McCain's brand of toughness rarer than Teflon

By David Nyhan, Globe Columnist, 1/9/2000

ohn McCain is taking a bad rap.

The Arizona senator is being castigated as a hypocrite and grafter merely for taking part in, and playing by the rules of, a system so corrupt that no one can participate without getting smudged. For writing a pair of routine get-off-your-butts-and-make-up-your-mind letters to the Federal Communications Commission on behalf of a company whose executives gave him some cut-rate plane rides and a relative pittance of campaign donations, McCain is being drawn and quartered.

The foghorns of the news media, and the jibes of his rival presidential aspirants, combine to tear down the reputation of the man who has been the bravest, loudest, most effective campaign finance reformer. The toxicity of our money-drenched political system is now poisoning the chances of even the champion of overhauling it. All this helps prop up, till the next inevitable scandal, the staggering status quo. You are getting shafted again, ladies and gentlemen.

You know that a corrupt system is caving in on itself when the chief advocate of change is sucked into the gaping maw. The system at its simplest is a volcano of campaign cash lavished upon politicians by donors seeking favors. The cash flows like molten lava, the irresistible force burying all in its path. The money eventually cools into a blackened crust upon which nothing can grow for a long time, and that is the scorched earth detritus of representative government that Senator McCain denounced for years.

Only now, at the most vulnerable point of his political life, the outspoken Arizona Republican has been ambushed by news accounts, and his rivals' piling on, which question his honor and his conduct. Because he has received what amounts to nothing more than routine consideration for a powerful committee chairman and a potential president, he is being mocked as a charlatan and a hypocrite. Neither charge is accurate nor fair. But it comes with the territory. McCain, as he gamely acknowledged in Thursday night's New Hampshire GOP debate, knows what comes with the territory. If you fly over hostile terrain, you attract antiaircraft fire. He's not a whiner, not a bellyacher, not a moaner-and-groaner.

As it happens, Common Cause and the Committee for Economic Development, two outfits that have bonded to try to undo the most corrupt aspects of our present campaign contribution system, will host a town meeting Wednesday night at 7 p.m. at New Hampshire College in Manchester, featuring Bill Bradley, who's challenging Al Gore for the Democratic presidential nomination; Derek Bok, the former Harvard president; Scott Harshbarger, the national president of Common Cause; and various authorities on campaign finance.

Instead of further hand-wringing about the abuses, said Harshbarger, ''on this night, we hope to focus on the solutions rather than the problems.'' McCain has been invited, but organizers are not sure he'll make it. If he does show up, he'll hear Harshbarger describe him as a victim of the system, not an exploiter.

But the suffocating cynicism of the media coverage of the bare outlines of the story will spawn in turn even more apathy in the electorate. It is important for New Hampshire voters to hear how even the best-intentioned politician can be tarnished. The system is so corrupt that even the man trying hardest to cleanse it is dirtied in the process.

Fortunately for his own peace of mind, McCain has the kind of character and personality that will enable him to withstand this buffeting. No one whose jet fighter was shot out from under him can be knocked too far off stride by this kind of flak. And no one who stood tall under 51/2 years of torture, harassment, and systematic intimidation is going to crumble like a cookie when his five GOP presidential rivals take turns zapping him in televised debates.

There is an aching irony to this development, caused by McCain's eagerness to prod the FCC on behalf of Paxson Communications. The company's lobbyist and his associates bundled contributions amounting to $20,000 for McCain's campaign, all perfectly legal. But in Thursday night's debate, Texas Governor George W. Bush lectured McCain on the ethics of campaign finance, and cautioned that outlawing soft money, the unlimited six-digit cash transfers that pay for party political activities, would harm ''the Republican Party and the conservative cause.''

The GOP tends to outspend Democrats substantially in federal elections, particularly in presidential years. Bush has so far raised $74 million in just 52 weeks, an unprecedented landslide of lucre that made him the prohibitive favorite. McCain is the only one with a chance of beating Bush in New Hampshire, actually leading by a slim 3 points in the latest public poll. But now McCain gets hammered for taking $20,000 from the Paxon lobbyists, while Bush is not criticized for harvesting $1.4 million per week from contributors hoping he wins the Oval Office. When people are giving you $200,000 every day in the belief you'll be able to do them a favor, who's peddling what to whom?

What does Enron Corp. hope to get from President Bush Junior for the $550,000 its executives have funneled to the Bush political operation. Anyone listening? Hello? Hello?

David Nyhan is a Globe columnist.