Many innocent electrons have been spilt in discussions of John McCain’s apparent dalliance with a lobbyist from Paxson Communication. The discourse has largely focused on whether he had an affair (probably), and whether the New York Times and Washington Post did the right thing in reporting on it (definitely).
I say he probably had an affair not only because of what the Times and Post reported, but because McCain’s two wives look quite similar to each other (and to the lobbyist), and because his first marriage ended because of an affair with his second wife. In 1979, Steve Benen reminds us, “McCain was still married and living with his wife ? while ? ‘aggressively courting a 25-year-old woman who was as beautiful as she was rich.’ McCain divorced his wife, who had raised their three children while he was imprisoned in Vietnam, then launched his political career with his new wife’s family money.” They married a month after his divorce.
So McCain is a known philanderer, and it wouldn’t be entirely surprising if he had a fling with the lobbyist. At least, the affair wouldn’t be surprising. What is disturbing is how much of what he did with and for her was considered legal and ethical. Here’s the Times’ account of such actions:
turning up with him at fund-raisers, visiting his offices and accompanying him on a client?s corporate jet. ? Mr. McCain had written letters to government regulators on behalf of the lobbyist?s client,? Her clients contributed tens of thousands of dollars to his campaigns.
What ended her access to McCain was not the sense that she might be buying his vote on issues of concern to those clients, but, according to the Times:
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.
The propriety of his voting pattern or the corrosive influence of money on the Senator is not mentioned. The idea that he might be having an affair was their main concern. Secondarily, they worried about political messaging:
?Our political messaging during that time period centered around taking on the special interests and placing the nation?s interests before either personal or special interest,? [senior McCain advisor] Mr. Weaver continued. ?Ms. Iseman?s involvement in the  campaign, it was felt by us, could undermine that effort.?
Could undermine the presidential campaign, not the public trust or the Senator’s ability to evaluate legislation. That’s a telling omission. McCain’s defense?
Mr. McCain said that the relationship was not romantic and that he never showed favoritism to Ms. Iseman or her clients. ?I have never betrayed the public trust by doing anything like that,? he said.
The defense, then, is not that he didn’t do favors for her or her clients, but merely that he gave her the same sorts of favors he gave to other lobbyists.
That’s disgraceful. Some candidates might be able to say that campaign contributions (or a sexual relationship?) wouldn’t affect their voting pattern, but it’s much harder for McCain to make that case. He is, after all, the champion of campaign finance reform, and just last November, insisted “I?m the only one the special interests don?t give any money to.”
Why would he care about that if he didn’t think that money bought influence? Not, of course, quid pro quo, since that would be bribery. But the sort of soft feeling of obligation that ensures lobbyists have a politician’s ear at a key moment, and that their advice is weighted more heavily than it otherwise might be.
This is a sad state of affairs, when even a former champion of clean government cannot see any problem in the sort of access that a lobbyist was able to purchase.
Needless to say, this is a key reason why I hope Larry Lessig runs for office. I know that politicians all take money from special interests, and I know that there are other standards by which we can judge the excellence of a candidate. But until we have a system where access to our leaders is allocated not on the basis of financial wherewithal, but on the basis of legitimate need, our government will continue to fail us all in crucial ways. Lessig sees the problem, and his stature and station give him a degree of independence that will permit him to champion genuine reform. He won’t finish the job in one or two terms, and even if he leaves office in a couple years, the time inside the system will make him a more effective advocate. I’d love to see more public intellectuals try their hand at practical governance, and Lessig is the perfect person to chart a new course for the nation and for politically-minded academics.
The system is broken, and nothing will change while the same corporate interests control the same sorts of politicians.