Maybe there's a fire somewhere amidst all the smoke created by the New York Times story about Sen. John McCain and the blond lobbyist. So far, however, no one has been seriously burned -- except maybe the paper, itself.
The Times story insinuates far more than it spells out. Its key allegation is that McCain, the nearly anointed Republican presidential nominee, had a close relationship nine years ago with Vicki Iseman, a telecommunications lobbyist 30 years younger than he.
The story implies that McCain may have done special favors for Iseman in his capacity as chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee. It also states that McCain's advisers "intervened to protect the candidate from himself" out of concern that the relationship had turned romantic.
McCain, who promptly called a morning press conference Thursday to refute the story and answer reporters' questions, was typically blunt and to the point.
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"It's not true," he said of the story.
Did he ever have a meeting with any of his staffers where they asked him to stay away from Iseman?
Then, no meeting ever occurred?
Did he ever have a romantic relationship with the lobbyist?
Lest we risk seeming naive, we must acknowledge a similar incident, this one involving a sitting president whose denials of any relationship of a romantic nature with a White House intern were equally adamant: "I did not have sex with that woman!"
As it turned out, he had had sex with that woman. And he got into considerable trouble because of it.
But the accusations on the front page of the New York Times cast as much suspicion on the newspaper as they do on the candidate. Why did the Times decide to run this story, just as McCain is about to lock up the nomination, nine years after the pertinent incidents allegedly occurred?
Maybe the paper knows much more than it is saying. Maybe, after whetting our appetite, it is counting on a less dignified newsgathering organ, such as, say, the New York Post, to root around in the muck and find the real story.
Or maybe the Times wanted to print what it had rather than being accused of sitting on the story for one reason or another.
Whatever the Times' motive might have been, Executive Editor Bill Keller wasn't telling much when he issued a formal statement Thursday. He said the story "speaks for itself," that the story was published because it was "ready," and that "the subjects have all been given a full and fair chance to respond."
If the story speaks for itself, it speaks in a whisper.
Nonetheless, suspicions are bound to surface that this was a grand conspiracy to kneecap John McCain just after he has clinched the nomination, thereby dooming Republican hopes to retain the presidency in November. But before assuming the existence of a conspiracy, always rule out bad judgment, ineptitude and hubris first.
It is likely the editorial decision to run this story could be summed up thusly: "Why didn't we run that story a long time ago? We should have run it when we first heard about it. Well, I guess we'd better run it now before somebody else does. Not much of a story, though."
Again, we could be jolted by further revelations in the days ahead. But if that's all there is, it is a sad commentary on the news judgment of the paper that purports to give us "all the news that's fit to print."
Meanwhile, McCain's campaign, while officially lamenting that the story has been a distraction, has gleefully launched a fundraising appeal, asking supporters to help counter the "sleazy smear attack from a liberal newspaper against the conservative Republican frontrunner."
Hey, maybe this really is a conspiracy.