Three Strikes for John McCain
Years ago, John McCain said of the Keating Five scandal that nearly ended his career, "The fact is, it was the wrong thing to do, and it will be on my tombstone and deservedly so." But if his new cause of campaign finance reform was the penance for his Keating "nightmare," the Supreme Court last week closed off that avenue for McCain's redemption. Which means that all that's left for John McCain's epitaph is a two word inscription: Sarah Palin.
While the Obama White House and Democrats in the House and Senate rushed to look for options to stem the coming torrent of corporate campaign cash unleashed by the Citizens United case, Senator McCain gave up the fight not with a bang, but a whimper. Asked by Face the Nation's Bob Schieffer (roughly half-way through the video) if his campaign finance reform was "dead," McCain calmly responded, "Oh, I think so."
Resigning himself to the Court's validation of the Republican Party's position, McCain concluded, "I don't think there's much that can be done." As CBS reported:
McCain said he was not surprised by Court's decision: "I went over to observe the oral arguments," he said. "It was clear that Justice Roberts, Alito and Scalia, by their very skeptical and even sarcastic comments, were very much opposed to it"...
The Republican senator noted that in prior Court hearing on the issue of campaign financing, Justices Rehnquist and O'Connor had taken a different position. "Both had significant political experience; Justices Roberts, Alito and Scalia have none," he said.
Ironically, during the 2008 campaign McCain frequently cited Roberts, Alito and Scalia as his ideal Supreme Court Justices. That January, the Catholic News Agency reported, "As models of who he would select, John McCain pointed to Justices Samuel Alito and Antonin Scalia." And in a major address on his vision for the Court in May 2008, McCain announced:
"I have my own standards of judicial ability, experience, philosophy, and temperament. And Chief Justice Roberts and Justice Samuel Alito meet those standards in every respect. They would serve as the model for my own nominees if that responsibility falls to me."
In any event, McCain on Sunday admitted defeated in the signature effort of his post-Keating political career:
"We are going to see now an inundation of special-interest money into political campaigns. I think that diminishes the influence of average citizens."
Of course, John McCain became an expert on the "inundation of special interest money into political campaigns" during the Savings and Loan scandal of the 1980's.
Two years ago, the Boston Globe summarized McCain's close relationship with Charles Keating and his decision to intervene with federal regulators on his behalf:
McCain met Keating in 1982, during McCain's successful run for Congress, and soon began accepting offers from Keating to fly McCain's family on a corporate plane to Keating's house in the Bahamas. McCain did not pay for most of the trips until years later, when the matter became public.
Keating, meanwhile, complained regularly to McCain that a proposed regulation would hurt his business. Known as the "direct investment" rule, it limited the amount that savings-and-loan institutions could invest from their assets. In 1985, after having "heard frequently from Charlie on the matter," McCain decided that Keating's complaints "were sound enough to warrant our assistance." He cosponsored a resolution sought by Keating, but it failed to postpone the regulation, McCain wrote in his autobiography.
By then, Keating was one of McCain's most important benefactors; McCain received $112,000 in campaign donations from Keating and his Lincoln associates, mostly between 1982 and 1986.
It was in April 1987 that McCain fatefully joined four other senators in meeting with Edwin Gray, chairman of the Federal Home Loan Bank Board in Washington. After that meeting, Gray told his associate William K. Black that he was "very upset" that the senators were trying to pressure him.
Senate ethics panel agreed with that assessment. California Democrat Alan Cranston was censured for "an impermissible pattern of conduct," while Senators DeConcini (D-AZ) and Riegle (D-MI) were criticized for actions which "gave the appearance of being improper." As for McCain, he and John Glenn (D-OH) were admonished for exercising "poor judgment."
McCain, who had told the Ethics Committee that his role in support of Keating was "to help constituents in a proper fashion," reacted to the panel's findings in 1991, "I am, of course, relieved that I have been exonerated."
In reality, McCain's wasn't exonerated. And the blight of his Keating association tormented him, becoming a driving force behind his redemptive crusade for campaign finance reform. As the Hearst Newspapers reported on February 27, 2000:
McCain's zeal for campaign finance reform stems from his searing experience as one of the Keating Five when he was accused of trading influence for campaign dollars.
McCain still describes the Keating probe as "a nightmare." He says that period was one of the most painful of his life "because my integrity and honor were under attack." McCain also said, "The thing I learned was that it's not only the impropriety that counts. It's the appearance that's just as important."
[Charles] Lewis [of the Center for Public Integrity] said the Keating scandal "scalded" McCain.
"He had an epiphany and pledged from that day to start thinking about (campaign finance reform) and dealing with it," according to Lewis.
In February 2008, the New York Times detailed McCain's loss of honor and integrity in the Keating Five affair and his drive for a political rebirth through limiting corporate campaign cash.
"I would very much like to think that I have never been a man whose favor can be bought," Mr. McCain wrote about his Keating experience in his 2002 memoir, "Worth the Fighting For." "From my earliest youth, I would have considered such a reputation to be the most shameful ignominy imaginable. Yet that is exactly how millions of Americans viewed me for a time, a time that I will forever consider one of the worst experiences of my life."
A drive to expunge the stain on his reputation in time turned into a zeal to cleanse Washington as well.
As it turned out, McCain's Republican colleagues were having none of it, unwilling to be victims of his personal political cleansing. As the Times noted:
Mr. McCain earned the lasting animosity of many conservatives, who argue that his push for fund-raising restrictions trampled free speech, and of many of his Senate colleagues, who bristled that he was preaching to them so soon after his own repentance. In debates, his party's leaders challenged him to name a single senator he considered corrupt (he refused).
Ultimately, of course, they won and he lost. After the Roberts' Court FEC ruling, Mitch McConnell's proclaimed that "for too long, some in this country have been deprived of full participation in the political process," while John Cornyn (R-TX) crowed that the Supremes had "open up resources that have not previously been available" to the GOP.
But if John McCain's legacy consists of his Keating and campaign finance failures, it does offer a third contribution to American politics. McCain is, after all, the man responsible for the invention of Sarah Palin. And while most Americans lament McCain's introduction of Palin onto the national stage, you don't have to ask whether it brought smiles to the faces of hard line conservatives.