There's been a lot of hay made on right wing blogs, talk radio, and ol' fashioned cable news today that the New York Times ran an unsourced smear job against John McCain. The goal of this kind of pushback is to discredit the Times reporting on a possible sex scandal, thereby discounting the entire story of corruption, reminiscent to the destruction of Dan Rather's reporting on George W. Bush's time in the Texas Air National Guard. But we cannot allow there to be any adjudication of the accuracy of what the Times' anonymous "two former associates" said based on the fact that the reports are anonymous, when John McCain has only issued a non-denial denial of the intervention connected to these "two former associates."
To understand why the relationship between McCain and Iseman should remain an issue - though not the sole issue - under discussion, we need to look at what the Times and the Washington Post have separately reported about the intervention with McCain and what McCain has said in response.
In the New York Times story, three separate McCain staffers talk about ways in which they intervened with and for their boss about his relationship with lobbbyist Vicki Iseman:
In interviews, the two former associates said they joined in a series of confrontations with Mr. McCain, warning him that he was risking his campaign and career. Both said Mr. McCain acknowledged behaving inappropriately and pledged to keep his distance from Ms. Iseman. The two associates, who said they had become disillusioned with the senator, spoke independently of each other and provided details that were corroborated by others.
Separately, a top McCain aide met with Ms. Iseman at Union Station in Washington to ask her to stay away from the senator. John Weaver, a former top strategist and now an informal campaign adviser, said in an e-mail message that he arranged the meeting after "a discussion among the campaign leadership" about her. [Emphasis added]
The Washington Post, in an update to their previously posted piece, is reporting the following:
Earlier today, McCain denied ever being confronted by his staff about his relationship with Iseman, also denying that he confirmed he was behaving inappropriately with her. The AP reports on the McCain press conference (via TalkLeft):
Members of the senator's small circle of advisers also confronted McCain directly, according to sources, warning him that his continued ties to a lobbyist who had business before the powerful commerce committee he chaired threatened to derail his presidential ambitions.
Appearing before reporters this morning in Toledo, Ohio, McCain flatly denied receiving such warnings from his aides and said he had no knowledge that Weaver or anyone else on his staff had told Iseman to keep her distance. [Emphasis added]
But McCain said he was unaware of any such conversation [between Weaver and Iseman], and denied that his aides ever tried to talk to him about his interactions with Iseman.
"I never discussed it with John Weaver. As far as I know, there was no necessity for it," McCain said. "I don't know anything about it," he added. "John Weaver is a friend of mine. He remains a friend of mine. But I certainly didn't know anything of that nature." [Emphasis added]
Now, only one side can be right. Two McCain advisers said they intervened with McCain and he concurred with their assessment of his relationship of Iseman as problematic. Weaver says he met with Iseman to intervene on her side. McCain is contradicting the accounts of three separate advisers. It's possible that Weaver's intervention with Iseman took place without the knowledge of McCain, but McCain goes beyond denying knowledge of the Weaver/Iseman meeting to deny any reason for such a meeting to take place. Someone is lying and the law of parsimony would suggest that it's McCain.
Marc Ambinder notes that the Times' use of the word "associates" suggests that, in fact, the people who confronted him were not aides or staffers. He hazards that "associates" might actually be other lobbyists.
I think Ambinder is raising a good point here and I think it's likely that McCain is getting cute with his language. If "associates" does not mean aides or staffers, his statements denying an intervention in his press conference, which the AP described as about "aides" may be factually correct, but dodging the question.
The first line in the Post quote seems to put "advisers" and "associates" in the same vein as the Times had previously reported the intervention. Neither outlet has said that the people offering this information are staffers or aides. It is clear that at least two people very high up in the McCain universe have confirmed to both the Times and Post that they had a direct intervention with McCain over Iseman.
McCain's denial, however, is circumscribed to aides and staff. In that sense, when it comes to the intervention by associates or advisers in his relationship with Vicki Iseman, John McCain is issuing a non-denial denial. This is critically important and a key reason why there attention should continue to be paid to the actions taken by McCain's circle of advisers - be they staff, lobbyists, friends, colleagues, consultants, or anyone else - in response to concerns about his relationship with Vicki Iseman.
I think the press has an obligation to start highlight the intense (dare I say, Bill Clinton-esque?) parsing being committed by John McCain on the subject of whether or not anyone tried to get him to discontinue his relationship with Vicki Iseman.
This article is based off of two blog posts originally posted on my blog, Hold Fast.