Nearly 20 years of John McCain‘s contrition over his role in a 1980s banking scandal vanished this week in 17 minutes and 30 seconds.
It took that long for John Dowd, Mr. McCain’s lawyer in the Keating Five investigation, to make the mea culpas disappear in a telephone conference call with reporters.
Mr. Dowd said Monday the Arizona senator, now the Republican presidential nominee, was the victim of “a classic political smear job” and a “cheap shot” by Democrats who investigated him. The lawyer said the Democratic chairman of the Senate ethics committee during the investigation was a “stooge” of his leadership.
When a reporter pointed out that Mr. Dowd’s comments seemed at odds with Mr. McCain’s history of contriteness, Mr. Dowd blew right through the trap - in a way that allows Mr. McCain to offer new mea culpas in the future.
“I’m his lawyer and I have a different view of it,” Mr. Dowd said. “I understand why John feels the way he does. He feels this was an embarrassing and humiliating matter.”
The “matter” was the committee’s investigation of four Democratic senators and Mr. McCain, which ended in 1991.
All had accepted contributions from Charles Keating Jr., a real estate speculator and savings and loan owner who became the national symbol of greedy thrift owners. Keating’s Lincoln Savings and Loan was among many institutions that failed, and the uninsured financial products he sold cost many investors their life savings.
Mr. McCain and Keating - whose real estate company was in McCain’s home state of Arizona - were social friends and political allies. Mr. McCain raked in $112,000 from Keating, his family and associates in his early campaigns. The senator and his family flew in Keating’s company plane to the Bahamas and elsewhere.
In the events that triggered the Senate investigation, Mr. McCain and the other senators took up Keating’s cause with financial regulators in 1987 as they were investigating the businessman and referring possible criminal charges to the Justice Department. Keating eventually went to prison for financial wrongdoing.
An embarrassed Mr. McCain repaid $112,000 to the U.S. Treasury and reimbursed Keating for all the trips. The senator said he believed that Keating had previously been reimbursed for the trips, but he had not been.
Mr. McCain clearly was shaken by the experience.
During an interview with a reporter during the inquiry, the senator paced back and forth in his office, his step quickening as his anger rose. He was furious about Keating, a one-time friend who had called the decorated Vietnam prisoner of war a wimp for not doing more to get financial regulators off his back.
Mr. McCain also was furious at himself for walking into a scandal that almost sank his career.
Fast forward 20 years. Mr. Dowd’s press conference was part of a nasty exchange with Democratic rival Sen. Barack Obama’s campaign over the character of the two presidential candidates. His tone was nothing like Mr. McCain’s writings in his 2002 book, “Worth The Fighting For.”
Mr. McCain wrote that he learned many lessons from the Keating case, “And I’ve never forgotten a single one of them.
“I refrained from ever intervening in the regulatory decisions of the federal government if such intervention could be construed, rightly or wrongly, as done solely or primarily for the benefit of a major financial supporter of my campaigns,” he wrote.
He vowed to always be “an honest servant of the public interest.”
His attendance at two meetings with banking regulators was “the worst mistake of my life,” Mr. McCain wrote.