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The McCain Excuse

I've been thinking about this John McCain/Vicki Iseman thing ever since the New York Times broke it, off and on, and I think I've finally got a handle on it. What's more, I think that if I'm right, it casts an interesting light on one of the earlier incidents of John McCain's political life. If you don't know what I'm talking about at all, be patient; I'll explain. But first, some background.

The first thing I want to point out about John McCain, in this context, is that he is a famously lousy liar. John McCain doesn't actually lie very often. And we know this because on the rare occasions that he does lie, even in front of the most gullible audiences, he just can't sell it. His body language and his face and his tone of voice completely give him away: "I don't believe any of this," they say, "I'm just saying it because somebody told me I have to." For example: John McCain hates the religious right, and it's mutual. (I count this as a good thing about him.) And has said so, over and over again. And so they have used the fact that they make up almost the entire volunteer base of the Republican Party to sabotage every presidential bid he's made. So a couple of years ago, he made the trek to a miserable little horribly backwards and bitterly racist hell-hole called Bob Jones University that just so happens to be one of the schools most respected and beloved by the religious right ... and told them he was their kind of people, that he loved and respected them, that he wanted to be their kind of a president. Nor was he the first politician to lie to them. Reagan, who really didn't care squat about anything the religious right cared about except anti-communism, blew smoke up their backsides and they loved it. Even after they'd been lied to, they believed the same lie when the elder George Bush, who has always held religious fundamentalists in contempt, came and told it to them, and he wasn't even any good at it. This is a gullible audience. They want to believe that a Republican front-runner who tells them he's on their side is telling the truth. Heck, they halfway believed it when Rudy Giuliani said it, that's how gullible they are -- and they didn't buy it when McCain was selling it.

This raises the interest prospect that John McCain is telling the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, or as much of the truth as he knows, when he says that there is no romantic relationship between him and telecom industry lobbyist Victoria Iseman, that he and she never discussed business, and that he never did her any favors that he wouldn't do for anybody else who asked. At least two of those things are plainly false, but McCain clearly very sincerely believes them. And that, and if I'm right the reasons why he does, say some very interesting things about John McCain's character. Things that explain the Keating Five scandal very, very well. But first, back to Vicki Iseman.

Shortly after John McCain got enough seniority in the Senate to get a plum political assignment that he wanted, to get the assignment as the chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee in 1997, he just "coincidentally" met a woman named Vicki Iseman who just "coincidentally" happened to be a former cheerleader, an elementary education major in college, and who "coincidentally" looked eerily like Cindy McCain did back when John McCain married her, when Cindy McCain was at her most attractive to him -- and who happened to be, despite total lack of telecom credentials and astonishingly few years in the lobbying business, a partner in the big-name lobbying firm of Alcalde & Fay. From all accounts, she found the senator fascinating, worshiped the ground he walked on him, wanted to be with him at all times, went with him on all his trips, and spent so much time trying to snuggle up close to him in public, touching him in small but intimate ways, hanging on his every word, and gazing adoringly up into his eyes that it freaked out McCain's staff. She never wanted to talk about her job or her clients or herself, all she wanted to do was get John to talk about himself, her new favorite subject. And whatever John said, she found something to praise about it.

Look. If you're an ugly old turtle with a famously bad temper and no people skills, and a woman who just happens to match what everybody knows to be your taste in women comes over from a lobbying firm and into your life only after you become the most powerful man in America as it relates to the industry they lobbied for? And her day job, when she's on the clock, is to follow you around and worship you continuously, and her employer is okay with getting billed by her for that? She's not your friend. She's a bribe. McCain says there was no romantic relationship; one must assumes this means that he didn't have sex with her, either. One wonders just how much of a relief this was to her, to find out that this was just a "talk job," and just what her real job entailed if McCain had shown any interest in doing so? But whether she's an actual hooker or just a professional (fake) worshiper there to prop up his ego, one thing is absolutely clear. It never occured to McCain that he was being played. On the contrary, that she thought John McCain was the most wonderful guy in the world only struck him as proof of her good sense. And so if someone has the "obvious" intelligence and good sense needed to recognize what so few in the world recognize, namely how handsome and important and brilliant and dedicated and skilled and destined to lead John McCain really is, then to John McCain, this must actually be a pretty intelligent and pretty discerning person.

I'd heard it alleged by people with their own personal grudges about McCain that he's a sucker for flattery, but they were all people with obvious axes to grind. Here we see it laid bare: no matter how thick she laid it on with a trowel, McCain never took it as anything but intelligent commentary about his insufficiently appreciated virtues. And since this good looking (to him) woman was one of the only women in Washington smart enough to understand how wonderful he was, if she, oh, you know, just happened later to mention some just sad problems that her firm's clients were having with federal agencies that were very vulnerable to being threatened by John McCain's committees, I'm sure it was so obvious to him that if someone as "smart" as Vicki Iseman said it then it must be true and need no further investigation. Which explains why he did it, why he doesn't remember that the ideas originated with her, and why he denies it was any kind of a favor. By now, he probably remembers that it was his own idea in the first place ... if she's any good at what she really does for a living.

And suddenly, the Keating Five scandal snaps into place. Between 1982 and 1987, famous anti-porn crusader Charles Keating, Jr., whose day job was running a savings and loan that was deeply corrupt, gave $112,000 in campaign contributions to John McCain, and similar or larger donations to four other congressmen and senators, all of whom (like McCain) had committee appointments in areas where they had power over S&L regulators, or who were home-state politicians in a good position to intimidate or threaten local federal prosecutors. The other four of them, including hero astronaut turned senator John Glenn, had their careers go down in flames. John McCain kept insisting that he'd done nothing wrong, that he had to have it explained to him why anybody even thought it was wrong. And now, I think, we see why. Because somehow, you just know that every time Charles Keating gave McCain a big, fat check he explained that this wasn't a bribe, this is my way of funding your very important work, because you are so wise, and so smart, and so politically ingenious, and so right on every issue that it's just that important to me that you get this money to do with whatever you want. And if you say that to everybody else, to anybody else, they know that you're lying, that money that big for nothing doesn't come without the expectation that some day, you're going to be asked for a favor. But as Vicki Iseman also found out, not John McCain. So no, when a guy like Charles Keating asks John McCain to write a letter on his behalf because he's being "unfairly" targeted by prosecutors and regulators, no, John McCain doesn't smarten up and realize that Keating thinks he's entitled to this favor because of all that money. No, John McCain thinks that a guy who is so obviously as smart as Keating is, since Keating is one of the only people who appreciates McCain, and who puts his money where his mouth is, must obviously be on the up-and-up. Obviously.

Whatever else he is, as soon as you start flattering him, John McCain instantly becomes too dumb to tell that you're playing him. Call it The McCain Excuse: "I've never been bribed, because I'm too dumb to know when it's a bribe." You know what? If, as appears to be the case, that's true, it is something we really needed to know about John McCain this year.


( 32 comments — Leave a comment )
Mar. 13th, 2008 10:35 am (UTC)
We had a City Council member here in Minneapolis who tried the same excuse in his own bribery trial. He's currently living in the federal penn, so that defense didn't work so well for him. (FBI, wikipedia) To this day, he has a small but fiercely loyal band of followers who insist that the money he got wasn't a bribe, it was just a personal reward for him being such a great guy.

Mar. 13th, 2008 12:14 pm (UTC)
That sounds like a pretty terminal quality as far as whether or not McCain is White House material. It sounds like an invitation to corruption and foreign policy problems.

It might also explain why the media generally have such a goopy crush on McCain: some of the same dynamic seems to be operating, just not with money. Even on top of the usual situation (the 30-year campaign to condition the media to be reality-averse), they love McCain. I wonder if this is part of the reason for that.
Mar. 13th, 2008 01:03 pm (UTC)
"...if she's any good at what she really does for a living"
As of this morning, the Wikipedia entry on her career read:

"Within months of graduation, Iseman joined a friend in Washington, D.C. and initially got a job as a receptionist at Alcalde & Fay. After a few months, she approached the president of Alcalde & Fay and said "I’m a college graduate and I’d like you to consider me for a secretarial or an administrative position." The president agreed to a three-month trial and within a year she became his special assistant.[5]

"From this position, Iseman learned about lobbying from the firm's president, and soon became a lobbyist in her own right. Eight years later, she became the youngest partner in the history of Alcalde & Fay."

So it looks like she got the job by a demonstration of those skills.
Mar. 13th, 2008 02:33 pm (UTC)
This is interesting stuff. Mind if I link?
Mar. 13th, 2008 10:45 pm (UTC)
You may always link.
Mar. 13th, 2008 02:35 pm (UTC)
Are there any of the stated goals or principles of the Christian Right that McCain doesn't stand foursquare behind? McCain always sounded to me like he was ready and willing to give the Christian Right everything they wanted except personal obeisance to the leaders of the movement.
Mar. 13th, 2008 02:47 pm (UTC)
Offhand, he was opposed to the defense of marriage amendment.

Could not the same charges be leveled at Barack Obama and his Rezko dealings?
FMA - gleef - Mar. 13th, 2008 06:46 pm (UTC) - Expand
Re: FMA - awesomescampi - Mar. 13th, 2008 10:19 pm (UTC) - Expand
Re: FMA - morgaath - Mar. 14th, 2008 05:03 am (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - bradhicks - Mar. 13th, 2008 10:57 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - gleef - Mar. 15th, 2008 12:23 am (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - bradhicks - Mar. 15th, 2008 01:39 am (UTC) - Expand
Mar. 13th, 2008 03:19 pm (UTC)
Just to Point Out
The times did not claim he was having an affair with her.
Too many people have read that into the statement.
Mar. 13th, 2008 03:19 pm (UTC)
You're right: John McCain is a terrible liar. Everyone knows his tell, the dead giveaway that he is telling a lie....

His lips move.
Mar. 13th, 2008 04:13 pm (UTC)
Naw. That's Bush. I think McCain actually believes what he says at any given moment. Even if it contradicts what he said five minutes earlier.
(no subject) - bradhicks - Mar. 13th, 2008 10:58 pm (UTC) - Expand
Mar. 13th, 2008 03:44 pm (UTC)
oh my gosh!!!
you are SO right!
this totally nails what's been nagging at me when i watch him in these strange scenarios!
Mar. 13th, 2008 04:19 pm (UTC)
This is a pretty good job of political analysis
The question is what the hell we do about it. It aint news that politics attracts emotional cripples.
Don't suppose that the Eric Russel suggestional that every candidate should be given a clean bill of health by a psycologist has legs?
Mar. 13th, 2008 10:48 pm (UTC)
Re: This is a pretty good job of political analysis
I'd forgotten that one. It does have its attractions, doesn't it? You have to have a pretty big ego to make it as far as the top tier in politics. But what's weird if this is true is that according to Stengel's history or flattery, You're Too Kind, it's the people with low self-esteem but high status who crave flattery.
Mar. 13th, 2008 04:52 pm (UTC)
This makes a hell of a lot of sense.

One thing occurs to me, though: if someone is a notoriously bad liar when they know they're lying, yet they can easily convince themselves that they're telling the truth, doesn't that make them an especially GOOD liar? In an odd sort of way, I mean?
Mar. 13th, 2008 08:43 pm (UTC)
great, a lying savant, but first rule is he can't know he's lying. Just what american politics needs: someone who lies to himself just as earnestly as he lies to america.
(no subject) - flewellyn - Mar. 13th, 2008 08:48 pm (UTC) - Expand
Mar. 14th, 2008 04:00 am (UTC)
I've added you to my FL, if you don't mind.
Mar. 14th, 2008 07:39 pm (UTC)
Gods, Jon - you mean he wasn't on it already? You two are made for each other! :)
(no subject) - jblaque - Mar. 14th, 2008 08:48 pm (UTC) - Expand
Mar. 14th, 2008 09:24 pm (UTC)
I'm impressed at your fairness
Given the emphatic unhappiness you expressed at McCain's selling out on the torture bill, I am surprised you were so objective in your analysis. May your power increase. (and for its worth, the argument sounds plausible to me.)(Much as his character is tarnished by this reversal, give him props, he's the only big name Republican who's pro immigrant from principle: he seems to believe that if Big Business is constantly hiring illegals then they are voting with their dollars as to what the law should be. Thus having laws that fly in the face of this clearly expressed wish of the governed is foolish...or that was my impression, you've studied US politics way more than I have, is that incorrect?)
Mar. 15th, 2008 01:38 am (UTC)
Re: I'm impressed at your fairness
I can make so little sense out of John McCain's position in immigration that I have concluded that it is an issue he really doesn't care about. Maybe I'm wrong, but nothing he's ever said on the subject betrayed any evidence of having thought about it much, he's never shown any passion on the subject one way or another, he seems to blow with the wind on it.

But for what it's worth, I've argued from long experience that it's pretty darned near totally useless to judge candidates based on their stated positions on the issues. What I'm a lot more interested in is knowing, not what decisions they've made, but, how they make decisions. Who do they listen to? How do they evaluate arguments? What values do they prioritize? What counts as evidence, in their minds? How do they react if later evidence suggests that they might have been wrong? The answers to those questions will tell you a lot more about how a candidate will perform in office than any checklist of issues positions.
( 32 comments — Leave a comment )