February 21st, 2008
07:52 PM ET

McCain, the Times, and the Lobbyist

Some 24 hours after the New York Times posted the McCain story on its web site, here's where I sense that things stand:

The story itself has plenty of smoke but absolutely no evidence of any fire.  Both the Senator and the woman in question have denied the underlying allegations - that (a) they had a romantic relationship and (b) that he did favors for her as a lobbyist.  Several others around the Senator have also issued similar, strong denials.  No one  - not a single source, named or unnamed - has come forward with a shred of evidence to show that their denials are wrong. 


Under the circumstances - and given John McCain's long and honorable record of serving his country - I believe that most Americans will more than give him the benefit of the doubt.  Unless someone comes forward soon with something concrete, the Senator emerges from this unscathed with the general voting public.  

Indeed, it is increasingly clear that among conservatives, this episode is actually serving to strengthen him.  Look at the way his detractors like Rush Limbaugh rallied around him today.  Many of them hate the Times, and even though they do not love McCain, the enemy of their enemy is now their friend. 

McCain's team has also been adroit at turning the Times itself into a growing issue.  Personally, I think the criticisms of the Times that it intentionally sat on the story to protect McCain in the early primaries and then dumped it out on him now has no basis in fact - or at least any facts that we know so far.  The Times, like most news organizations on controversial stories, has to work hard to make sure it has enough solid sourcing before it goes with the story. And when that is in hand, it goes. Note that in all the denials today of any fire, there wasn't much of a denial about the smoke - the allegation from unnamed sources that some of his aides became convinced that there was an underlying story; the fact that John Weaver and the woman in question have both said there was a meeting to tell her to get lost actually lends a little credence to the idea that some aides were worried about appearances. 

So, the Times did have something.  It is a much harder question whether, given how little they had, they should have held the story altogether.  I can imagine that was a very tough call within the newsroom - journalists do publish such smoky stories a lot (just ask the Clintons, who were pummeled by such stories, some from the Times).  But it is also very understandable that the Senator and his team were outraged - if there is no evidence of any underlying story, doesn't a story like this seem terribly unfair, even a smear, as they argued?  This is where the world of journalism collides with the world of politics - each has its own values, its own culture, its own set of standards.  Personally, if in the newsroom, I would have voted to spike the story unless and until something concrete appeared.  But I also know that among many outstanding journalists, not just at the Times, the vote would have gone the other way.

For now, unless another shoe drops, John McCain goes forward with a more united base than he had 24 hours ago.

-David Gergen, 360° Contributor

Filed under: David Gergen • John McCain • Raw Politics • Top Stories
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