It was the kind of press conference no presidential contender wants to have to call. But last Wednesday morning in Toledo, Ohio, beneath too-bright television lights, Sen. and Mrs. John McCain found themselves taking questions about sex and power. In response to reporters, McCain referred to the lobbyist Vicki Iseman as his "friend." But what, exactly, is a friend in Washington? Journalists are friends with their sources to get them to leak information. Politicians are friends with journalists to spin them. Lobbyists are friends with politicians to get them to support legislation that helps clients. Politicians are friends with lobbyists to get campaign contributions. "If you want a real friend in Washington," goes the old saying, "get a dog."
It's often more complicated than that. Iseman, who was a 32-year-old, attractive, single woman when she began lobbying McCain in 1999, may have enjoyed flirting with a war hero who is fun to be around. If McCain, a married man who was 63 at the time, wasn't a little flattered by the attention, he would be unusual. But that doesn't mean they were sleeping together or that he was performing legislative favors for her.
Still, The New York Times implied as much. In a front-page article reviewing McCain's long history with lobbyists, but zeroing in on Iseman's ties to the Arizona senator when he was preparing to run for president in 1999, the Times wrote: "Convinced the relationship had become romantic, some of his top advisers intervened to protect the candidate from himself—instructing staff members to block the woman's access, privately warning her away and repeatedly confronting him, several people involved in the campaign said on the condition of anonymity."
The political talk shows immediately huffed about hanging such a potentially damaging story on anonymous sources. Both McCain and Iseman denied that they had a sexual relationship. McCain was unambiguous in his denunciation of the Times story. He stated he had never been warned by his campaign aides that his relationship with Iseman was somehow inappropriate, and the campaign at first insisted that he had not been contacted by the company Iseman represented—Paxson Communications—on the particular matter in question, two letters that McCain, then chairman of the Senate commerce committee, sent to the Federal Communications Commission. (Alcalde & Fay, the lobbying firm that employs Iseman, calls the Times article "completely and utterly false" and describes her as a "hardworking professional whose 18-year career has been exemplary." Iseman herself did not respond to requests for comment.)
In his effort to convince voters, particularly conservative ones, that he had been "smeared" by the Times, McCain may have dissembled a bit or misstated the facts. NEWSWEEK spoke to two close associates of the candidate who claimed that McCain had been warned to stay away from Iseman in 1999. (It's unclear whether these associates, who did not want to be named publicly crossing McCain, are the same sources the Times cited.) One of the sources tells NEWSWEEK that he had confronted McCain about the relationship with Iseman, though in that meeting there was no explicit reference to a sexual affair. Neither source had evidence of an intimate relationship.
NEWSWEEK has also found a legal deposition in which, contrary to a statement released by his campaign, McCain admitted that he was personally lobbied by Lowell (Bud) Paxson, the president of Paxson Communications—and possibly Paxson's lobbyist, Iseman—to act on a long-stalled bid by Paxson (now Ion Media Networks) to buy a TV station in Pittsburgh. (Paxson told The Washington Post last week that he recalled lobbying McCain about the FCC issue in a meeting in the senator's office set up by Iseman.) McCain had refused to push the FCC for or against, but he did agree to prod the slow-moving bureaucracy to decide one way or the other. With his typically blunt, almost cheery way of admitting the sinfulness of man, including his own weaknesses, he acknowledged in the deposition that his relationship with Paxson—flying on the corporate jet, taking $20,000 in campaign contributions—would "absolutely" look corrupt to the ordinary voter.
But that was back in 2002, when McCain was being deposed in an obscure and ultimately unsuccessful lawsuit to have the campaign-finance law he helped write declared unconstitutional. Somber and subdued, McCain seemed determined last week to quash any hint of impropriety that might hurt his presidential campaign. It is possible that he was overlooking that most shopworn of clichés, that the cover-up is worse than the crime. Or maybe he thinks the public is tired of sex scandals, real or contrived, and will lose interest, which is probably half true. The run-up to the Times story was messy and convoluted, and its twists and turns, still somewhat murky, say a lot about the nature of friendship in Washington.
Much of the story that emerged last week was not new. In January 2000, when McCain was challenging George W. Bush for the Republican nomination, The Boston Globe published a story detailing how McCain had written the FCC on behalf of Paxson. The story noted that Paxson was a major contributor to McCain, and quoted the then chairman of the FCC, William Kennard, calling McCain's letter "highly unusual" and suggesting that it was inappropriate. McCain's campaign responded by drowning reporters in documents showing that McCain had done nothing improper, and media interest soon dried up.
The Globe story had made no mention of Vicki Iseman. A lobbyist for telecom and tourism companies who opened doors with her friendly manner and good looks, Iseman was a familiar presence in the hallways around the Senate commerce committee. "You always wanted to be lobbied by Vicki," recalls one longtime Democratic committee aide who often invited her into his office and did not want to be identified acknowledging that he found her attractive. At the time, McCain was gearing up to run for president as the scourge of special interests. Iseman often chatted up McCain and, according to one account, boasted to other staffers and lobbyists about her access to the commerce-committee chairman. A McCain adviser watching the two talk at a political fund-raiser recalls wondering, why is this corporate lobbyist always around—and talking about it? "I remember being uncomfortable about it," says the adviser, who did not want to be identified talking about a sensitive matter.
Sometime last fall, a Times reporter, Jim Rutenberg, began making calls to committee staffers and lobbyists asking about Iseman and McCain. It is not clear what stimulated the Timesman's interest, but an earlier blow-up in the McCain camp may be relevant. In July, when McCain's campaign seemed to be running out of money and momentum, one of McCain's closest aides, John Weaver, was effectively forced out. He had quarreled with the current campaign manager, Rick Davis, a Washington lobbyist who appeals to McCain's more conventional, politically ambitious side. Weaver is a moody figure, a longtime soul brother of McCain's who served as a traveling companion (he even combed the senator's hair) and whose gloomy countenance earned him a typical McCain nickname: "Sunny."
In December, a reporter for the Times asked Weaver about Iseman. Weaver sent an e-mail—on the record—to the Times explaining that he had taken Iseman out to lunch at a restaurant in Union Station and told her to stay away from McCain. "She was going around blabbing" about her access to McCain and it was "hurtful" to the campaign, Weaver tells NEWSWEEK. He says he told Iseman, "You need to stop this," and that Iseman "got up and left. It was a short meeting." (A source familiar with her account, who did not want to be on the record talking about a sensitive matter, tells NEWSWEEK that Iseman acknowledged to associates a brief, unpleasant meeting with Weaver, but says the conversation had nothing to do with suggestions of an improper relationship. Weaver, the source says, was upset that Iseman had spoken to McCain after a political event about his performance. "It was a typical disagreement" that takes place during campaigns, says the source.) To NEWSWEEK, Weaver declared that he had not tipped off the Times about his confrontation with Iseman, and he insisted that he was not seeking to sabotage the McCain campaign. He noted that, in December, at the same time he was e-mailing the Times, he sent a copy of the e-mail to the McCain campaign. "I've always wanted John McCain to be president," Weaver says, adding that he still talks to McCain campaign aides and offers advice. Why did he respond to the Times? NEWSWEEK asked. "I'm not in the business of lying to reporters," he said.
On Dec. 20, the gossipy Drudge Report caught the attention of reporters in Washington with the headline: MEDIA FIREWORKS: MCCAIN PLEADS WITH NY TIMES TO SPIKE STORY. Drudge posted that McCain had hired Washington superlawyer Robert Bennett to "mount a bold defense against charges of giving special treatment to a lobbyist," identified as a woman who "may have helped to write key telecom legislation." Retaining Bennett is like waving a red flag to reporters. In the mid-1990s, he had been employed by President Clinton to fight charges of sexual harassment by Paula Jones. At Christmastime, McCain campaign adviser Charlie Black told reporters that McCain was bringing in a heavyweight to fend off the kind of low blows that had wounded McCain in the 2000 South Carolina primary. But a few—though by no means all —top McCain staffers suspected Weaver's hand in the Times investigation. "He is angry and embittered," says one adviser, who wished to remain anonymous talking about internal matters. (McCain continues to call Weaver "my friend.") By early January, journalists at Washington cocktail parties were trading gossip about the apparent hold on the McCain story at the Times. There were reports of battles between the Washington bureau and the editors in New York, hardly uncommon in large news organizations. Times executive editor Bill Keller was said to be demanding numerous rewrites—also not unusual on a sensitive story. Signs of strain at the Times emerged: on Jan. 10, the Times reporter covering McCain, Marc Santora, asked to be taken off the beat. He later told The New Republic: "The last thing I wanted was to be a pawn in this thing. I was exhausted and there were a lot of rumors flying around." One of the reporters on the McCain story, Marilyn Thompson, quit to return to her earlier employer, The Washington Post (she says her frustrations over the story were not the main reason).
Other news organizations, including NEWSWEEK, began poking around. Bennett, meanwhile, organized a massive document search and met with Times editors and reporters to show them that there were no smoking guns—that, indeed, McCain had on numerous occasions rebuffed lobbyists who were angling for favors. The campaign could find no record of either Iseman or her client, Paxson, meeting with McCain to ask for those letters to the FCC requesting a decision on the Pittsburgh TV station.
They seem to have overlooked sworn testimony by McCain himself in a lawsuit seeking to overturn the McCain-Feingold campaign-finance law. Lawyer Floyd Abrams, who was representing Sen. Mitch McConnell (a foe of campaign-finance restrictions), asked McCain in a deposition if Paxson had contacted him about the TV station. McCain replied: yes, he had. He agreed to write a letter prodding the FCC to decide—though he had added, "I can't ask for a favorable disposition for you." Abrams asked, "Did you speak to the company's lobbyist about these matters?" McCain said he couldn't recall "if it was Mr. Paxson or the company's lobbyist or both." The company's lobbyist was Iseman.
All winter long, reporters seeking to find out more about the relationship between Iseman and McCain tried to track down Mark Buse, who had been the commerce-committee chief of staff in 1999. Buse had become a lobbyist for a time but appeared to have left that job and gone to ground, or at least avoided the press. In recent weeks, however, Buse re-emerged. He had just been hired by McCain to run his Senate office. Buse tells NEWSWEEK that he recalled Iseman's coming by his office and leaving briefing material that was used by Buse to help draft letters under McCain's signature. Nothing unusual here, he says: "That's Lobbying 101."
The rumors about the Times story spread to Mitt Romney's campaign advisers, who began speculating about how the story might affect the campaign. Last week a leading Republican strategist, who did not wish to be identified expressing regret, hypothesized that if the McCain story had come out five weeks ago, before Super Tuesday, McCain would not be the presumptive nominee. What finally persuaded the Times to run the story? McCain spokesman Steve Schmidt told reporters that the Times was trying to stay a step ahead of The New Republic, which had assigned a reporter to look into why the Times was holding back. But Frank Foer, The New Republic's editor, said that he had no idea how he would have gotten his own magazine's story into print. The New Republic couldn't very well write about the Times's decision without mentioning the sex angle, Foer said, and TNR had no independent corroboration of the accusation. Indeed, the day after the Times story appeared, The New Republic ran its own story criticizing the Times for printing a salacious story thinly and anonymously sourced.
Keller, the Times's executive editor, somewhat blandly declared that his paper had run the story when it was "ready." His statement appeared aimed at rebutting speculation that the Times had been reluctant to run such a potentially game-changing story while the Republican race was still in doubt. McCain's advisers made a virtue out of necessity, and tried to turn the Times story into a way of winning back conservatives who had been doubtful about McCain—but hate the Times much more. From his radio studio, Rush Limbaugh wagged his finger while declaring that McCain, who is seen on the right as a darling of the "liberal" media, should learn his lesson: "A snake is a snake … The New York Times is The New York Times." McCain's adviser, Charlie Black, reveled: "For the first time in history, John McCain won talk radio." The campaign even used the Times story to craft a fund-raising appeal to help McCain fight back against the scurrilous press. The liberal media-bashing world of conservative talk radio is an odd alliance for McCain to make. But in Washington, the enemy of one's enemy can be one's friend—for a while, anyway.