Friday, February 22, 2008

If John McCain doesn’t send a couple of cases of Budweiser over to the New York Times, he’s an ingrate. Bill Keller, this Bud’s for you.

Nobody on the right believes the story, printed yesterday in Manhattan’s juiciest tabloid, that Mr. McCain carried on with a yummy blond telecommunications lobbyist, and besides, that was eight years ago. Even if he didn’t do it, he won’t do it again. Besides, the story was in the New York Times, so it doesn’t count.

Not only that, the lobbyist is definitely of the female persuasion, and if you’re a Republican or even a conservative you have to be grateful for that much in Washington, circa 2008.

Both the senator and the lady lobbyist say there was no romance, no hanky-panky, no lurid trysts, no attempt to trade favors for a favor for a lobbyist’s client, and that’s probably good enough for nearly everybody else. The senator is, after all, the scourge of K Street, where every defeated pol yearns to land after voters throw him out of office, to collect the big lobbying bucks. He voted against the lady’s clients on several occasions.

The New York Times, like the rest of the media, is hardly interested in the morality of anyone’s playing around on a mere spouse. The culture long ago rendered philandering harmless fun, and anyone measuring anyone against any standard as ridiculously quaint (except that you wink your eye at a pretty girl at your own risk). The New York Times attempted to employ the scam of the carnival midway to lure the suckers into a story about greed and avarice but offered no evidence of greed and avarice. No letters, no e-mail, no recording of pillow talk. But sex sells with such efficiency, as any tabloid rewrite man could tell you, that even the accusation of something steamy fools the unwary reader. This is not Abe Rosenthal’s New York Times.

The story succeeded in driving John McCain into someone’s arms, all right, but only into the embrace of the hardest boiled in the ranks of the right. “The story is the ‘drive-by media’ turning on its favorite maverick and trying to take him out,” quoth Rush Limbaugh, who only a week ago would never forgive John McCain for squishy conservatism. “The media picked the Republican candidate, the New York Times endorsed him while they sat on this story and is now, with utter predictably, trying to destroy him,” he said yesterday. The Christian Broadcasting Network said the senator should wear the story as “a badge of honor.” Mike Huckabee, the forlorn last hope of the die-hards, said he “only knows [the senator] to be a man of integrity … a good and decent and honorable man.”

Barack Obama should send flowers if not booze to Bill Keller, the executive editor of the New York Times. The “revelations” about Sen. McCain diverted what had been a growing hubbub if not scandal over Michelle Obama’s halfhearted tribute, if you could call it that, to the land of her birth. “For the first time in my life,” she said on the eve of the voting in Wisconsin, “I’m really proud of my country.” How generous. How sweet. Some people have such a tough life in this dirty, rotten country that only four years in the White House can make it up to them. Where is Teresa Heinz, now that the Democrats need someone to straighten out a prospective first lady with a mouth made for trouble?

Bimbo eruptions, even rumors of a candidate’s indulging girls gone wild, have sometimes destroyed campaigns. But usually they don’t. Thomas Jefferson survived trash talk about Sally Hemmings. Nan Britton got Warren Harding in trouble only with Mrs. Harding. Gary Hart had more or less successfully dealt with bimbo eruptions until he foolishly invited the newspapers to follow him around, and the Miami Herald did. Bill Clinton made bimbo eruptions an industry; he even had an aide assigned permanently to deal with his ladies with big hair, big bosoms and great expectations, and he was elected twice (though neither time with a majority). But we’re a much more serious public now. Yesterday Barack Obama had to stop a speech in Dallas to blow his nose. The glassy-eyed robots in front of him applauded lustily. Is this a great country, or what?

Wesley Pruden is editor emeritus of The Times.

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