- The Washington Times - Friday, February 18, 2000


John McCain's enthusiasm for campaign reform is considered by some of his colleagues to be a personal vendetta against the Republicans, which is one reason (there are others) why so many of his fellow Republican legislators dislike him.
It is widely known that Mr. McCain's interest in campaign reform stems from his having been embroiled in the Keating Five scandal. What is not known is how much, and why, he blames the Republicans for the tarnishing of his image.
In 1989, Mr. McCain and four Senate colleagues, Alan Cranston, Don Riegel, Dennis DiConcini, and John Glenn, were accused of having pressured Federal Home Loan Bank regulators in 1987 to give lenient treatment to Charles Keating's shaky Lincoln Savings & Loan bank which later collapsed, costing the taxpayers an estimated $2 billion. The charges were all the more serious because of the concurrent collapse of so many of the country's savings and loan institutions. This was a billion dollar nightmare for Duty-Honor-Country John McCain. By mid-September 1990, the Senate Ethics Committee had reached a private but well-promulgated view recommended by special counsel Robert S. Bennett on Sept. 10 that of the five senators only three, Messrs. Cranston, Riegel, and DiConcini, had serious legal or ethical problems. Messrs. Glenn and McCain were merely unlucky enough to have been invited to and to have attended meetings which were to result in illegal activities by others.
At the time, Republican Sen. Jesse Helms was the co-chairman of the six-member Ethics Committee, which is evenly divided between Republicans and Democrats. Mr. Helms was aware of one Democrat on the Ethics Committee who was willing to provide the winning margin on a vote to exculpate Mr. McCain. Getting Mr. McCain off looked easy except that Mr. Helms was running for re-election in a close race and couldn't afford to look soft on ethics. Mr. Helms would have to abstain members make allowances for colleagues in close elections. But that meant that a motion to excuse Mr. McCain would fail on a tie vote.
Sen. Bob Dole, the minority leader at the time, made a proposal to the Democrats: Messrs. Glenn and McCain would both be excused because they were both clearly innocent. One Democrat, one Republican what could be more fair?By this time, however, the scandal was in its second year, and the Democrats were beginning to understand the damage it could do to them as a party. They realized that what was important to them was not who was exonerated, but who was not. Mr. Dole's deal would leave them with three Democrats and no Republicans in an ethics scandal. Fair, yes, but awkward if not inappropriate for the party that would come to be defined by the Clintons.
In October the Republicans gathered to discuss the issue. Mr. McCain felt sure his colleagues would raise hell to get him and Mr. Glenn off the hook, because most of them had assured him they thought both he and Mr. Glenn had been unfairly incorrectly accused. The Republicans saw the problem, but Mr. Dole eventually made it clear that the Democrats' rejection of his proposal meant there was nothing more the Senate Republicans could or would do on Mr. McCain's behalf. Messrs. Glenn and McCain would have to accept a mild version of whatever punishment was to be meted out.
Mr. McCain arrived at the meeting late. He fidgeted until called on, then raged at his colleagues, insisting that no one had ever before doubted his integrity. Ammunition expended, he got up and with tears in his eyes rushed from the room.
Mr. McCain thought correctly there was a lot more his Republican "colleagues" could have done, if they had wanted to. They could have gone to the floor of the Senate and denounced the Democrats' crass, politically-motivated refusal to exonerate a man they knew to be innocent. They could have gone to the media and railed against the Democrats for being willing to sacrifice one of their own in order to tarnish a Republican. Instead their efforts were limited and ineffective.
Now Mr. McCain who has never seen getting angry and getting even as mutually exclusive is getting even.
Mr. McCain, the greatest beneficiary of free media in many a campaign cycle, may believe that campaign finance strictures won't hurt him. He may think he can count on the media to supply him with all the publicity he can't afford to buy.
And he may be right until the country moves on from the primaries to the general election.

M.D.B. Carlisle was assistant secretary of defense in the Reagan administration. Daniel Oliver was head of the Federal Trade Commission from 1986 to 1989.

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