(updated below - Update II - Update III)
I agree completely with Greg Sargent, the editor of The Seattle Post-Intelligencer, and many other McCain critics that the NYT's story on McCain yesterday was extremely poor journalism -- filled with unsubstantiated irrelevancies (his alleged affair with a lobbyist) and, where relevant (McCain's intervention on behalf of Paxson), composed exclusively of long-disclosed news to which the story added nothing new. It shouldn't have been published, at least not in that form.
But what is significant is the seriously misleading statements that McCain made when denying key parts of the NYT story. One of the central claims of that story was that Paxson Communications, a major McCain contributor and provider of jet travel, repeatedly requested that McCain intervene on its behalf with a pending FCC matter, and thereafter, McCain personally contacted the FCC to demand that it expedite its ruling on a matter of vital important to Paxson (a contact which prompted a "scolding response" from the FCC Chairman, who called McCain's letter on behalf of Paxon "highly unusual" and inappropriate).
In issuing a very specific, point-by-point denial of the NYT story, McCain specifically denied that he ever talked to Paxson's CEO, Lowell Paxson (or any other Paxson representative) about this matter:
No representative of Paxson or Alcalde and Fay discussed with Senator McCain the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) proceeding. . . . No representative of Paxson or Alcalde and Fay personally asked Senator McCain to send a letter to the FCC regarding this proceeding.
But Newsweek's Mike Isikoff today obtained (or was given) the transcripts of deposition testimony which McCain himself gave under oath several years ago in litigation over the constitutionality of McCain-Feingold. In that testimony, McCain repeatedly and unequivocally stated the opposite of what he said in this week's NYT denial: namely, that he had unquestionably spoken with Paxson himself over the pending FCC matter:
"I was contacted by Mr. Paxson on this issue," McCain said in the Sept. 25, 2002, deposition obtained by NEWSWEEK. "He wanted their approval very bad for purposes of his business. I believe that Mr. Paxson had a legitimate complaint."
While McCain said "I don't recall" if he ever directly spoke to the firm's lobbyist about the issue -- an apparent reference to Iseman, though she is not named -- "I'm sure I spoke to [Paxson]."
It's hard to imagine how there could be a clearer contradiction in McCain's statements than (a) "I'm sure I spoke to [Paxson]" and (b) "No representative of Paxson or Alcalde and Fay discussed with Senator McCain the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) proceeding."
Making matters much worse, when the McCain campaign today was confronted by Newsweek with this glaring contradiction, they plainly told another untruth. They said that when McCain testified that "he" spoke with Paxson, he merely meant that his staff did:
"We do not think there is a contradiction here," campaign spokeswoman Ann Begeman e-mailed NEWSWEEK after being asked about the senator's sworn testimony five and a half years ago. "We do not have the transcript you excerpted and do not know the exact questions Senator McCain was asked, but it appears that Senator McCain, when speaking of being contacted by Paxson, was speaking in shorthand of his staff being contacted by representatives of Paxson."
But just look at what McCain actually testified to, and there is no doubt that the McCain campaign's excuse -- that Paxson merely spoke with his staff members, not McCain himself -- is patently false:
[T]he campaign's insistence that McCain himself never talked to Paxson about the issue seems hard to square with the contents of his testimony in the McCain-Feingold case.
[Deposition questioner Floyd] Abrams, for example, at one point cited the somewhat technical contents of one of his letters to the FCC and then asked the witness, "where did you get information of that sort, Senator McCain?"
McCain replied: "I was briefed by my staff."
Abrams then followed up: "Do you know where they got the information?"
"No," McCain replied. "But I would add, I was contacted by Mr. Paxson on this issue."
Abrams then asked McCain: "Can you tell us what you said and what he said about it?"
McCain: "That he had applied to purchase this station and that he wanted to purchase it. And that there had been a numerous year delay with the FCC reaching a decision. And he wanted their approval very bad for purposes of his business. I said, 'I would be glad to write a letter asking them to act, but I will not write a letter, I cannot write a letter asking them to approve or deny, because then that would be an interference in their activities. I think everybody is entitled to a decision. But I can't ask for a favorable disposition for you'."
Abrams a few moments later asked: "Did you speak to the company's lobbyist about these matters?"
McCain: "I don't recall if it was Mr. Paxson or the company's lobbyist or both."
Abrams: "But you did speak to him?"
McCain: "I'm sure I spoke with him, yes."
That is nail-in-the-coffin testimony demonstrating the deliberately false nature of McCain's denials this week.
As I indicated, the one relevant part of the NYT story -- whether McCain inappropriately intervened with the FCC on behalf of a major contributor and all-around McCain benefactor -- is an old story, and the NYT story added little or nothing to it. But what is not old is McCain's deliberately dishonest claims in response to that story. Denying that he ever spoke with Paxson's CEO when he testified under oath that he did -- and then misleadingly claiming that he was using the royal "I" and meant only that his staff spoke with Paxson -- is clear and deliberate deceit.
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Harper's Ken Silverstein has published an interview with me regarding various issues concerning the media and its coverage of presidential campaigns.
UPDATE: Kevin Drum says that "it's genuinely not clear to [him] whether this really amounts to anything serious," and that this "sounds more like a political misdemeanor than a felony."
Kevin might have a point if this had been a case where poor recollection could credibly explain McCain's behavior. That would be the case if the McCain campaign, once it was asked about this discrepancy, had said something like this:
When Sen. McCain issued his statement this week, he had forgotten that he had, in fact, spoken with Lowell Paxson about the FCC matter. The deposition testimony he gave was more than five years ago; his conversations with Paxson were far before that; and he didn't recall those contacts when responding to the Times' story this week. Having reviewed his deposition testimony, Sen. McCain now realizes he was mistaken about that one part of his statement, and only that part, and regrets that error.
Had they been straightforward about it that way, then it could be chalked up, at least theoretically, to honest lack of recall.
But that isn't what they did. Instead, when confronted with the discrepancy, the McCain campaign lied about the testimony, offering a patently absurd explanation for what McCain meant when he testified: "I'm sure I spoke with him, yes." That behavior is highly suggestive of a deliberate attempt to mislead -- just going into full-blown defense mode and saying anything without regard to truth.
If deliberately misleading the public about communications with key campaign contributors is not a "serious" offense -- and, more generally, if the instinct to jump into full, fact-free, self-defense mode when confronted with accusations of wrongdoing (rather than admitting errors and honestly confronting them) isn't "serious" -- then what is?
UPDATE II: For those interested, the transcripts of the relevant McCain deposition, in .pdf form, are here and here (h/t Jonathan Singer).
UPDATE III: The Washington Post reports that Lowell Paxson himself says he spoke personally with McCain about the FCC matter:
Broadcaster Lowell "Bud" Paxson yesterday contradicted statements from Sen. John McCain's presidential campaign that the senator did not meet with Paxson or his lobbyist before sending two controversial letters to the Federal Communications Commission on Paxson's behalf.
Paxson said he talked with McCain in his Washington office several weeks before the Arizona Republican wrote the letters in 1999 to the FCC urging a rapid decision on Paxson's quest to acquire a Pittsburgh television station. . . .
Paxson said yesterday, "I remember going there to meet with him." He recalled that he told McCain: "You're head of the Commerce Committee. The FCC is not doing its job. I would love for you to write a letter."
McCain's denial in this regard -- and his campaign's re-affirmation of his denial even in the face of his deposition testimoney -- were both clearly false.