The Newspaper and the Senator

By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, February 21, 2008; 9:03 AM

The New York Times dropped a bombshell on John McCain last night, questioning his past relationship with a female lobbyist.

How much does the paper have? Why did it wait until now? And how will the story play out?

I reported on the first hints of this in December, when the Arizona Republican hired criminal attorney Robert Bennett to help handle the Times inquiry. "What is being done to John McCain is an outrage," Bennett told me then.

I wrote in The Post that the matter involved whether McCain had done legislative favors for a Washington lobbyist and her clients. The Times effort had leaked onto the Drudge Report. I didn't mention the rumors of a possible personal relationship because I had no proof and didn't know what, if anything, the Times had.

Bennett went on Fox News Channel's "Hannity & Colmes" last night to denounce the story, and Sean Hannity joined in the denunciation.

McCain's spokeswoman Jill Hazelbaker said in a statement last night: "It is a shame that the New York Times has lowered its standards to engage in a hit and run smear campaign . . . Americans are sick and tired of this kind of gutter politics."

Less than three hours after the Times posted its piece, The Washington Post, which had also been pursuing the allegations, put up its version.

The first thing to know about the Times piece is that both McCain and the lobbyist, Vicki Iseman, deny there was any romantic relationship. So it's not a Monica Lewinsky or Gennifer Flowers situation. And whatever happened, or didn't happen, took place eight years ago.

Iseman, a telecommunications lobbyist, "had been turning up with him at fund-raisers, visiting his offices and accompanying him on a client's corporate jet," the Times says. "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. . . .

"To his advisers, even the appearance of a close bond with a lobbyist whose clients often had business before the Senate committee Mr. McCain led threatened the story of redemption and rectitude that defined his political identity."

In early 1999, "Mr. McCain and Ms. Iseman attended a small fund-raising dinner with several clients at the Miami-area home of a cruise-line executive and then flew back to Washington along with a campaign aide on the corporate jet of one of her clients, Paxson Communications. By then, according to two former McCain associates, some of the senator's advisers had grown so concerned that the relationship had become romantic that they took steps to intervene.

"A former campaign adviser described being instructed to keep Ms. Iseman away from the senator at public events, while a Senate aide recalled plans to limit Ms. Iseman's access to his offices. . . . Both said Mr. McCain acknowledged behaving inappropriately and pledged to keep his distance from Ms. Iseman."

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