Russert: "[T]he story about Senator McCain and lobbyists and ethics and money -- that continues" -- but not on Meet the Press

››› ››› RYAN CHIACHIERE

On February 24, Tim Russert stated on NBC's Today that "the story about Senator [John] McCain and lobbyists and ethics and money -- that continues. It's been on the front page of several papers for the last three days. ... We have not heard the end of that discussion about Senator McCain." However, since that date, "the story" has not "continue[d]" on Meet the Press.

Commenting on a February 21 New York Times article about Sen. John McCain's relationship with lobbyist Vicki Iseman, NBC News Washington bureau chief Tim Russert asserted during the February 24 edition of NBC's Today: "It's interesting, this story about sex has somewhat dissipated and will, as long as no one steps forward and publicly criticizes Senator McCain or contradicts him in a public way. But the story about Senator McCain and lobbyists and ethics and money -- that continues. It's been on the front page of several papers for the last three days. I believe it's a story the Democrats will continue to seize on. We have not heard the end of that discussion about Senator McCain." Later that day, Russert discussed the Times story -- and related stories -- on his program, NBC's Meet the Press. Since then, several news outlets have reported on stories "about Senator McCain and lobbyists and ethics and money." The Washington Post and the Times have published front-page stories on actions reportedly taken by McCain that have benefited wealthy donors and that were, in at least one case, facilitated by lobbyists with connections to McCain campaigns past and present. But despite Russert's suggestion that "the story continues," it has not "continue[d]" on Meet the Press, according to a Media Matters for America review of the program's transcripts from March 2 through May 18.

Media Matters' review of Meet the Press found only two mentions of issues related to "Senator McCain and lobbyists and ethics and money" over the course of 12 programs. In both cases, the issue was raised by one of his guests, and in neither case did Russert himself comment on the assertions. On the March 2 edition of the program, Democratic strategist James Carville said of McCain, "He has 59 lobbyists in his campaign. I mean, idea that he's going to be some kind of reform thing when this is over is, is not going to play out," and Republican strategist Mike Murphy asserted, "You ask any Republican lobbyist in town, there is no Republican senator more disliked" than McCain. On the April 27 edition of Meet the Press, Democratic National Committee chairman Gov. Howard Dean asserted, "You know, we're spending a lot of time on process, and I think most Americans care about whether they want to be in Iraq or not for a hundred years, about the economy, about health care." He added, "I think they care about John McCain's reinvention of himself after the Keating Five. Turned out he wasn't such a reformer, as it was. Those are, I think, the -- the things people are worried about." Russert responded, "Well, but the Democrats are very worried about who's going to be the nominee and whether or not the result will reflect the primary process."

Since Russert's assertion that "[w]e have not heard the end of that discussion about Senator McCain," Russert has had the opportunity to follow up on any of numerous reports, but has not done so.

For example, in a May 9 article headlined "McCain Pushed Land Swap That Benefits Backer," the Post reported that McCain "championed legislation that will let an Arizona rancher trade remote grassland and ponderosa pine forest here for acres of valuable federally owned property that is ready for development, a land swap that now stands to directly benefit one of his top presidential campaign fundraisers." The Post continued:

Initially reluctant to support the swap, the Arizona Republican became a key figure in pushing the deal through Congress after the rancher and his partners hired lobbyists that included McCain's 1992 Senate campaign manager, two of his former Senate staff members (one of whom has returned as his chief of staff), and an Arizona insider who was a major McCain donor and is now bundling campaign checks.

When McCain's legislation passed in November 2005, the ranch owner gave the job of building as many as 12,000 homes to SunCor Development, a firm in Tempe, Ariz., run by Steven A. Betts, a longtime McCain supporter who has raised more than $100,000 for the presumptive Republican nominee. Betts said he and McCain never discussed the deal.

The Post also noted that "opponents were baffled by [McCain's] seemingly contradictory positions" on the legislation, and quoted Janine Blaeloch, founder and director of the Western Lands Project, asserting, "The bizarre thing to me regarding McCain is, we spent a lot of time with his staff, and we all seemed to be on the same page about the problems with this swap. But somehow, John McCain kept pushing it forward."

Additionally, the Post reported:

Betts is among a string of donors who have benefited from McCain-engineered land swaps. In 1994, the senator helped a lobbyist for land developer Del Webb Corp. pursue an exchange in the Las Vegas area, according to the Center for Public Integrity. McCain sponsored two bills, in 1991 and 1994, sought by donor Donald R. Diamond that yielded the developer thousands of acres in trade for national parkland.

Also, on April 22, the Times reported extensively on Diamond in an article headlined "A Developer, His Deals and His Ties to McCain." That article reported that Diamond "was racing to snap up a stretch of virgin California coast freed by the closing of an Army base a decade ago when he turned to an old friend, Senator John McCain." The article continued:

When Mr. Diamond wanted to buy land at the base, Fort Ord, Mr. McCain assigned an aide who set up a meeting at the Pentagon and later stepped in again to help speed up the sale, according to people involved and a deposition Mr. Diamond gave for a related lawsuit. When he appealed to a nearby city for the right to develop other property at the former base, Mr. Diamond submitted Mr. McCain's endorsement as "a close personal friend."

Writing to officials in the city, Seaside, Calif., the senator said, "You will find him as honorable and committed as I have."

Courting local officials and potential partners, Mr. Diamond's team promised that he could "help get through some of the red tape in dealing with the Department of the Army" because Mr. Diamond "has been very active with Senator McCain," a partner said in a deposition.

The article described Diamond as "one of the elite fund-raisers Mr. McCain's current presidential campaign calls Innovators, having raised more than $250,000 so far."

Later, in an article for the May 19 issue of Newsweek -- posted to Newsweek's website on May 10, as dated reader comments on the article indicate -- investigative reporter Michael Isikoff noted that McCain had tapped Douglas Goodyear to run the Republican National Convention in St. Paul, Minnesota, and reported that "some allies worry that Goodyear's selection could fuel perceptions that McCain -- who has portrayed himself as a crusader against special interests -- is surrounded by lobbyists. Goodyear is CEO of DCI Group, a consulting firm that earned $3 million last year lobbying for ExxonMobil, General Motors and other clients." Isikoff continued:

Potentially more problematic: the firm was paid $348,000 in 2002 to represent Burma's military junta, which had been strongly condemned by the State Department for its human-rights record and remains in power today. Justice Department lobbying records show DCI pushed to "begin a dialogue of political reconciliation" with the regime. It also led a PR campaign to burnish the junta's image, drafting releases praising Burma's efforts to curb the drug trade and denouncing "falsehoods" by the Bush administration that the regime engaged in rape and other abuses. "It was our only foreign representation, it was for a short tenure, and it was six years ago," Goodyear told NEWSWEEK, adding the junta's record in the current cyclone crisis is "reprehensible."

Goodyear resigned after the story appeared. On May 11, a second McCain staffer, Doug Davenport, resigned as a result of his work at DCI Group as well.

On May 16, citing The Atlantic's Marc Ambinder, a post on NBC's First Read blog noted, "The other McCain news is that the campaign is paying more attention to his campaign's links to lobbyists. After two staffers had to resign because of their ties to lobbying Myanmar, campaign manager Rick Davis "e-mailed to McCain's entire staff a memo entitled 'McCain Campaign Conflicts Policy' -- Effective Today" that includes a questionnaire asking about previous professional activities." The First Read post went on to note a May 15 article by Politico's Ben Smith that reported McCain's campaign "asked a prominent Republican consultant, Craig Shirley, to leave his official campaign role Thursday after a Politico inquiry about Shirley's dual role consulting for the campaign and for an independent 527 group opposing the Democratic presidential candidates."

The New York Times reported on McCain's new "conflicts policy" for campaign staff in a May 17 article headlined "In Effort to Avoid Conflicts, McCain Issues New Rules for Staff," and noted that McCain "said Friday that his presidential campaign was beginning a new 'vetting process' intended to end the embarrassments over staff ties to private interests, foreign governments or independent political groups." Also on May 17, The Washington Post, in an article headlined "More Campaign Staffers Out Because of New Ethics Policy," reported that McCain's campaign "continued to dismiss staff members this week for violating its new ethics policy, as Democrats ratcheted up pressure on McCain advisers for their lobbying backgrounds." That article noted that McCain "dismissed two staff members Thursday after unveiling the policy."

As Media Matters noted in a February 26 item, despite the media's long-perpetuated myth of McCain as a straight-talking maverick who is feared by lobbyists and representatives of special interests, The Huffington Post reported that McCain's campaign had more current and former lobbyists on staff or as advisers than any other candidate, and Public Citizen reported that McCain had more current and former lobbyist fundraising bundlers than any other candidate.

From the February 24 edition of NBC's Today:

JENNA WOLFE (correspondent): All right. And let's quickly turn to the Republican race, and it's been a few days since that New York Times article came out alleging an inappropriate relationship between John McCain and the lobbyist, Vicki Iseman. Last night, Clark Hoyt, the Times public editor, said this -- wrote this -- published a story saying, quote, "If a newspaper is going to suggest an improper sexual affair, whether editors think that that is the central point or not, it owes readers more proof than the Times was able to provide. ... The pity of it is that without the sex, the Times was on to a good story."

Tim, did this story raise some questions about McCain's association with lobbyists, in general? I mean, he's been that guy wanting to fight special interests all along, right?

RUSSERT: Yes. It's interesting, this story about sex has somewhat dissipated and will, as long as no one steps forward and publicly criticizes Senator McCain or contradicts him in a public way. But the story about Senator McCain and lobbyists and ethics and money -- that continues. It's been on the front page of several papers for the last three days. I believe it's a story the Democrats will continue to seize on. We have not heard the end of that discussion about Senator McCain.

Network/Outlet
NBC
Person
Tim Russert
Show/Publication
Meet the Press
Stories/Interests
John McCain, 2008 Elections
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