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What McCain Should Have Said

In his excruciating press conference this morning, John McCain missed a golden opportunity to turn the story of his Special Friend into a boost for his campaign. He should have said something like this:

"The New York Times, the most liberal newspaper in America, has tried to smear me with the allegation that it has been nine years since my staffers worried that I might be capable of having an inappropriate relationship. This is a transparent attempt by the Times to allege that I am too old to lead this nation.

"Sure, I've lost a step. Who hasn't? When you're my age, you don't have quite the same pop on your fastball. You have to learn to throw junk. Frankly I miss the days when the attractive lobbyists swarmed so thickly they darkened my sky at noon. Trust me, I was like Toto, they were like the flying monkeys.

"And I will candidly tell you that I sometimes ask myself, 'Do I really want to be president of the United States, or just tinker with old cars in my garage, and make leisurely trips every day to Home Depot?'

"I truly believe I am fully capable of being the strong leader this country needs -- even though, as you can clearly see from my attire today, I sometimes forget to change out of my pajamas."

And so on.

But no, McCain decided to deny everything. It was a blanket denial, a huge quilt of a denial. He denied everything that was, or might have been, or might someday be, alleged.

Damage Control must be a dying art. In my day, the spinners knew how to staunch the political bleeding, how to put a tourniquet on a scandal. They could be holding a smoking gun, standing amid viscera and gore, and still turn the grisly situation into a mere kerfuffle. They knew how to issue a non-denial denial so ingenious that even experts trained in spotting non-denial denials mistook them for denials.

Another line someone ought to try: "It depends on what the meaning of 'romantic' is." [I know, my next gig should be in PR.]

The press conference was feel-bad TV. McCain and his wife looked about as miserable as you'd expect. The reporters showed no real enthusiasm for their task. It was like a ritual that had to be endured by all parties.

The strange thing is that the Times story isn't really that harsh. The McCain camp essentially acknowledges as much in its initial statement attacking the Times:

"Americans are sick and tired of this kind of gutter politics, and there is nothing in this story to suggest that John McCain has ever violated the principles that have guided his career."

Wait. If there's nothing in the story to suggest that McCain violated his principles, then how is the story a smear campaign?

If anything, the story bent over backwards to contextualize the coziness between McCain and a lobbyist:

"... the concerns about Mr. McCain's relationship with Ms. Iseman underscored an enduring paradox of his post-Keating career. Even as he has vowed to hold himself to the highest ethical standards, his confidence in his own integrity has sometimes seemed to blind him to potentially embarrassing conflicts of interest."

In other words, he's so decent, true, honest and brave, he doesn't inhabit the mortal world of suspicion, fear and gossip.

By Joel Achenbach  |  February 21, 2008; 8:24 AM ET
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