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OUT IN COLES COUNTY! Our thoughts roamed back to Sandburg’s portrait as Obama flew off this week: // link // print // previous // next //
FRIDAY, OCTOBER 24, 2008

IN SEARCH OF THE REAL JOHN MCCAIN: Has John McCain changed since Campaign 2000, when he was a famous secular saint?

Or is today’s John McCain the same guy? Is the press just reporting him differently?

On balance, we’d vote for the second option. We’d suggest that today’s McCain is pretty much the same guy who ran for the White House in Campaign 2000. But yes, his press coverage has vastly changed. As evidence of this change in the weather, just consider this front-page report from yesterday’s Washington Post.

The lengthy report, by Michael Leahy, concerns McCain’s role in the “Keating Five” matter. The report includes more than 5000 words. It covers its topic in detail.

On balance, we would say that Leahy’s report might tilt a slight bit in McCain’s favor. But if Leahy tilts his piece at all, his tilt is at most very slight.

It’s true: In some parts of his report, Leahy engages in mind-reading and selective presentation, elements which favor McCain. On the other hand, Leahy omits some basic info which would tilt the tale back McCain’s way.

But Leahy’s tilt, if it exists, doesn’t define the change in the weather as McCain seeks the White House again. What’s truly striking is the fact that the Post has reported this topic at all. During Campaign 2000, McCain was transformed into a saint—and news orgs took a pass on this topic. Their pundits kept insisting that McCain was a saint—and topics like the Keating Five went massively unreported.

We’ll review Leahy’s report next week, especially the parts which tend to favor McCain. But how was the Keating Five reported during Campaign 2000? Consider the way it was handled in Newsweek, the Post’s companion publication.

Essentially, the Five went unreported by Newsweek. By the fall of 1999, McCain was being lionized in the magazine, along with Bill Bradley, his fellow “straight-shooter.” (Each man was practicing “the politics of authenticity,” Newsweek recited.) Topics like the Keating Five fell between the cracks. Below, we present Newsweek’s fullest attempt to explain McCain’s role in the Keating Five matter. This brief passage was part of a much longer profile—a flattering profile by Jonathan Alter. The reader will perhaps discern a tilt in Alter’s treatment:

ALTER (11/15/99): Shortly after arriving in the Senate, McCain faced a challenge that he says made him feel worse than anything in Vietnam. Over the years, McCain had received $112,000 in campaign contributions and nine free trips to the Bahamas from Charles Keating, a developer and savings and loan kingpin who later went to jail for the biggest SL rip-off of all. Keating wanted McCain to pressure federal regulators on his behalf; when the senator refused, Keating called him a wimp. But McCain did attend two meetings with the regulators, thereby becoming immortalized as one of the Keating Five. In 1991, the Senate Ethics Committee dealt harshly with most of the other senators but cleared McCain of everything except poor judgment, an assessment he does not dispute. His fervor for campaign-finance reform is a direct result of that experience. Once again, the subject is honor.

McCain's presidential campaign will ultimately rise or fall on whether he can give that ancient idea new life. The strength of our democratic system, our faith in its integrity, is being sapped and dishonored by money. Whatever happens to his own political ambitions, John McCain knows honor, personal and national, and may help the rest of us light our way back to it.

Those were the closing paragraphs of Alter’s 2400-word profile—a flattering portrait of McCain’s vast concern with personal honor. It would be hard to tell the Keating Five story in a way which was more McCain-friendly. But that was Newsweek’s most extensive attempt to lay out the facts of the Keating Five case. The episode was only eight years old at the time. But Newsweek largely passed it by—even as its writers kept explaining that McCain was the world’s greatest man.

The Washington Post didn’t do much better. The Post never presented a stand-alone treatment of McCain’s role in the Keating Five matter—even as columnists kept insisting that McCain’s was the world’s greatest known living saint. The Post’s fullest treatment appeared quite late, in March 2000. (McCain was out of the race within a week.) Edward Walsh offered this treatment, part of a much longer report on McCain’s historical relations with his fellow senators:

WALSH (3/3/00): McCain's first term in the Senate turned into a nightmare for him that many believe shaped his thinking about money and politics. The cause of the nightmare was Charles H. Keating Jr., a wealthy developer and Arizona power broker who owned a failing savings and loan. McCain was deeply entangled with Keating, accepting not only political contributions from him, but also free trips aboard Keating's corporate jet, including some to his friend's vacation home in the Bahamas. McCain only paid for the trips years later.

But McCain's real trouble from his Keating connection stemmed from two meetings that he and four other senators attended at Keating's behest with federal regulators who were investigating Lincoln Savings and Loan, Keating's failing thrift, which eventually collapsed at a cost to taxpayers of $ 3.4 billion. The senators became known as the "Keating Five," the subject of a Senate ethics committee investigation.

The committee ignored a recommendation from its own special counsel that McCain, the only Republican among the five, and then-Sen. John Glenn (D-Ohio) be dropped from the investigation and included both in the public hearings it conducted. But in the end, the panel found McCain guilty only of exercising "poor judgment" by attending the meetings with regulators.

McCain once likened the Keating Five ordeal to his imprisonment in Hanoi during the Vietnam War, although today he says the two experiences were so different that they can't be compared. "I certainly wasn't with him in Hanoi, but it made him absolutely miserable," recalled Chris Koch, McCain's administrative assistant at the time.

McCain's much-discussed temper may have saved him from a more damaging entanglement with Keating. According to several accounts, Keating once referred to McCain as "a wimp" and thought he could pressure him into doing more to protect Lincoln from federal regulators. But when Keating tried to do so, McCain resisted, and the two men fell into a heated argument until Keating stormed out of McCain's office.

That was it. Walsh devoted 323 words—in a 3500-word report—to the Keating Five matter. In the passage we’ve highlighted, he included some basic material which helps tip the story in McCain’s favor—material which (oddly) doesn’t appear in Leahy’s much longer report.

The New York Times outdid the Post when it came to McCain and the Five. By late November 1999, McCain was beginning to score in New Hampshire polling; it was becoming clear that he had a shot at winning the GOP nomination. At that time, Jill Abramson presented a long report about McCain’s role in the Keating Five matter. The Times gets credit for reporting this topic—but as we’ve noted in the past, its framing of the incident was quite McCain-friendly. This is how Abramson started:

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. After one of the club's elders rose to defend him and say he still believed in him, the senator mordantly observed, "The fact that my supporters even feel they need to say these things is evidence of how serious the situation is."

"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.

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.

The “ordeal” had left a stain on McCain’s record, Abramson said. But she had already said, without qualification, that the investigation “ended with [McCain’s] exoneration”—and she quickly devoted several grafs to the claim that the Keating Five probe “was more painful than being held as a prisoner of war in North Vietnam.” “Exoneration”—and the tear-jerking link to Vietnam—had always been key McCain talking-points, ever since the matter was first decided. To its credit, the Times did report the Keating Five. But McCain’s finger-prints were right there.

Yesterday, the Post finally did a stand-alone piece about McCain and the Five.

In our view, John McCain is pretty much the same guy who ran for the White House nine years ago. But his coverage this time has been very different. What sorts of things were ignored at that time? Next week, we’ll pick back through the rubble—reviewing the work of a mainstream press corps which was enacting an inexcusable group nervous breakdown at the end of the Clinton-Gore years.

To their vast discredit, the mainstream press was inventing a saint—even as it was inventing a demon. Career liberals refuse to discuss this history—a history in which career liberal leaders played a large, inexcusable role.

Next week, we’ll review the press corps’ inexcusable conduct as it reported McCain’s first campaign. This conduct explains how we got to this place—and how we got into Iraq.

OUT IN COLES COUNTY: As Obama flew off to visit his grandmother, Madelyn Dunham, it was hard to miss the echo. His campaign began in Springfield, with deliberate evocations of Lincoln. It was hard to avoid thinking of Lincoln—at least, of Sandburg’s variant—as he flew to Hawaii this week.

Late in Volume II of The Prairie Years, Sandburg describes Lincoln’s last trip to visit the woman who raised him—in this case, his stepmother, Sally Bush Lincoln. The trip occurred in January 1861—after Lincoln’s election, before his inauguration. The president-elect journeyed in ways which are hard to imagine today. “Lincoln rode to Mattoon, missed connections with a passenger train, and took the caboose of a freight train to Charleston,” Sandburg wrote. “Friends met him and took him to the house, where he was to stay overnight; the next morning he would go out to say good-bye and have his last hours with his stepmother, Sally Bush Lincoln:”

SANDBURG (pages 416-417): Among those who came to see Lincoln that evening was a lawyer, A. P. Dorsey, who had met and talked with Lincoln hundreds of times. But now that Lincoln was in five weeks to be inaugurated President, Dunbar didn’t know whether he ought to be familiar and easy as in the old days. “If he is dignified and formal, I must act accordingly,” said Dunbar. He knocked at the door of the house where Lincoln was staying; the family was finishing supper; Lincoln had eaten and was in the front room sitting before the fire; he heard the knock at the door and opened the door himself. In a flash he had Dunbar’s right hand in his, and, resting another hand on Dunbar’s shoulder, he burst out, “Lord A’mighty, Aleck, how glad I am to see you!”

Another man came in with Dunbar. They sat by the fire. Lincoln was soon drawing out one and another of his yarns...

The next day Lincoln drove eight miles out to the old farm along the road over which he had hauled wood with an ox team. He came to the old log house had cut logs for and helped smooth the chinks; from its little square windows he had seen late winter and early birds.

Sally Bush and he put their arms around each other and listened to each other’s heartbeats. They held hands and talked; they talked without holding hands. Each looked into eyes thrust back in deep sockets. She was all of a mother to him.

He was her boy more than any born to her. He gave her a photograph of her boy, a hungry picture of him standing and wanting, wanting. He stroked her face a last time, kissed good-by, and went away.

She knew his heart would go roaming back often, that even when he rode in an open carriage in New York or Washington with soldiers, flags or cheering thousands along the streets, he might just as like be thinking of her in the old log farmhouse out in Coles County, Illinois.

The sunshine of the prairie summer and fall months would come sifting down with healing and strength; between harvest and corn-plowing there would be rains beating and blizzards howling; and then there would be silence after snowstorms with white drifts piled against the fences, barns, and trees.

With that, Sandburg ended his chapter. We could all use a bit of that prairie sunshine, along with its healing and strength.