Sunday, April 27, 2008

The McCain scrutiny V

Sen. John McCain got fresh vetting over the weekend, when the New York Times published a story suggesting (again) that the Arizona senator and presumptive Republican nominee’s actions are at odds with his publicly stated policies. It’s among the first signs of the withering scrutiny to come.

Over a stretch of seven months, The Times reported Sunday citing public records, McCain’s cash-strapped campaign gave itself a leg up in the 2008 race by using a corporate jet owned by a company headed by his wife. For five of those months, The Times said, the jet, owned by Hensley & Company, was used almost solely for campaign-related purposes. This despite the fact that McCain supported legislation in 2007 requiring presidential candidates to pick up the actual cost of flying on corporate jets.

Cindy McCain is the chairwoman of Hensley & Company, one of the country’s largest distributors of Anheuser-Busch beer and other products.

“The senator was able to fly so inexpensively because the law specifically exempts aircraft owned by a candidate or his family or by a privately held company they control,” The Times reported.

“Because that exemption remains, Mr. McCain’s campaign was able to use his wife’s corporate plane like a charter jet while paying first-class rates, several campaign finance experts said,” The Times said.

While it’s not expressly against the law, McCain’s action is pretty clearly an end-run around the spirit of the law he supported, if not the letter of the law itself.

It’s another of the multitude of questions just now starting to swirl about the fitness of John McCain for the highest elective office in the world. This matter, coupled with other issues — some of them explored in two new books about McCain — adds to growing concerns that the presidency demands a wider emotional latitude, a broader experiential skill set and a greater philosophical consistency than those he apparently has at his disposal.

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In "Pure Goldwater," co-written by former White House counsel John Dean and Barry Goldwater Jr., the son of conservative icon Barry Goldwater, McCain, who succeeded Goldwater as Arizona senator, comes under fire for exploiting the name of Goldwater as a fundraising ploy in 1992, during McCain’s involvement in the Keating Five savings & loan scandal. Goldwater’s support for McCain “began to cool” after the episode, the authors write.

This unwarranted appropriation of the name of a legend of conservatism wasn’t unlawful, of course, but this adds to concerns over the appearance of unethical conduct — what McCain has called “questions of honor” — that have gotten scant mention in the press.

Another incident may not make it into the wider press because, simply put, the R-rated language involved can’t be repeated on television or in most newspapers.

In the book “The Real McCain,” author Cliff Schecter recounts an incident that makes other evidence of his volcanic temper pale by comparison. In a passage whose basic veracity was confirmed by three Arizona reporters, Schecter writes:

“In his 1992 Senate bid, McCain was joined on the campaign trail by his wife, Cindy, as well as campaign aide Doug Cole and consultant Wes Gullett. At one point, Cindy playfully twirled McCain's hair and said, ‘You're getting a little thin up there.’ McCain's face reddened, and he responded, ‘At least I don't plaster on the makeup like a trollop, you cunt.’ McCain’s excuse was that it had been a long day.”

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Add this verbal attack to past documented reports of physical attacks against other congressmen, GOP and Democrat alike: an incident with Rick Renzi; a dustup with Strom Thurmond, then at 92 the oldest living Senator in a Senate Armed Service Committee hearing in January 1995. An F-word throwdown with Sen. Charles Grassley.

Sidney Blumenthal, writing in a Salon opinion piece in January 2007, recalled some of McCain’s other heavyweight bouts: “McCain's political colleagues, however, know another side of the action hero -- a volatile man with a hair-trigger temper, who shouted at Sen. Ted Kennedy on the Senate floor to ‘shut up,’ called his fellow Republican senators ‘shithead,’ ‘fucking jerk,’ ‘asshole,’ and joked in 1998 at a Republican fundraiser about the teenage daughter of President Clinton, ‘Do you know why Chelsea Clinton is so ugly? Because Janet Reno is her father.’ As recently as a few months ago, McCain suddenly rushed up to a friend of mine, a prominent Washington attorney, at a social event, and threatened to beat him up because he represented a client McCain happened to dislike, and then, just as suddenly, profusely and tearfully apologized.”

“Within the Republican Party nearly everyone who has had serious dealings with McCain distrusts him (including traditional Republican moderates, not just conservatives). While taking right-wing positions on social issues like abortion and gay marriage, his simmering resentment of Bush led him to virtually caucus with the Democrats in early 2001 (before Sept. 11), using the Democratic Leadership Council as his back channel. Then, abruptly, he rushed to embrace Bush.”

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In February 2000, McCain apologized for his use of the term “gooks,” a monstrous slur against Asians, and his defense of its use as a reaction to his Vietnamese captors during the Vietnam War. Earlier that month, McCain was asked by the San Jose Mercury News about his use of the slur in October 1999.

"I'll call, right now, my interrogator that tortured me and my friends a gook, OK? And you can quote me,'' McCain said in February 2000. McCain enlarged on the comments, calling his Vietnam-era captors "cruel, mean, vicious, sometimes sadistic people. And ‘gook’ is the kindest description I can give them, the most printable.''

Then, after taking a phone call, with an opportunity for circumspection, McCain didn't miss a beat in his follow-up: "I hated the gooks,'" he said. "And I will hate them for as long as I live.''

McCain later apologized profusely for the comments. “For 5-1/2 years, I was mistreated by Ho Chi Minh's henchmen. My fellow prisoners were treated even worse,'' McCain said in a statement. ``Although I will never forgive my prison guards for the atrocities they committed against my cellmates, I have always held the people of Vietnam in the highest regard and have worked in support of the Vietnamese-American community in this country at every opportunity. …

“I deeply regret any pain I may have caused by my choice of words. I apologize and renounce all language that is bigoted and offensive, which is contrary to all that I represent and believe.”

As you might expect, McCain has defended his outsize passion of legislative matters. “If I lose my capacity for anger, then I shouldn't be president of the United States," he told Fox News’ Chris Wallace on April 6. "When I see the waste and corruption in Washington, I get angry."

But it is, or oughta be, deeply worrying that a man who would be president of the United States in one of the most dangerous times in history is apparently comfortable with employing anger as a baseline emotional response to the myriad challenges that would cross his desk as steward of the economy, commander-in-chief and global symbol of the American mood.

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Those matters are concerning enough. What’s even more distressing has been McCain’s refusal to release his health records, particularly important for vetting McCain, the prospective oldest president upon inauguration, and a survivor of a form of cancer from which, one doctor told The New York Times, “a patient is never completely clear.”

In March, Leonard K. Altman, a New York Times reporter, who is also a doctor, wrote a story about McCain's past bout with melanoma, and the chances that it might return. Altman, who didn’t speak with McCain's doctors (who no doubt told them not to do so), talked to experts about that especially dangerous form of cancer, for which McCain had surgery in August 2000, at the Mayo Clinic in Scottsdale, Ariz. Those experts told Altman that McCain’s “prospects appear favorable,” because he has survived this long without a recurrence of the disease.

But, Altman reported that, “Since the 2008 campaign began, doctors not connected with Mr. McCain's case have expressed intense interest in the extent of the face and neck surgery he underwent.”

Those doctors told Altman that “the surgery appeared to be so extensive that they were surprised his melanoma was not more serious -- perhaps Stage III, which would give him a bleaker prognosis. These doctors said they would be surprised to learn that such an operation would be performed without evidence that the melanoma had spread.”

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In fairness, some other doctors interviewed by the Times disagreed, but releasing these records would help settle this current matter, one at odds with McCain’s previous, exhaustively full disclosure of his health records before his 2000 campaign.

“In 1999, during Mr. McCain’s first race for president, he gave the public an extraordinary look at his medical history — 1,500 pages of medical and psychiatric records that were amassed as part of a United States Navy project to gauge the health of former prisoners of war,” Altman reported on March 8.

“At least three times since March 2007, campaign officials have told The New York Times that they would provide the detailed information about his current state of health, but they have not done so,” Altman reported.

“The melanoma removed in 2000 was Stage IIa on a standard classification that makes Stage IV the most serious. For Stage IIa melanoma, the survival rate 10 years after diagnosis is about 65 percent. But the outlook is much better for patients like Mr. McCain, who have already survived more than seven years.

“For patients with a melanoma like Mr. McCain’s who remained free of the disease for the first five years after diagnosis, the probability of recurrence during the next five years was 14 percent and death 9 percent, a study published in 1992 found.

“[W]ith melanoma, a patient is never completely clear,” Dr. Richard L. Shapiro, a melanoma surgeon at New York University, told The Times.

"If melanomas do recur," the Times reported, "standard treatment options are limited for many to surgery and a difficult form of chemotherapy. The chances of long-term survival diminish."

McCain had promised to release the records in April; since Altman’s story, however, the release date for this health records has been pushed back to May.

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Whenever some in the mainstream media get tired of the endless echo chamber consumed with Barack Obama’s relationship with the Rev. Jeremiah Wright — a piling on that’s done the media and the public it purports to represent a great disservice — John McCain should expect to be firmly in the crosshairs of attention. There’s been a relative quietude about issues concerning the Republican candidate — a calm that, sure as night follows day, will end soon, maybe by the first week of June.

Have we heard everything there is to hear about McCain’s relationship with lobbyist Vicki Iseman? What's his relationship with televangelist the Rev. Rod Parsley, who denounced Islam as a "false religion"? And his continuing association with Rev. John Hagee, enemy of Catholicism? Those relationships, those comments will tell the nation as much about McCain’s bedrock character as the missteps that he or his campaign proxies would lay at Obama's doorstep.

Whether the punditocracy investigates these issues or not, John McCain faces his own uphill battle from now to November: a fight not so much against his Democratic challengers as a battle with his mercurial reputation and his own insurmountable past.
Image credit: Melanoma: DermAtlas (Wikipedia), republished under fair use rationale

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