five? Here’s how Abramson started out. Note a key word—exonerated:

ABRAMSON (11/21/99): In late 1989, Senator John McCain went home to Arizona to fight for his political life.

It was at the height of the savings and loan scandal, and his dealings with Charles Keating, an Arizona high-flier whose failed thrift was a $2 billion debacle for taxpayers, were dominating the news in his home state.

Mr. McCain faced a hail of hostile questions, even at the Mesa Rotary Club in bedrock Republican territory...

"It was certainly the most difficult experience in my political life," he now says about this tumultuous time. During a 14-month Senate ethics investigation that ended with his exoneration, he and four other senators stood accused of exerting improper influence by meeting with federal bank regulators on behalf of Mr. Keating, who had contributed $1.5 million to the political causes and campaigns of the senators, including $112,000 to Mr. McCain.

Say what? In paragraph 4, Abramson said that McCain had been “exonerated” by the Senate probe. Indeed, she went on to say that key word two more times. The way she told it, the “cloud of scandal” around McCain had lifted eight years before:

ABRAMSON: The cloud of scandal did not lift until Nov. 20, 1991, when he was exonerated by the Senate Ethics Committee after an investigation that included weeks of televised hearings. The committee found that Mr. McCain had "exercised poor judgment" in attending, with four other senators, two meetings with federal banking regulators, but it found no improper action on his part.

It may seem strange to read that McCain was “exonerated”—and was also found to have “exercised poor judgment.” But “poor judgment” was going around in late 1999, especially when big mainstream scribes dealt with their sanctified hero, McCain. McCain was “exonerated,” Abramson said—and in her article, no one was quoted saying that McCain got off too lightly. Instead, a string of people were quoted saying that the saint had been treated too harshly—and we got the kind of “hero framework” that was frequently used, during Campaign 2000, when the Keating Five was discussed. In paragraphs 5-8, for example, Abramson let McCain’s allies boo-hoo-hoo about the unfortunate “stain on his record.” As usual, Vietnam was dragged into the stew, used to guilt-trip readers into seeing John McCain’s obvious greatness:

ABRAMSON (pghs 5-8): Mr. McCain told allies, including his lawyer, John W. Dowd; a former Senate colleague, Warren Rudman; and a Senate aide, that the Keating investigation was more painful than being held as a prisoner of war in North Vietnam.

"It was a searing experience for John," said Mr. Dowd, who represented him during the ethics inquiry. "He told me it was worse than being in Hanoi."

The ordeal left a stain on his Senate record, and some political strategists believe the issue will come up again if Mr. McCain continues to gain traction in a presidential bid in which he has been highlighting his crusade against special interests.

But the Keating mess also stoked and hardened Mr. McCain's determination to be his own man in the Senate, to go his own way no matter what. These McCain traits are appealing to many voters, especially in states like New Hampshire.

Hurrah! McCain had been hardened! Needless to say, Vietnam had nothing to do with the Five, but it was frequently used as a smokescreen as McCain and his allies boo-hoo-hooed about how badly the great hero felt. (Later in Abramson’s piece, McCain himself got to cry a good cry about the way the Keating affair may have contributed to his wife’s past drug problem.) And as she continued, Abramson returned to the “exoneration” theme, as we have noted above. Indeed, the theme continued to play in the Times as the years rolled by. In 2002, Abramson reviewed Elizabeth Drew’s new book, Citizen McCain. In the process, she said it again: “Mr. McCain was ultimately exonerated in a Senate ethics committee investigation of the so-called Keating Five affair.” As recently as last November, in fact, “exoneration” rolled out once again in the Times. Russ Buettner said it this time: “Mr. McCain was exonerated by a Senate ethics committee in the Keating case.”

Judging from last week’s front-page report, that may be the last time you’ll ever see the Times say McCain was “exonerated.” Indeed, the Times seems to have a new attitude about McCain and the Keating matter. Some people think he got off too lightly, the Times now says—just in case readers hadn’t heard this.

AT THIS POINT, SHOULD THE KEATING 5 be a big deal? Needless to say, that’s a matter of judgment; in our view, the conduct in question occurred a long time ago. But for the record, here’s part of the ethics committee’s final report in November 1991. (Preliminary judgments had been announced ten months earlier.) Based on these findings, Abramson said, in 1999, that McCain had been “exonerated:”

SENATE ETHICS COMMITTEE (11/20/91): Mr. Keating, his associates, and his friends contributed $56,000 for Senator McCain's two House races in 1982 and 1984, and $54,000 for his 1986 Senate race. Mr. Keating also provided his corporate plane and/or arranged for payment for the use of commercial or private aircraft on several occasions for travel by Senator McCain and his family, for which Senator McCain ultimately provided reimbursement when called upon to do so. [McCain had failed to reimburse Keating until the ethics probe helped refresh him. A sum of $13,000 was involved.] Mr. Keating also allowed Senator McCain and his family to vacation with Mr. Keating and his family, at a home provided by Mr. Keating in the Bahamas, in each of the calendar years 1983 through 1986.

[...]

Based on the evidence available to it, the Committee has given consideration to Senator McCain's actions on behalf of Lincoln. The Committee concludes that, given the personal benefits and campaign contributions he had received from Mr. Keating, Senator McCain exercised poor judgment in intervening with the regulators without first inquiring as to the Bank Board's position in the case in a more routine manner. The Committee concludes that Senator McCain's actions were not improper nor attended with gross negligence and did not reach the level of requiring institutional action against him. The Committee finds that Senator McCain took no further action after the April 9, 1987 meeting when he learned of a criminal referral.

The Committee reaffirms its prior decision that it does not have jurisdiction to determine the issues of disclosure or reimbursement pertaining to flights provided by American Continental Corporation while Senator McCain was a Member of the House of Representatives. The Committee did consider the effect of such on his state of mind and judgment in taking steps to assist Lincoln.

Senator McCain has violated no law of the United States or specific Rule of the United States Senate; therefore, the Committee concludes that no further action is warranted with respect to Senator McCain on the matters investigated during the preliminary inquiry.

According to the ethics committee, McCain had “violated no law of the United States or specific Rule of the United States Senate.” His actions “were not improper nor attended with gross negligence and did not reach the level of requiring institutional action against him.” But McCain had “exercised poor judgment in intervening with the regulators” on Keating’s behalf. Should this be called an “exoneration?” Once again, that’s a matter of judgment. But the word was missing from last week’s report—and William Black was back on the scene, saying McCain had gotten off easy. Compared to the coverage from McCain’s last race, the New York Times seemed to have flipped. (Abramson is now New York Times managing editor for news. She discussed aspects of last week’s story in this on-line Q-and-A.)

By the way: William Black wasn’t alone in holding those views in real time. Many editorial pages complained about the feckless way the ethics committee had slapped the wrists of four members of the Keating 5, including McCain. One example? The Times itself derided the ethics committee as “toothless watchdogs” as their judgments emerged:

NEW YORK TIMES EDITORIAL (9/23/91): Nearly nine months ago the Senate Ethics Committee, toothless watchdog of legislative standards, slapped the wrists of four of the Keating Five. Those are the Senators who did outrageous favors for Charles Keating, the generous political giver and savings and loan impresario. Yet the Ethics Committee managed to find only one of them worthy of censure by the full Senate. That was Alan Cranston of California, who stood out even in this unusually greedy group.

For most of those long months, the committee has been unwilling or unable to take the obvious next step— move the case to the Senate floor for censure or reprimand. That has made the committee a laughingstock even in Washington, awash in scandals over private piggy banks and other Congressional perks.

Ouch! To the editors, McCain was part of “an unusually greedy group;” he had done “outrageous favors” for Keating. He had escaped a harsher judgment because the ethics committee was “a laughingstock.” Editors at the Washington Post seemed to agree. “All five of these senators, none other than worldly and wise, tried to bulldoze federal regulators—mostly civil servants doggedly doing their duty—on behalf of a savings and loan high-roller who had almost as much open contempt for the ethical code that supposedly governed them as he had for the regulatory code that nominally governed him,” the Post wrote in February 1991.

Two sets of editors were expressing their views; no one was required to share them. And sure enough! By the time McCain sought the White House in 1999, he was the press corps’ dearest darling; a different attitude tended to prevail when the Five was discussed. By the fall of 1999, Abramson was saying that McCain had been “exonerated.” Over at the Post, meanwhile, Mark Shields was typing this semi-comical judgment about a magnificent hero:

SHIELDS (9/13/99): The chances are good that your own life today is being adversely affected by a soft money-purchased public policy. This is not some crackpot liberal conspiracy theory hatched in the shallow end of the pool at a left-wing think tank. Just listen to American hero and presidential candidate Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), whose unflagging commitment to campaign-finance reform was almost certainly shaped when he was named by the Senate Democratic majority as the only Republican in the Keating Five. Judged "guilty" then of nothing more than bad judgment, McCain today is the conservative chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee.

McCain was “judged guilty of nothing more than bad judgment,” Shields somewhat comically said, displaying the press corps’ substantial skill at seeing McCain’s glass half full. Over eight years, the tone had changed; and now, at the Times, it has changed once again. McCain engaged in sexy-time romance, the Times announced to its readers last week. And Williams Black was back from exile, saying McCain got off easy.

Why has the New York Times flipped on McCain? Any answer will involve speculation.

TOMORROW—PART 3: Those Paxson letters—then and now.

WHERE DO WORDS COME FROM: “Exonerated”—was that the right word? It seemed to be in 1991, when McCain himself was using it. Here’s an item from the New York Times “Business Diary,” in March 1991:

Verdict on the Keating Five

The Senate Ethics Committee said their doings reflected "poor judgement" at the least, but most of the Keating Five are claiming that they have been cleared. In a statement last Wednesday, the committee accused Senator Alan Cranston of misconduct in taking contributions from Charles H. Keating Jr., an executive of a failing savings and loan. Actions by Senators Dennis DeConcini and Donald W. Riegle Jr. appeared improper, the committee said, and Senators John Glenn and John McCain had failings of judgement. "I am, of course, relieved that I have been exonerated," said Senator McCain. It remains to be seen whether voters, who have been outraged over the costs of rescuing Mr. Keating's institution and hundreds of others, are equally relieved.

“I have been exonerated,” McCain said in 1991. It took eight years, but in due time, the Times itself would say it.