Sunday, February 24, 2008


You might think that today my mind would be on the two Democrats who debated Thursday night in Texas -- the two who have fought tooth and nail for more than a year, raising record sums of money, and bringing out record hordes to the polls. I have trouble believing that the survivor of that debate, the one who didn’t have to resort to desperate measures and pathetic little slogans (“Change you can Xerox”), won’t ultimately be elected our next President. And yet I can’t say that the big story of the week involved him, or his rapidly unraveling primary opponent. The story of the week involved another unraveling opponent of Barack Obama. I’m referring to the editors of the New York Times.

I am a daily subscriber to the Times, and I still consider it America’s finest newspaper. I feel that way notwithstanding its support for the Iraq War and its recent endorsement of Hillary Clinton. Though those positions saddened me, I can’t exactly say they embarrassed the newspaper. But the hatchet job that the paper attempted this week against John McCain was an embarrassment. I doubt it will hurt McCain. The only victim here is the Times itself.

Picture yourself as a statesman who is married but whose job involves meeting lots and lots of people, many of whom are attractive, single women. Then imagine that you legitimately come to like one of those women, enough to want to get together with her socially – maybe have dinner at nice restaurants. You never sleep with her, you never even kiss her, but your staff gets nervous about the fact that you go out alone with her. And a couple of members of that staff, without being willing to identify themselves for the record, tell a newspaper many years later that they suspect you had an affair. You’re asked about the so-called “affair” and you deny it, as does your friend, which only makes sense, since your relationship with her was strictly Platonic.

Does that sound newsworthy? Does that sound worthy of a newspaper story insinuating that the statesman has had extra-marital, sexual relations with a lobbyist for whose clients he then does extraordinary political favors? It may be that the politician did go too far in helping his friend’s clients … but how does that prove that the statesman and his friend actually slept together? The New York Times provided no evidence that John McCain’s 1999 relationship with Vicki Iseman was any different than what was described in the previous paragraph – and yet the paper saw fit to suggest that the two had a “romantic relationship.” No physical evidence was gathered to support such an allegation, no evidence of the two sharing the same hotel room, no witnesses who identified themselves as knowing about this relationship … and not even anonymous witnesses who claimed to have definitive knowledge that McCain and Iseman were physically involved with one another. Still, our nation’s pre-eminent newspaper thought it was appropriate to print the story. If it weren’t so pathetic, it might even be funny.

What in the name of Oliver Cromwell is going on? Have we reached the point where we not only condemn extra-marital sex, but we condemn any kind of close friendship between a married man and a younger, single woman? From what I can tell, the New York Times has gathered evidence that McCain had such a friendship with a lobbyist. From comparing pictures of Iseman and McCain’s wife, I would even be willing to infer that McCain thought Iseman was physically attractive. This is news? This is worthy of sexual innuendos? You might think that the Times ran this story to ruin McCain’s chances, but you’d be wrong. It actually held the story for many weeks until McCain had sewn up his party’s nomination. Apparently, the story wasn’t so much politically motivated as it was motivated by the desire to share with the public a genuinely newsworthy set of facts (and innuendo). That’s what I find so shocking. The editors of the Times really think we should want to know about who may be screwing whom in Washington. It almost makes you want to move to Sweden, doesn’t it?

“Well, OK,” the Times’ editors might want to say now, in the aftermath of the firestorm that their story has created. “Maybe we shouldn’t have played up the whole possible-sex angle. Maybe we should have stuck with the idea that back in 1999, John McCain – Mr. “I’ll take on the lobbyists” – took extraordinary measures to help out the client of a lobbyist with whom he was close friends. That’s newsworthy, isn’t it?”'

Sure it is. I would have had no problem with the Times printing such an article, and in hindsight, the Times’ editors probably wish they had printed that one instead. But the real question is that, even had the Times ignored the possibility of a sexual relationship and demonstrated with undeniable evidence that back in 1999 McCain allowed a personal friendship to cloud his judgment on behalf of a lobbyist’s client, what should the significance be of Mr. McCain’s misconduct? Should it effectively disqualify him from the White House? Should we start looking at the man not as a hero, but rather as a sleaze? My answer is “No, no, 1000 times no!”

I’m a Democrat, a liberal Democrat, and a person who is scared by John McCain’s vision of an endless war in Iraq and sickened by his calls to make permanent tax cuts for the rich. But I also deeply appreciate his service as a soldier and former POW, his maverick stances on such issues as campaign finance reform and immigration reform, and his truly independent spirit. I believe him when he says that he wants to clean up Washington. And those views would hardly change if I were informed that he used bad judgment on one or two occasions in the past.

Happily, from what I can tell, virtually everyone I know – Democrat as well as Republican -- agrees with me that the McCain story, whether it be about extra-marital sex or giving inappropriate favors to lobbyists is just not that big a deal. And that reflects what might be the general mood of this election season. In Barack Obama and John McCain, we have a couple of politicians who are quite obviously so fundamentally decent that we Americans might actually be willing to cut them some slack. I support investigative reporters seeking out the stories about those mistakes and reporting them, but I would be willing to stipulate that all politicians have done a few things they wish they hadn’t, and I’m sick and tired of thinking of them as scumbags simply because they haven’t been moral exemplars every day of their adult lives.

McCain isn’t the only one getting the benefit of a few doubts. Just as the public is ignoring his alleged peccadilloes, so too is the Democratic electorate ignoring Hillary Clinton’s last ditch efforts to badmouth Obama. One minute he’s supposedly “plagiarizing,” the next minute he’s said to have authorized statements about her health care program that he “knows” to be false. “J’accuse!” says Hillary. “Wake me up when you stop acting like a desperate loser,” is the near-universal response.

It is no exaggeration to say that we find ourselves at a crossroads as a nation in terms of our political discourse. We can either remain in the era of Willie Horton and Whitewater, of Swiftboating and scandal, of incessant ridicule, of strawmen, and of slime. Or, we can treat our political candidates like they are presumed to be honorable, and look to see which one, if treated with respect by both political parties, could actually deliver the best changes for America. My preference for the latter is based on a political philosophy that embraces the public sector (within limits) and looks for it to make a substantial impact on our world. There are those who would instead prefer gridlock – “the government that governs best, governs least,” they say. I only wish they would be honest about their preference and not underhanded. Don’t rip into good men like Barack Obama and John McCain, just stick with the merits. Say that you oppose steps to fight global warming. Say that you oppose steps to make health care more universal. Say that you’d just as soon leave nearly all the national wealth in the hands of the top 5% of the population. Then, at least, we can have a national debate on the issues, and the New York Times can read like the New York Times … and not the National Enquirer.


YoungMan said...

First time you've written something on this blog that I fundamentally agree with. Ok youre not 100% warped, just 99.44% :)

Daniel Spiro said...


Maybe I should reconsider the post.
Anyway, youngman, thanks for the endorsement. I'll take that .56% and build on it. How to build on it I'm not quite sure, but I'll think about it.

Oh, I know: What did you think about Hillary mercilessly mocking Barack's rhetoric yesterday? Appropriate for a primary opponent to use mockery to that extent? I don't think so. Do you?

YoungMan said...

Perhaps not for a primary opponent who has no chance to Huckabee. Hillary may have (more importantly thinks she has) a narrowly plausible chance to win whether we/you agree.

Hillary has to mock Barack's rhetoric, because when the rhetoric is stripped away and the substance exposed (and Im not arguing he has no substance mind you), the substance that will be exposed is unpalatable to a majority of American voters. Hillary's pickle is she cant attack him too much from the right for fear of self-destructing by alientating the Hollywood socialist base of ga-ga Barackites, espressed so well when you called Barcak "the most talented progressive politician since RFK". This is an election...not Hannah Montana

Night Stranger said...

Can I get on this, or is it a private, long-term battle?

Hillary is at her worst when she gets sarcastic, and I think we're going to see only that side of her from now on. Don't know if it's coming from her advisors, who were embarrassed by that conciliatory "I'm proud to be sitting up here with you" (which sounded to me like a bid to be considered for v-p) or if it's just the desperation she feels because she can't get support from crowds as he can.

Daniel Spiro said...


I think Hillary is following the Pat Buchanon advice, "Go negative, or go home." But I think it will backfire in terms of her reputation AFTER she loses this race.

Sorry if Youngman and I are bickering too much. Everyone is welcome to participate here.

YoungMan said...

Gosh Daniel Albert, you're 2 for 2 today. Gonna start calling you Ty Cobb (maybe that's not PC enough for you, I'll give you Rod Carew :). I agree it hurts Hillary and only helps McCain...keep at it Hill :)

Night Stranger, yes, it has been a private battle for 31 years, but I agree with Dan (and of course it's not my blog), please chime in.

I'm only here to be heterodox :)

Dan to bad you acnt be in Palo Alto Thurs., I'd take u to the UW game.

Daniel Spiro said...


I've been watching the ol' Alma Mater pretty religiously on Fox SportsNet. The ASU game depressed me -- because Stanford really should have won it -- but their run since U of O beat them is extremely impressive. As always, I'm worried about the tournament because of guard play, but I love the Lopez Twins. (And what I really love is the fan's cheer whenever Taj Finger blocks a shot. And if you try to respond to that last point, I will block the response. We have to keep this clean.)