Last December, conservative author and CNN election analyst William J. Bennett gave over two thousand dollars to Sen. John McCain's presidential campaign, a fact that Bennett has not mentioned during any of his appearances on the network, according to a review of transcripts by the Huffington Post.
Moreover, after giving the donation, Bennett claimed on-air that he was neutral in the GOP race, even as he repeatedly dispensed advice to McCain on how he could win over doubtful conservatives.
Following Wednesday's GOP debate in Los Angeles, Bennett exclaimed on CNN that he "had three hours of calls this morning of people angry at me because I was defending John McCain."
"I don't have a candidate," he protested. "I haven't endorsed anybody."
Informed of the donations, a CNN official said that Bennett also gave an unspecified amount to Mitt Romney's campaign in January 2008, which would not show up on the latest campaign filings.
Last month, Talking Points Memo reported that, for the duration of the Democratic primary, Hillary Clinton backers James Carville and Paul Begala would no longer be appearing on CNN unless they were paired with a supporter of Barack Obama. The CNN official said Bennett's situation was different since he had given to more than one candidate.
Still, the donations raise serious questions about whether Bennett can act as a neutral analyst in a race that still includes Gov. Mike Huckabee and Rep. Ron Paul. Following protests of Carville and Begala's role on CNN, the network's political director Sam Feist said, "As we got closer to the voting, we made a decision to make sure that all the analysts that are on are non-aligned."
Though Bennett has at times criticized all of the candidates -- he called McCain's assertion that Romney supported an Iraq timeline a "cheap shot" -- he sticks out as a rare defender of McCain amid furor from conservative activists and talk show hosts over the Arizona senator's recent rise.
"The title commander in chief seems to fit John McCain, doesn't it?" Bennett said on CNN on January 30. Noting issues like immigration that people use to "try to tag John McCain as being liberal," he offered counsel: "It doesn't mean he has to qualify his convictions, but he has to repeat and remind people of the good parts of the voting record."
And after McCain's win in Florida on Tuesday, Bennett addressed his advice directly to the candidate: "Start to talk about people like Senator Coburn from Oklahoma as someone you're thinking about [as vice president]. Have him travel around, very strong fiscal conservative." Also, "Go to the border. Stand there and say, I know people disagreed with me on immigration, but we are going to seal this border. We're going to get this thing right."
Bennett's actions stand in seeming contrast to the advice he offers other politicians and pundits. In his best-seller The Book of Virtues, he writes, "Honesty is of pervasive human importance. ... To be honest is to be real, genuine, authentic, and bona fide. ... Honesty imbues lives with openness, reliability, and candor; it expresses a disposition to live in the light."
* Note: Online fundraising databases have conflicting data on the level of William Bennett's contributions to Sen. McCain. A CNN official says that Bennett gave $2300, not $4600, so we are using that number until itemized general election receipts are available from the FEC. The story was also corrected to clarify CNN's policy on having Carville and Begala appear.
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