NYT breaks long-rumored story on possible relationship between McCain, lobbyist

Two months after the paper was first reported to be working on a story, the New York Times publishes its account of John McCain's ties to Vicki Iseman.

Published February 21, 2008 1:37AM (EST)

In December of last year, Matt Drudge reported that John McCain -- who was then in the midst of a surprising comeback in the Republican presidential race -- was desperately trying to persuade the New York Times to kill a story about "charges of giving special treatment to a lobbyist," and that McCain had hired a prominent attorney to work on his behalf. For the Arizona senator, who has built a good part of his reputation as a straight talker on his efforts toward campaign finance reform and cleaning up the lobbying culture in Washington, D.C., such a story could theoretically prove quite damaging.

Well, apparently we'll see just what kind of harm the story will do to McCain's campaign, as on Wednesday evening the Times published the article on its Web site. The Times piece, written by a team of reporters, suggests not just special treatment for the lobbyist in question -- Vicki Iseman, 40 -- but the possibility of a romantic relationship between the two, beginning in 1999.

"Convinced the relationship had become romantic, some of [McCain's] top advisers intervened to protect the candidate from himself -- instructing staff members to block [Iseman's] access, privately warning her away and repeatedly confronting him, several people involved in the campaign said on the condition of anonymity," the Times reports.

Both McCain and Iseman deny that their relationship was romantic. But the Times describes McCain's campaign at the time as being very worried about appearances when it came to the two. In February 1999, the Times says,

Mr. McCain and Ms. Iseman attended a small fund-raising dinner with several clients at the Miami-area home of a cruise-line executive and then flew back to Washington along with a campaign aide on the corporate jet of one of her clients, Paxson Communications. By then, according to two former McCain associates, some of the senator's advisers had grown so concerned that the relationship had become romantic that they took steps to intervene.

A former campaign adviser described being instructed to keep Ms. Iseman away from the senator at public events, while a Senate aide recalled plans to limit Ms. Iseman's access to his offices.

In interviews, the two former associates said they joined in a series of confrontations with Mr. McCain, warning him that he was risking his campaign and career. Both said Mr. McCain acknowledged behaving inappropriately and pledged to keep his distance from Ms. Iseman. The two associates, who said they had become disillusioned with the senator, spoke independently of each other and provided details that were corroborated by others.

The Times also reports on a meeting at D.C.'s Union Station between Iseman and a former top strategist for McCain, John Weaver. Weaver told the Times that the conversation between himself and Iseman was about "her conduct and what she allegedly had told people, which made its way back to us," but did not provide further details. The Times says Iseman confirmed she met with Weaver, but disputed his account of what was said during the meeting.

The Times' report is about more than just romance -- it also raises ethical questions. "In late 1999, Ms. Iseman asked Mr. McCain's staff to send a letter to the commission to help Paxson ... Mr. McCain complied. He sent two letters to the commission, drawing a rare rebuke for interference from its chairman," the Times says.

Unrelated to Iseman, the letters provoked a small controversy at the time, leading McCain's campaign to disclose four flights McCain had taken on jets owned by Paxson -- but not the flight he'd taken with Iseman.

As for Drudge, as might be expected for the conservative media guru, he's questioning the Times' timing; his banner headline on the article reads in his characteristic all-caps manner, "NOW THAT HE'S SECURED NOMINATION: NYT DOWNLOADS ON MCCAIN."

Update: McCain's campaign has responded to the Times story. Communications director Jill Hazelbaker issued a statement that reads:

It is a shame that the New York Times has lowered its standards to engage in a hit and run smear campaign. John McCain has a 24-year record of serving our country with honor and integrity. He has never violated the public trust, never done favors for special interests or lobbyists, and he will not allow a smear campaign to distract from the issues at stake in this election.

Americans are sick and tired of this kind of gutter politics, and there is nothing in this story to suggest that John McCain has ever violated the principles that have guided his career.

By Alex Koppelman

Alex Koppelman is a staff writer for Salon.

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2008 Elections John Mccain R-ariz.