John McCain cried foul yesterday over a New York Times story that alleged a "romantic" relationship between him and a Washington lobbyist.
With his wife, Cindy, by his side, the Arizona senator and GOP presidential front-runner said he was disappointed in the newspaper for printing a story in which two unnamed former aides said they felt they had to keep Mr. McCain away from the lobbyist during his failed 2000 presidential bid because they were too close.
"It's not true," Mr. McCain said while standing at a podium with his wife at the Park Inn on Summit Street in downtown Toledo. "At no time have I ever done anything to betray the public's trust, nor make a decision which in any way would not be in the public interest and would favor anyone or any organization."
The report, which the Times first posted on its Web site Wednesday evening, also suggested Mr. McCain showed the telecommunication lobbyist's clients favoritism while chairman of the Senate's Commerce Committee.
The report said that during his 2000 presidential campaign, former McCain aides tried to put distance between the senator, now 71, and lobbyist Vicky Iseman, 40, who he had been seen with at fund-raisers, in his offices, and boarding her client's corporate jet.
According to the Times, those aides confronted Mr. McCain about his relationship with Ms. Iseman, and the senator "acknowledged behaving inappropriately and pledged to keep his distance from Ms. Iseman."
Yesterday Mr. McCain denied that any such meeting took place and denied having a romantic relationship with Ms. Iseman.
"I have many friends in Washington who represent various interests and those who don't, and I consider her a friend," said Mr. McCain, who later said: "Obviously, people who represent interests are fine. That's their constitutional right. The question is do they have excess or unwarranted influence, and certainly no one ever has in my conduct of my public life and with the conduct of my legislative agenda."
The Times quoted John Weaver, a former top McCain strategist, saying he also met with Ms. Iseman to urge her to stay away from Mr. McCain during the 2000 race.
Mr. Weaver told the Times that he arranged the meeting after a "discussion among the campaign leadership" about her. He said the campaign was focused on "taking on special interests" and "Ms. Iseman's involvement in the campaign could undermine that effort."
Mr. McCain said yesterday he had no knowledge of Mr. Weaver's conversation with Ms. Iseman, and that Mr. Weaver was under no obligation to tell the senator about that conversation.
Mrs. McCain, who was at times holding her husband's hand and arm, said she was also disappointed with the newspaper, and added: "More importantly, my children and I not only trust my husband, but know that he would never do anything to not only disappoint our family, but disappoint the people of America. He's a man of great character."
Addressing a room full of local and national print, electronic, and television media members, Mr. McCain lambasted the Times for its use of unnamed sources in the report.
He also criticized the paper for not including many of his campaign's responses to months of questioning, for the timing of the story, and, of course, for printing claims he said were untrue.
Bill Keller, executive editor of the Times, released the following statement:
"On the substance, we think the story speaks for itself. On the timing, our policy is, we publish stories when they are ready.
"•'Ready' means the facts have been nailed down to our satisfaction, the subjects have all been given a full and fair chance to respond, and the reporting has been written up with all the proper context and caveats. This story was no exception. It was a long time in the works. It reached my desk late Tuesday afternoon. After a final edit and a routine check by our lawyers, we published it."
The newspaper reported that Mr. McCain denied repeated requests to be interviewed for its report. The Republican front-runner said he did not speak "directly" with the Times for the story, save for a single phone call he made to Mr. Keller.
"I called him up and asked what was going on, [with the] hope of bringing the issue to closure," Mr. McCain said.
When asked by reporters yesterday, Mr. McCain said he did not attempt to dissuade the Times from running its story.
Kelly McBride, ethics group leader at the Poynter Institute in St. Petersburg, Fla., said the presence of Mr. Weaver's on-the-record comments in the Times' report mitigates the McCain camp's cries of unethical journalism.
Ms. McBride also said the Times' story had "weak spots," including a lack of an explanation of why the two unnamed advisers were allowed to remain anonymous.
"I think that's important because the public is much more willing to give you a pass if they know the source fears for his or her job or life, rather than if you don't tell them," she said.
Ms. McBride also said the portions of the Times' report devoted to Mr. McCain's relationship with Ms. Iseman supported by the unnamed advisers' claims took away from the gist of the story - which is Mr. McCain's alleged propensity to say one thing and do another.
The Times story chronicled Mr. McCain's involvement with the Keating Five scandal, in which he and four other senators intervened with federal regulators on behalf of a campaign contributor.
The contributor, Charles Keating, was sent to prison after a savings and loan he controlled collapsed in 1989 because of bad real estate investments costing the government $3.4 billion.
Mr. McCain was reprimanded by the Senate Ethics Committee for exercising poor judgment.
The Times report then detailed Mr. McCain's other contacts with lobbyists, including letters he wrote to the Federal Communications Commission on behalf of one of Ms. Iseman's clients.
Mr. McCain has spent much of his 24-year congressional career publicly fighting to limit the influence lobbyists have in Washington and along with Sen. Russ Feingold pushed sweeping campaign-finance reform through Congress in 2002.
Yesterday, Mr. McCain acknowledged the Times report could damage the reputation he's tried to build since the Keating scandal.
"I understand that, and it's why I'm so disappointed," Mr. McCain said. "I've got a long record, a 50-year record, 24-year record as a member of Congress."
Mr. McCain then touted his public positions on earmarks and pork-barrel spending - he's against them - and said: "So I'd be asking people to look at my entire record, and I think that will stand."
Waiting for yesterday morning's news conference to begin, former Ohio Sen. Mike DeWine, who is running Sen. McCain's Ohio campaign, came to his defense.
"I've known John McCain for 25 years. He is a man who is all about integrity and honor. It's an absurd thought that he would do anything to besmirch that integrity," he said.
Contact Joe Vardon at: