December 21, 2007

McCain Goes On Offense On Rumors

Saying that he learned a lesson from 2000, John McCain eschewed the quiet approach yesterday and blasted rumors that he did favors for a Washington lobbyist. Matt Drudge posted that the New York Times had a story that would show McCain -- a staunch activist for reducing lobbyist influence -- had his own scandal brewing. Both of the principals in the story have hired lawyers, and the Times has clammed up:

Sen. John McCain said yesterday that he has "never done any favors for anybody -- lobbyist or special interest group," as his presidential campaign issued a statement denouncing allegations of legislative favoritism as "gutter politics."

The Arizona Republican has hired a prominent Washington criminal attorney, Robert Bennett, to deal with the matter. "What is being done to John McCain is an outrage," Bennett said in an interview.

Bennett said he sent prepared answers yesterday to written questions submitted by New York Times reporters who have spent weeks investigating questions about whether the senator did favors for a Washington lobbyist or her clients. She has also retained a lawyer, according to a knowledgeable source who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was discussing legal matters.

McCain called Times Executive Editor Bill Keller this month to deny the allegations and to complain that he was not being treated fairly by the Times reporters, who had not yet interviewed him, the source said.

Robert Bennett has represented many Beltway figures, including Bill Clinton during the impeachment. Even more interestingly, Bennett worked as counsel to the Senate panel that investigated the Keating Five scandal, where McCain got scolded for poor judgment but found clean of corruption. That set him on a course, sincere but at times misguided, to clean up Congress. Hiring Bennett to represent him here shows that McCain has no grudge, and that McCain is considering some serious legal action, because Bennett (author/radio host Bill Bennett's brother) does not come cheap.

Keller declined to speak with Howard Kurtz about this story. The Times obviously had not completed its own research on the story, and the Drudge leak may have put them in a corner on whether to report it. McCain's hiring of Bennett certainly signals that a bloody legal battle awaits him if they run the story, and maybe even if they don't. It's always fascinating to see a media outlet go the "no comment" route, with its inherent contradiction to their oft-stated rationalization of the "public right to know".

The story sounds like a hit job. It could be true -- anything's possible -- but McCain has spent too long pushing the fight for cleaner political processes for this to be credible without very compelling evidence. Of all politicians in the Beltway, he'd have the least to gain and the most to lose by allowing lobbyists to buy him off. As soon as it happened, the lobbyists themselves would spread the story to slow up anti-lobbyist reform efforts constantly pushed by McCain. He's smart enough to know that, and whatever contributions they could provide would not be worth the risk.

I'm betting someone at the Times floated this to Drudge because they couldn't get a good enough story to run. It looks like a last-ditch effort to get some sourcing for an otherwise failed effort. McCain has taken the right approach in going to the offensive, and we're already seeing the Times retreat.


TrackBack URL for this entry:

Please note that unverified Disqus users will have comments held in moderation. Please visit Disqus to register and verify your account. Comments from verified users will appear immediately.