I have a hard time figuring out what to make of the McCain scandal. If it’s about sex, then it’s really not that big a deal. In fact it’s very like the Clinton scandal – there was a sex scandal during his primary campaign, and for those who dug deeper, there were more rumours. Not only had McCain never claimed to be a paragon of virtue, but according to his Wikipedia article, McCain was still married when he got involved with his second wife (who is 17 years his junior). Sure, if he had an affair with this woman, it would reflect badly on his character, but we already know what kind of person he is.
The second leg of the story is the implication of either wrongdoing or the appearance of wrongdoing. Being that close with a lobbyist certainly raises the appearance of a conflict of interest. McCain’s association with lobbyists makes his claims of being “clean” ring a bit hollow. Even if there was nothing going on between the two of them, it isn’t ethical behaviour. McCain says “I did nothing to betray the public trust”. And we are supposed to take his word on it? The word of a politician? How stupid does he think people are? This is someone who has suffered torture, who because of it can’t raise his arms above his shoulders, but who is willing, for the sake of political expediency, to sign off of a pro-torture law.
McCain’s unequivocal denial of both implications raises the stakes. The cable news anchors commented on his lack of apparent anger – is he trying to counter his reputation for being short tempered, or is it just that, unlike Bill Clinton, McCain finds it hard to summon righteous anger in a situation like this? Anyway, his outright denial forces the New York Times to either defend or retract their story. The Times‘ publisher has said “the story speaks for itself”…does this mean that the implications of an affair and of wrongdoing (that are in the article) “speak for themselves”? It doesn’t sound like the Times is about to back down on the story.
To me though, the most remarkable thing is the reaction of the news anchors and commentators. Rush Limbaugh’s reaction lacks outrage or his usual hyperbole – his reaction was “I told you so” and “you should know who your real friends are” (apparently his “real friends” are the people in right wing talk radio who have been attacking him throughout the campaign). But it’s the shocked reaction of people in the mainstream media – Chris Matthews and the like – that’s really interesting. They are assuming that this is a breach of journalistic ethics by the Times, and working from that assumption, they seem to be saying “how could you do this to us?” They have injected themselves into the story, and they seem to be unable to step outside of the story. In other words, they utterly fail to do their job. There are exceptions – I think that Keith Olbermann and Dan Abrams managed to keep a little distance from the story, although they gave too much time to people who couldn’t – but overall it seem like the media failed to keep a sense of perspective.
At least they now have rioting in Belgrade to distract them…
Update: Many people were saying that a story by The New Republic on the failure of the Times to publish the story in December was what prompted the Times to run with the story. TNR has now weighed in on the story (although, as David Kurtz at TPM points out, it doesn’t answer the story of why the times published the story now).
Update II: Kagro X at dKos has a good article on the reaction of “wingnut mouthpieces” to the story (in short: shoot the messenger).