Michael Gerson

Second, McCain categorically denies that members of his staff approached him to raise questions about his relationship. This kind of warning, by the way, would not be uncommon in Washington. On Capitol Hill in particular, sexual rumors spread like the flu, even when they are without basis. Lawmakers sometimes must limit or end entirely proper friendships because of appearances. And staffers are paid, in part, to consider those appearances.

But the Times makes its case based on statements from two disgruntled former McCain associates, who are anonymous in the article. This is thin evidence on which to hang a serious charge. Their stories eventually could be substantiated -- and I assume other news organizations will try. But as it stands now, there is every reason to take McCain's word over unknown sources.

Third, McCain categorically denies improperly using his position on the Commerce Committee to help his lobbyist friend. Some letters were sent urging the resolution of issues for her client. Some plane trips were offered and taken. Such ethical issues often involve judgment calls. And my judgment is that such practices were common at the time. A few of McCain's colleagues on Capitol Hill are probably quietly pleased that Mr. Ethics is human after all -- his sanctimony on these issues has a price. But I called a lobbyist -- no friend of McCain's -- who insisted that McCain is "well known to be the most difficult senator to influence in any way. He is not a fraud."

Politics can be a mortifying profession, exposing human flaws like a confessional equipped with a lie detector. The first responsibility of presidential candidates is to be completely forthright about their past with their spouse, with their campaign staff and with themselves -- and to assume that all secrets will someday be unveiled. Americans, it turns out, will forgive most things -- except for self-serving deception.

But at this point, it is the Times and not the candidate that should be mortified. If this is all the Times has -- sexual innuendo and anonymous sources -- it really is a scandal.

Michael Gerson

Michael Gerson writes a twice-weekly column for The Post on issues that include politics, global health, development, religion and foreign policy. Michael Gerson is the author of the book "Heroic Conservatism" and a contributor to Newsweek magazine.
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