John McCain just shoved his whole stack into the middle of the table, and put his credibility and candidacy on the line.
He just threw down the gauntlet to The New York Times by flatly denying every point of a front-page story that implied McCain had an affair nine years ago with a 31-year-old Washington lobbyist, then used his influence as a committee chair to promote the interests of her client.
The Times' front-page story of the alleged romance was based on two anonymous sources the Times identified as former aides to the senator. The Washington Post quoted John Weaver, once the man closest to McCain, as saying he confronted the lobbyist at a Union Station lunch and warned her to stay away from the senator.
Weaver is quoted as saying he brought the matter up with McCain. McCain denies Weaver ever did.
The anonymous aides were said to have confronted McCain and told him his dinners with blonde lobbyist Vicki Iseman, and his travels with her on corporate jets, were imperiling his reputation. The aides said they feared a romantic involvement that could destroy McCain.
McCain denies any aides ever mentioned such a thing.
To witness the truthfulness of his words, McCain stood silent as wife Cindy addressed the alleged adulterous affair:
"(T)he children and I not only trust my husband but know that he would never do anything to not only disappoint our family but disappoint the people of America. He's a man of great character, and I'm very, very disappointed in The New York Times."
McCain also expressed disappointment in the Times. His aides, however, are savaging the paper.
His campaign issued a statement accusing the Times of a "hit-and-run smear." Lawyer Bob Bennett compared the Times article to the sleazy robo-calls in South Carolina in 2000 that charged McCain with having fathered a black baby out of wedlock.
Conservative commentators and talk-show hosts, among them McCain's leading critics in the Republican coalition, have rallied to his defense and assailed the journalistic ethics of the Times.
Iseman has denied any affair, and her firm has accused the Times of "innuendo ... malicious and false."
Times' editor Bill Keller remains hidden behind a press release saying, "On the substance, we think the story speaks for itself." Two days after it hit, the Times had said nothing more to defend the story.
Either the Times has more than it has revealed, or the Times' publisher should dispatch Keller to join his predecessor, Howell Raines, who presided over the Jason Blair debacle, where an African-American rookie reporter hoked up dozens of stories to make himself the toast of the liberal Times.
Blair related how he hoodwinked the editors in an autobiographical book titled, "Burning Down My Masters' House."
As of this writing, McCain has emerged triumphant and the Times has egg all over its face. Even Times admirers in the media, where the paper has long been regarded as the gold standard of journalism, are professing astonishment at the story. Something is either terribly wrong at the Times, or the Times is withholding something.
For, among American newspapers, the Times has always been among the most reluctant to get into personal lives. Its own rules for anonymous sources were violated in this story. The sources never said they knew of an affair, only that they suspected one. That does not rise to the Times' own standards for backing up a story that could abort the nomination of a Republican front-runner for president and throw the party into chaos.
Also, the Drudge Report on Dec. 20 revealed a battle inside the paper over whether to publish this story. It was withheld, as McCain, the Times' endorsed candidate for the nomination, began eking out a series of victories in the primaries.
If Keller felt the story, a head shot at McCain, was fit to print on Feb. 21, after McCain had won the nomination, why was it not fit to publish on Dec. 21, when an untainted Republican like Mike Huckabee or Mitt Romney might have won?
Was the Times deliberately withholding, then deploying, dirt, first to advance, then to destroy McCain and the GOP chances in November? Is Bill Keller using the information his reporters gather to try to affect the outcome of a presidential race?
In the absence of a Times defense of this seemingly indefensible story, what other conclusion is there for the timing?
"We're going to go to war with them now," said McCain adviser Charlie Black. McCain's people have every right. For the Times has sought to inflict a mortal wound on their candidate's character, and McCain's people contend it is all malicious innuendo or lies.
On the table now is not just McCain's credibility, candidacy and career, but the character and credibility of The New York Times.
One of the two is going to lose, big-time.