Michael Gerson

TOLEDO -- I headed out to Ohio on the campaign trail with John McCain in order to gather a little local color -- and ended up bathed in neon rainbows. The day after I arrived, McCain was forced, with wife Cindy at his side, to deny allegations of infidelity with a Washington lobbyist and improper influence on her behalf.

As the news conference began, a squinting McCain complained that the "lights are too bright." In a modern presidential campaign, they are bright indeed.

Sitting among the journalists, I experienced something like a flashback from a forgotten war. Late in the 2000 election campaign, Gov. George W. Bush -- whom I worked for at the time -- was forced to admit a youthful DUI conviction, which reinforced a public image of frat-boy recklessness. The Bush campaign questioned the timing and source of the revelation -- both of which were questionable -- but police reports are usually accurate.

Now the question arises: Is the New York Times story?

In his remarks, McCain's manner was restrained -- the lava bubbled; the volcano did not blow. Yet he managed to dramatically raise the stakes of his confrontation with the Times by essentially accusing the newspaper of shoddy, inaccurate journalism.

If McCain is correct, the Times has committed a serious act of journalistic malpractice. If the Times is correct, McCain has shimmied out onto a very dangerous limb.

So far, McCain has gotten the better of the argument.

First, McCain categorically denies an inappropriate relationship with the lobbyist in question, who denies the charge as well.

Even if the accusation of infidelity were true, this kind of past relationship is hardly disqualifying for high office anymore, given a series of more prurient precedents. An affair between adults is a far cry from President Bill Clinton's exploitation of an intern, which involved not merely a failure of character but also an abuse of power.

But the Times did not even make a direct accusation of infidelity. It just implied that about nine years ago something hot and heavy was going on -- reporting that unnamed McCain staffers were concerned about an inappropriate relationship. Without the sexual angle of the story, questionable letters from the chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee to regulators would not rate the front page of the New York Times. But the sexual angle is unsubstantiated -- no incriminating poems, no torrid diary entries, no spurned and talkative lover. Raising the prominence of a news story with sexual innuendoes is irresponsible -- unless there is more proof to come.

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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