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.
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.