By Mollie Dickenson
January 29, 2000
John McCain: Straight Shooter?
The American people are cynical about politicians and promises of campaign finance reform, with good reason.
In a classic 1995 example in Claremont, N.H., President Clinton shook House Speaker Newt Gingrich's hand in a mutual pledge to reduce the influence of big money in politics. The problem only got worse.
Despite that experience, the voters still seemed impressed four years later when Sen. John McCain and former Sen. Bill Bradley recreated the Clinton-Gingrich scene with a promise to eliminate so-called soft money if they won the presidential nominations.
Responding to questions at that Dec. 16 event, McCain came across at his straight-talking best.
The 63-year-old senator admitted that "there have been times when I have probably been influenced" by campaign donatoins. Many listeners found the frankness refreshing and assumed he was talking about the cause celebre of the 1980s when McCain was one of the notorious Keating Five, named after convicted savings-and-loan executive Charles Keating.
In the presidential campaign, McCain had confided that his intervention with bank regulators on Keating's behalf was the worst mistake of his adult life, one that caused him as much anguish as spending five years in a North Vietnamese prisoner-of-war camp. The Arizona Republican said the incident taught him that "the appearance of impropriety" can be as damaging as actual wrongdoing.
But little did his listeners in Claremont know that McCain had just written letters to the Federal Communications Commission on behalf of Paxson Communications, a major campaign contributor. Literally on the eve of the Claremont appearance, McCain was pressing the FCC to rule on Paxson's proposed purchase of a Pittsburgh TV station.
When The Boston Globe disclosed the Paxson intervention a few weeks after the Claremont summit, McCain handled the disclosure with aplomb, even chutzpah. The chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee argued that he had done nothing wrong and that the suspicion falling on him only reinforced his argument for campaign finance reform.
"We're all tainted," McCain said. "We're all under suspicion as long as Washington is awash in special interest money."
He soon released documents showing that he had intervened for many others, including other large campaign contributors. In the Paxson case, McCain insisted that he was simply "telling a bureaucracy to act," not instructing them how to act. McCain also reminded NBC's Tim Russert that "members of your network contact me too on telecommunications matters."
But the argument echoed the defense raised in the Keating Five case. The five senators -- McCain and Democrats Don Riegle, Dennis DeConcini, Alan Cranston and John Glenn -- claimed they were simply performing a constituent service, raising Keating's objection that unreasonable regulators were hurting his Lincoln Continental Savings and Loan. The senators met with federal banking officials twice, but stopped all efforts when told the case was going to the Justice Department.
Despite the garden-variety quality of the Keating Five episode, it exploded into a major scandal when it was disclosed that the senators had received large campaign donations from Keating.
The Keating Five came under a damaging ethics investigation, with McCain and Glenn drawing the lightest reprimands, only a finding that they had shown poor judgment. McCain also agreed to pay back tens of thousands of dollars in personal and campaign largesse from Keating.
Some Washington observers contend that the Keating Five case changed the political culture, making members of Congress chary about promoting the interests of their constituents. One real estate executive who has worked on both sides of the government fence told me that "the worst part of the legacy of the Keating Five is that it ended elected people standing up for their constituents."
However, as McCain's intervention for Paxson revealed anew, the business of politics might not have changed all that much, even for a Keating Five survivor.
Careful to include language denying any intent to pressure regulators, McCain made clear in his letters that he was displeased with the FCC's handling of the Paxson application.
On Nov. 17, 1999, McCain wrote to FCC chairman William Kennard and asked that the FCC vote promptly on the three-way transfer of a Pittsburgh TV station to Paxson. The application had been pending since May 30, 1997, more than two years. McCain claimed that most decisions take about 418 days.
In a second letter on Dec. 10, 1999, McCain asked Kennard "that each member of the commission advise me, in writing" before their next open meeting on Dec. 15 "whether you have already acted upon these applications" and, if not, why not. McCain added that his "purpose is not to suggest in any way how you should vote -- merely that you vote."
FCC chairman Kennard bristled. "I must respectfully note that it is highly unusual for the commissioners to be asked to publicly announce their voting status" on a pending matter, he wrote back. After the exchange, the FCC did approve Paxson's application, but it was unclear what, if any, influence McCain's letter had on the FCC's ruling.
Though less dramatic than five senators sitting down with banking officials, the Paxson intervention did have parallels to the Keating case.
Company chairman Lowell Paxson and McCain had become personal friends, with Paxson and his executives lavishing more than $20,000 in campaign donations on McCain. McCain also enjoyed the convenience of flying around on Paxson's corporate jet, including one flight on Dec. 9, a week before the Claremont summit. A planned Paxson fund-raiser for McCain was canceled when the story broke in January.
Keating also was generous with campaign support for McCain, giving the senator $112,000, still McCain's all-time highest contributor, according to the Center for Public Integrity -- money that McCain later paid back to the U.S. Treasury.
As with Paxson, McCain became Keating's personal friend, traveling on Keating's jet and enjoying vacations at Keating's Bahama island retreat. As part of the Keating Five settlement, McCain was required to pay back $13,434 for those personal costs.
"We were really friends," said Keating. "Our families were friends. We shared that we were both Navy fliers and genuinely liked each other."
Yet, when the scandal broke, Keating said McCain cut him off. After conviction on fraud charges, Keating spent five years in prison, but his state and federal convictions later were reversed. In addition, Keating's Arizona properties, seized by the federal government, ended up exceeding even Keating's supposedly inflated assessment of their potential value.
While Keating learned some hard lessons about getting caught on the wrong side of a government "scandal," McCain turned his experience into a lessons-learned speech that's been a plus for his presidential campaign. By confessing his regret about the Keating case and advocating campaign reform, McCain has persuaded many journalists and voters that he is a different kind of politician.
But the Paxson case is a reminder that it's just possible McCain might have learned less of a lesson than many had thought. He certainly hasn't forgotten a cardinal rule of politics -- that a candidate needs money from somewhere to compete.
Though taking money from wealthy donors doesn't mean that a politician's a poltroon, that fact of life does mean that the public still has reason to be cynical. o
Mollie Dickenson is the author of Thumbs Up, a biography of President Reaganís press secretary, James Brady.