Servatius: The scandals of John McCain

By David Servatius

I know he mumbles out of the side of his mouth a lot lately, but did any of you understand that? Senator Straight Talk did not have sexual relations with that woman, the lobbyist! No thong snapping, no cigars and no blue dresses. And that will be all he has to say about the matter, thank you very much.

Poor John McCain has been feeling some heat recently after The New York Times reported that several of his campaign aides were forced to intervene in what they described as an “inappropriate” relationship with lobbyist Vicki Iseman during his failed 2000 White House run.

Shortly after the story was published, the likely 2008 Republican presidential nominee held an obligatory, finger-wagging press conference with his bewildered-looking wife in tow and was, naturally, shocked and appalled that the paper would dare to dig into his sex life. Nice try.

The issue, of course, is not the sex. That is a matter for his family, and the rest of us should butt out and get a life if that is what interests us. What we are right to be interested in, however, is whether the relationship interfered with his job as a U.S. senator and if any special treatment resulted. This was a lobbyist, after all — not an intern.

The evidence so far points to a handful of questionable yet ultimately benign favors being done by McCain for the companies Iseman represented at the time — really nothing more than the “business as usual” in Washington D.C. that he is so contemptuous of, at least in his rhetoric.

What is more troubling is that the episode seems to be part of a larger pattern for the Arizona senator. The whole thing brings to mind another, earlier relationship between McCain and a lobbyist that was not only inappropriate but also ruined the lives of thousands of innocent people.

During the deregulated 1980s, careless investment practices caused the collapse of the entire savings and loan industry and led to a costly government bailout. In 1987, flamboyant Arizona mega-developer and anti-porn crusader Charles Keating found himself in the middle of the mess and in need of some help. His Lincoln Savings and Loan company was under heavy scrutiny from federal regulators and facing the threat of seizure.

John McCain enjoyed a cozy relationship with Keating dating back to 1981, when the two met at a Navy League dinner and became fast friends. By the time Keating needed help in 1987, McCain had served in the U.S. House of Representatives and was newly elected to the Senate from Arizona. In that time, Keating contributed more than $112,000 to McCain’s various political campaigns. He also flew the McCain family to the Bahamas on his private jet on several occasions and worked out a sweetheart shopping mall deal with Cindy McCain, the senator’s wife.

The Arizona Republic reported, “As federal auditors crawled all over Lincoln, Keating was not content to wait and hope for the best. He’d spread a lot of money around Washington, and it was time to call in his chits.”

And when he called, John McCain delivered. He and four other senators, who would come to be known as The Keating Five, quickly arranged a series of meetings with members of the Federal Home Loan Bank Board, the agency handling the investigation. Board Chairman Ed Gray said at those meetings, he was blatantly pressured by McCain and the others to go easy on Lincoln.

The pressure resulted in a two year delay in federal regulators’ seizure of Lincoln. By the time it finally happened in 1989, the cost of the bailout to taxpayers had grown to $2.6 billion. More than 17,000 people lost $190 million of their hard-earned money — money they had entrusted to Keating for their retirements, their weddings, their children’s educations and their parent’s medical emergencies. Money they had trusted John McCain and the federal regulators to protect.

Granted, McCain has expressed regret in the years since and has claimed over and over that he learned a hard lesson as a young politician. Did he? Or was that just something that sounded good at the moment? You see, the problem with what he claims is that these two incidents seem to have a clarifying synchronicity about them.

Not only does the Keating affair make it very easy to believe the worst allegations in the Iseman affair, but the Iseman affair makes it very hard to believe McCain’s earnest talk about regrets and lessons learned in the wake of the Keating affair.

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