Old gray lady kicks American hero in the balls – read all about it. The New York Times, the aforementioned gray dame, hit the streets and the screens last night with a page one splash suggesting that John McCain had been involved in close and personal negotiations with a 32-year-old blonde petite telecoms lobbyist Vicki Iseman, eight years ago. Or to put it more precisely – they reported the concerns of unnamed McCain staffers about the relationship, and the problems it might cause for the Senator in the future, given his determination to run on an anti-lobbyist, anti-corruption campaign.

The Times has had a lead on the story since Christmas, and claims it was holding onto it to try and further nail it down – going to press now only because it was about to be beaten to the punch by centre-right liberal weekly The New Republic. Whether true or not, the timing is, at the very least, provident for Barack Obama – just as the leaders of both parties decisively swing their guns towards each other, loaded with ammunition decrying the special interests and entrenched corruption, McCain’s deep involvement with the twilight world of K Street, the lobbyists’ row – pretty much inevitable for a professional politician of any duration – comes to the centre of the debate, leaving Obama clear space to present himself as the cleanskin challenger to the power elite.

McCain’s angle was always that he had actually done something about corruption, pushing through a range of initiatives culminating in the McCain-Feingold Act, limiting the impact of “soft money” – support for a candidate outside of direct donations – which made American politics twice as transparent and half as interesting.

McCain-Feingold stopped all those attack ads we used to see from time-to-time, of the sort ROBERT MAPPLETHORPE IMAGE WITH VOICE/OVER:

Would you think less of Barack Obama if you knew that in 1992 he murdered his Nebraskan gay lover and burnt the corpse? We’re not saying he did, but if he did, would you? (sotto voce) Paid for by “Americans For Stuff”.

The law pis-ed off the right, ostensibly because it is unconstitutional, which it may well be (though that’s a long queue in the Dubya era), and practically because there is an endless supply of super-rich lunatics with deep pockets for anyone who wants to challenge a ban on personal rocket launchers, or the creeping communisation of health care via vaccination progams.

It was that hostility that gave McCain the image as the fearless iconoclast ready to take on the special interests, and allowed him to obscure the messy path to campaign reform. Paradoxically, to get the heft to get McCain-Feingold through, he had to set up the sort of committee he was trying to ban in order to gather the donations he needed to mount the exhausting campaign required to go up against its opponents.

His office is staffed with lobbyists volunteering their time, and some of his stands have been quixotic – having helped get a direct DC-Arizona (his home state) flight up-and-running, he refuses to use it, so it won’t look like it was done for his personal benefit. On the other hand, until the practice was banned, he was happy to take free flights on corporate private jets.

It’s the latter practice – defended by congresspersons as a time-saving meeting measure – that’s the lynchpin of the concerns over his relationship with Iseman. For a while in 2000, they were seen everywhere together, and McCain’s energetic support for TV deregulation benefitting small media groups who comprised Iseman’s clients was surely coincidental. McCain staffer John Weaver didn’t think so, and staged an intervention with Iseman meeting her – surely with an eye to the eventual movie – at DC’s Union Station, urging her to back off.

So it goes, so it goes. At a 9am press conference in reply to the charges this morning, McCain sounded tired, and tried to take the high ground, labeling the investigation by the Times as “disappointing” and denying any horizontal confrontations with the attractive Ms Iseman, of whom the paper published a photo from some ball – looking so shiny you could have set fire to an ant-farm just by angling her at the sun. She’s about 8.5 out of a possible 10 on the Gillard scale, and bears more than a passing resemblance to the current Mrs McCain when young, which I reckon is pretty much always the smoking s-x pistol.

Cindy McCain spoke briefly to the media. She’s been at her husband’s side throughout the whole campaign, and if there’s a vote they’re trying to get from her appearances, it appears to be located entirely in the S and M subculture. Favouring scarlet leather jackets over black turtlenecks, with her bottle blonde hair scraped back so hard you fear her head may slingshot off at any moment, it always looks like McCain has borrowed one of Qaddafi’s female bodyguards for the duration.

“I’m very grateful for the continued support of my ruthless henchwoman, who knows 30 ways to kill…”

An Arizona beer princess, she’s the source of McCain’s standing in the Phoenix aristocracy, and widely judged as an asset. She could turn out key demographics for McCain, but only if they put front-and-centre the one they tip-toe around – her painkiller addiction in the 90s, a jones so fierce she would steal pills from her own medical charity. Given that prescription drug abuse seems to have replaced basketball as American youth’s number one sport, that seems to me the Republicans’ only conduit to the 18-25s.

“Hey kids – I treated an international medical charity like it was Aunt Flossie’s bathroom cabinet. I’m clean now, but I really liked those pink ones. Will someone put on some Cat Power?”

Three weeks of that and Barry Obama would look like a gutless hippy dopehead priss.

Anyway, earthtones, Cindy, you’re giving me nightmares. But I digress. The crucial question is whether there is really a scandal here, worthy of a report based on the suspicions of staffers, all but one of who are unnamed? The principal effect of selecting an incidental set of possible small favours serve to suggest that there is somehow an honest way of living in the institutionally corrupt process of lobbying amidst the permanent fundraising environment of Congressional politics. If the worst McCain did was advocate for a couple of TV networks, he’d be an Arizonan Ghandi.

And if it’s no more than an affair of its own, then of course it should be of no interest to a liberal-minded newspaper – but is of course of great interest to the religious conservatives who would ordinarily regard the NY Times as vomited directly up from hell. Which raises the question of whether the time and attention given to the story is an explicit killer blow, held off until McCain had got the Republican nomination, and just as he was trying to lay some damage on Obama and simultaneously regroup the Right behind him.

To a degree, the Times attack has helped him with some of the headkickers, who don’t know who to hate more. Radio blowhard Rush Limbaugh has launched an attack on the Times, as has paleoconservative Pat Buchanan (Limbaugh is also a painkiller-abuser: Republicans do pills, Democrats coke – the Dems hang out with musicians, the GOP have to settle for doctors). Ann Coulter has hitherto said that the NY Times office should be bombed, so it will interesting to see which way she lunges.

But, as with their pale copies in Australia, these clowns have long been exposed as generals without an army. The conservative movement is so split that they have little traction in the area that McCain really needs to keep – the religious conservatives behind Huckabee. These folks take their faith seriously, and any well-founded evidence that McCain is an adulterer may be enough to push their wavering decision into the
“no preference” camp come November. I would be very surprised if there wasn’t an element of historical thinking in the NY Times decision not merely to publish – news is news – but to run so strong on it.

What will haunt McCain, if indeed Ms Iseman was getting to know the member, is that somewhere out there is a limo driver, bellhop, porter who saw something. The American power class live surrounded by servants. Since they’re disguised by the courtesy title of employee, the ruling class forget they’re there. So it’s always the bellhop. And for McCain it may be only a matter of time.

McCain’s woes were initially thought to be a sign – together with the Obama plagiarism non-story – that the campaign was starting to slide into identity/scandal trivia that much of the media feels at home in. If it was, then light shining in Belgrade may have changed all of that, as the US embassy went up in smoke. Many Americans will be nothing other than bemused by this, with Kosovo off the agenda for so long, utterly superseded by 911, Iraq and all that followed.

With Obama and Clinton about to go head to head in yet another debate, the embassy burning may be the occasion for real political debate, and yet another backfooting for Clinton, who has hung her hat on the success of imperial human rights enforcement. Obama has proposed a much more realistic and sceptical approach, and this, I suspect, will accord with what Americans see on their TVs – that another bunch of folks hate them over a matter they can neither begin to understand, nor see a vital American interest anywhere in the field. You gotta hand it to Team Obama – they can even schedule the burning down of sh-t to their campaign schedule. Now that must be something you learn in Chicago community work.

McCain will have the same problem as Hillary – trying to fit such a chaotic anomalous event into his simple narrative of American suprematism. Still he may welcome the distraction, and he’s a Vietnam vet…