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McCain and the Times: The Real Questions
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By Michael Kinsley
Monday, February 25, 2008 11:50 AM

I have come under some criticism for my criticism of the New York Times for its criticism of Sen. John McCain. Many readers of last week's New York Times article about McCain, including me, read that article as suggesting that Sen. McCain may have had an affair with a lobbyist eight years ago. The Times, however, has made clear that its story was not about an affair with a lobbyist. Its story was about the possibility that eight years ago, aides to McCain had held meetings with McCain to warn him about the appearance that he might be having an affair with the lobbyist.

This is obviously a much more important question. To be absolutely clear: the Times itself was not suggesting that there had been an affair, or even that there had been the appearance of an affair. The Times was reporting that there was a time eight years ago when some people felt there might be the appearance of an affair, although others, apparently including Sen. McCain himself, apparently felt that there was no such appearance.

Similarly, I am not accusing the New York Times of screwing up again by publishing an insufficiently sourced article then defending itself with a preposterous assertion that it wasn't trying to imply what it obviously was trying to imply. I am merely reporting that some people worry that other people might be concerned that the New York Times has created the appearance of screwing up once again.

What I wrote was that some people had expressed concern that the Times article might have created the appearance of charging that McCain had had an affair. My critics have charged that I was charging the Times with charging McCain with having had an affair. Such a charge would be unfair to the New York Times, since the Times article, if you read it carefully (very carefully), does not make any charge against McCain except that people in a meeting eight years ago had suggested that other people eight years ago might reach a conclusion -- about which the Times expressed no view whatsoever -- that McCain was having an affair.

I have no evidence to suggest that the New York Times suggested with no evidence that Sen. McCain was having an affair. I was merely pointing out that by running an article that goes on at great length about some meeting eight years ago, and that seems to have no point except to imply that Sen. McCain was having an affair with a lobbyist, the newspaper may have created for some people (not me, of course) an appearance of suggesting that Sen. McCain had enjoyed an affair with a lobbyist.

Rejecting all opportunities to fudge, McCain's campaign has called the story "phony" and the candidate himself has said bluntly that he did not have any such affair. But that is not the question. The question is whether he has created the possibility of an appearance of having such an affair. After all, McCain knows how to make things clear when he wants to.

For example, as the Times reports (a bit late), on Friday, Dec. 10, 1999, McCain wrote a letter to the chairman of the FCC demanding action on two Pittsburgh television licenses of interest to his friend and contributor, Bud Paxson. Paxson was also a client of the lobbyist with whom McCain may have created the possibility of an appearance of having an affair that he wasn't having. In this letter, McCain demanded -- a bit imperiously for a man who wasn't having an affair with a lobbyist -- that "each member of the commission" write to him "no later than the close of business on Tuesday, December 14, 1999, whether you have already acted upon these applications┬┐" and if not, "whether you will, or will not, be prepared to act" by Dec. 15. And he wanted these answers in writing. He would accept no oral communications.

But McCain added: "I emphasize that my purpose is not to suggest in any way how you should vote -- merely that you vote." And no one can doubt that the members of the commission, as they wrote on the chalk board 500 times, "I will vote before next Tuesday on two TV license applications from Paxson Communications, I will vote before next Tuesday on two TV license applications from Paxson Communications┬┐," had absolutely no idea how McCain (who was chairman of the Commerce Committee) might want them to vote on these applications. Indeed it is clear from this letter that McCain himself had absolutely no opinion on how the commission should vote on this issue of concern to his friend, and to the woman with whom he was creating the appearance of having an affair. McCain clearly wasn't attempting to influence the commission's vote one way or another.

More troubling, however, is the issue of whether McCain's letter may have led some people to worry that other people might conclude that McCain's letter created the appearance of a conflict of interest, as well as the issue of whether the New York Times, in digging up this eight-year-old letter, was creating the possibility that some people might think there was a possibility of an appearance that the Times was suggesting the possibility of an appearance of a potential conflict of interest in McCain's behavior, along with the most distressing possibility of all: that in this very article I may be creating the possibility that some people might worry that other people might think that I have created the appearance of suggesting that the New York Times has created the possibility that some people might worry that other people might think that McCain has created the appearance that some people might worry that other people might think that there could be an appearance that McCain was having an affair with a lobbyist.

These are the real questions that we, as a nation, face. Nobody cares whether McCain was having an affair with a lobbyist.

Michael Kinsley is a columnist for Time magazine and washingtonpost.com.

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