There are few political commodities more lucrative than a reputation for integrity, which may explain why any lobbyist worth his salt would do well to court John McCain. The Arizona senator is considered so beyond the taint of corruption, he is free to engage all the more brazenly in the truck and barter of money and influence that ensures the functioning of the corporate welfare state.
The presumptive Republican presidential nominee made a name for himself as a senator as one of the notorious Keating Five, legislators busy intervening in regulatory matters on behalf of crooked S&L baron Charles Keating. As McCain sells it (and the media tell it), this was the turning point in his career, a brush with ignominy that set him on his path as a maverick reformer.
But the narrative of McCain as redeemed sinner is sharply at odds with his record, a sliver of which came to light when the New York Times published, after months of dithering, a front-page story on his relationship with a lobbyist whose clients had business before his Senate committee. Leaving aside the unconfirmed sex insinuations surrounding McCain and lobbyist Vicki Iseman, the established facts are tawdry enough: McCain intervened with a regulatory body on behalf of a cable company his committee was regulating, after receiving thousands in donations from its CEO, meeting with the CEO and spending lots of time with a lobbyist working for the firm. In the ginned-up outrage that followed the Times story, McCain denied ever having spoken to CEO Lowell Bud Paxson about the pending case before the FCC, a falsehood contradicted by Paxson and by McCain himself in a 2002 deposition. And it wasn’t just Paxson. In 2001 McCain went to bat for the entire cruise industry when it was a lucrative client of Iseman’s firm, Alcalde and Fay.
All par for the course. Despite his branding as a crusading reformer, McCain was and continues to be a business-as-usual conservative. Indeed, he doesn’t just cozy up to lobbyists on planes or take their money–half a million in this campaign cycle alone. They are running his campaign. As the Washington Post reported the day after the Times story broke, McCain’s inner circle is dominated by lobbyists, one of whom, Charles Black, recently copped to handling his lobbying business by phone from the back of the Straight Talk Express!
And while the monied interests do their work from the back of his campaign bus, the straight talker is busy running as far as possible from the signature legislative achievement that bears his name: the McCain-Feingold campaign finance reform bill. This started in 2001, when McCain, while pushing to end the massive unregulated donations known as soft money, set up a nonprofit called the Reform Institute, which existed chiefly to–you guessed it–soak up large, unregulated donations from corporate interests, including $200,000 from Cablevision. (Not surprisingly, McCain devoted great energy to its pet cause before the Commerce Committee.) And now McCain, who secured a bank loan on the collateral of his future federal campaign funds, is attempting to back out of his commitment to use public financing, contradicting the spirit of the program.
This, then, is John McCain: not a maverick but what Reformation-era Christians called an antinomian, one who believes that for those who are holy, all is permitted. McCain seems to think he is released from the obligations that bind lesser politicians.
The press, which has shown its willingness to go along with this ludicrous posture, has a basic obligation to call it what it is: the stale corruption of a status quo that must change.