Jonah Goldberg

"Senator John McCain of Arizona is the only Republican who promises to end the George Bush style of governing from and on behalf of a small, angry fringe. With a record of working across the aisle to develop sound bipartisan legislation, he would offer a choice to a broader range of Americans than the rest of the Republican field."

That's the New York Times endorsing McCain for the Republican nomination. It was written on January 25th.

A month earlier, it was reported that the Times was working on a story about an allegedly inappropriate relationship between the senator and a young female lobbyist. The information in the story, which the Times ran this week, seems no different than what was rumored to be in the piece when the Drudge Report learned of it two months earlier and the Washington Post investigated the Times' decision not to run it.

The "female" adjective is the supposed heart of the matter - the suggestion being that McCain traded political favors for non-political ones. Wink, wink.

McCain denies any wrongdoing, though for a man famous for his intemperateness, he was quite tempered in his denials.

Still, I'm inclined to believe McCain. The anonymous staffers used as sources in the piece, portrayed as disgruntled (is anyone ever merely "gruntled"?), offer no proof beyond their suspicions. The woman herself has neither confirmed any inappropriate relationship nor alleged any other improper behavior. But, I think it should be said that if the story were true, it wouldn't be trivial. McCain is arguably the premier "good government" Republican of the last 20 years. If he's pulling strings for lobbyists in exchange for a little after-hours baron-and-the-milkmaid action, he should be held accountable. And, as unfashionable as it is to say these days, adultery is wrong.

But, again, I'm willing to give McCain the benefit of the doubt.

What I'm confused about is why the New York Times splashed this story on page one as if it were of blockbuster importance. First of all, the Times is not known for its Comstockish disapproval of marital infidelity. Second, the Times would never have credited allegations of favoritism like this if the lobbyist in question were, say, the son of an old Navy buddy.

Really. Imagine if some fired former campaign aides came to the Times and said that McCain's poker buddy cajoled the senator into writing a routine letter to a regulator about something or other. Would that have risen to the level of a front-page story worthy of capsizing the presumptive nominee's presidential bid and ruining his reputation? Would it have even been a story at all?

Of course not. Ah, but sex sells, some will say. Sex is different. Sex gets people all worked up.

That's true, of course, but that's not how the Times claims to operate. There are, alas, no British-tabloid topless "page three girls" in the New York Times.

Then there's the question: Why McCain? After all, somewhat similar allegations about recent Democratic nominees were precisely the sort of thing that the Times scrupulously avoided as trash journalism. And the Times' attitude toward Bill Clinton's various sex scandals was hardly one of unbridled enthusiasm.

During those years, the Gray Lady published many, many articles lamenting the fever of "sexual McCarthyism" in American politics. It seems that such concerns are unwarranted if the subject is a Republican.

But the most curious thing remains that endorsement. The editors of the Times argued that the best Republican in the field was John McCain. Those same editors knew of these allegations. They clearly did not think such innuendo was important enough for them to hedge their support for the Arizona senator.

Of course, these very liberal editors were offering merely a nominal endorsement of the least objectionable Republican by their lights. This is a very loaded grading system, akin to designation as the best Oktoberfest in Orlando.

But still, McCain was their choice, even though they knew of these allegations and, given what we know about what went on behind the scenes, believed they were true.

Presumably the argument went something like this. There's no direct proof that the sexual relationship ever existed and, even if it did, marital infidelity isn't our business. And besides, if true, the underlying implied impropriety - writing a routine letter to the FCC - is hardly a serious transgression. McCain could have done this for plenty of reasons, including because he thought it was the right the thing to do. In short, his overall qualifications dwarf the allegations in this story.

Assuming I'm right, it's telling that this was a strong enough argument for picking McCain as "the best choice for the party's presidential nomination," but nowhere near strong enough to prevent the Times from using the same information to destroy that same Republican once he'd all but sewed up the nomination.

It's an interesting double standard, no?


Jonah Goldberg

Jonah Goldberg is editor-at-large of National Review Online,and the author of the book The Tyranny of Clichés. You can reach him via Twitter @JonahNRO.
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