Clay Waters

Like the chilly weather that blew through New York City this week after a mild winter, the New York Times' recent cooling toward John McCain marks a profound switch from the paper's years of warm and fuzzy coverage of the moderate "maverick."

The paper's temperature shift occurred soon after the Wisconsin primary, when McCain openly suggested he would be the GOP nominee and began to set his sights on his likely opponent Barack Obama. The scandal winds are blowing down predictable avenues of attack -- streets conveniently bypassed when McCain was an underdog maverick facing more conservative candidates in the GOP primary process.

Rumblings about McCain's well-known temper got a fresh blast of cold air in a February 17 story by Mark Leibovich: "…fellow senators and staff members cite more recent dust-ups involving profanities, red-faced exchanges and quick-trigger reactions."

Things really got cold with the now-infamous February 21 front-page story that used two anonymous sources to make blurry allegations against McCain -- not of an affair, but of the appearance that there might have been one -- with telecom lobbyist Vicki Iseman. To give the unsubstantiated sex story some false weight, the Times intimated routine dealings with telecom lobbyists were somehow more sinister (without including exculpatory evidence provided by the McCain campaign).

The story included the first mention of the Keating Five by a Times reporter since April 3, 2003. Coincidence?

For a lengthy piece with an extended incubation (Drudge reported rumors of it back in December), what the Times finally delivered was surprisingly shallow, and was immediately left for dead. Executive Editor Bill Keller would not put forward anyone to defend the story and the "bombshell" backfired, accomplishing for McCain something no number of conciliatory CPAC speeches could have done -- the uniting of conservatives behind him.

Undaunted, the February 24 edition voiced concern about McCain's advanced age. Reporter Michael Cooper didn't beat around the bush: "The quest to win the presidency at an age when he would be too old to be a commercial airline pilot or even a judge in some states has already led Mr. McCain to adopt a more grueling campaign schedule, and a more vigorous style, than several of his younger rivals….But he does have white hair, scars from a bout with melanoma and limited flexibility from the injuries he sustained as a prisoner of war in Vietnam. And the fact remains that by the end of a second McCain term, he would be in his 80s."

Of course, McCain had all that when the Times was heralding him with headlines like these:

January 7: "Retracing His Steps, McCain Is Feeling Rejuvenated"

Clay Waters

Clay Waters is the director of Times Watch, a project of the Media Research Center that keeps tabs on the liberal bias of the New York Times.