BILL KELLER, the executive editor of The Times, said the article about John McCain that appeared in Thursday's paper was about a man nearly felled by scandal who rebuilt himself as a fighter against corruption but is still "careless about appearances, careless about his reputation, and that's a pretty important thing to know about somebody who wants to be president of the United States."
But judging by the explosive reaction to the 3,000-word article, most readers saw it as something else altogether. They saw it as a story about illicit sex. And most were furious at The Times.
Marilyn Monaco of Philadelphia, one of more than 2,400 readers to comment on The Times's Web site, said the newspaper "has sunk below its standards and created a salacious distraction from an otherwise substantive campaign. And for the record, I am an Obama supporter." Terry Bledsoe of Sun Lakes, Ariz., said, "I am most disappointed in The New York Times for engaging in this sort of trash-the-candidate journalism." A minority of readers applauded the article. "Bravo to The Times for integrity and guts," said Rick Gore of Fort Lauderdale, Fla.
The uproar was over an assertion in the second paragraph that during McCain's first run for the White House eight years ago, some of his top advisers became "convinced" he was having a "romantic" relationship with a female lobbyist and intervened to protect the candidate from himself. McCain, 71, and the lobbyist, Vicki Iseman, 40, denied they had an affair, and at a press conference after the article was published, McCain denied that anyone ever confronted him about their relationship. He described her as a friend.
The article had repercussions for both McCain and The Times. He may benefit, at least in the short run, from a conservative backlash against the "liberal" New York Times. The newspaper found itself in the uncomfortable position of being the story as much as publishing the story, in large part because, although it raised one of the most toxic subjects in politics -- sex -- it offered readers no proof that McCain and Iseman had a romance.