McCain strategy untried but true

By Eileen McNamara, Globe Columnist, 1/12/2000

his is not a man who cowers in the face of a tough question.

Maybe it was the five years of hostile interrogations as a prisoner of war in Vietnam, or maybe Senator John McCain really isn't afraid to lose. Either way, it is clear that the Republican from Arizona is not playing presidential politics by the same old rules.

With the New Hampshire primary only three weeks away, the conventional wisdom is that McCain should be quaking at suggestions that the GOP candidate of campaign finance reform is a tool of his corporate supporters.

Instead, McCain is adopting an untried political strategy. He is being direct, not defensive. He is trusting New Hampshire voters to distinguish between the forest and the trees.

Yes, he says, he did press federal regulators for a long-delayed decision on a Pittsburgh television license transfer for a campaign donor. Trying to budge the bureaucracy, he says, is part of his job. What he did not do, all parties agree, is try to pressure the Federal Communications Commission to approve the license transfer. (It's a good bet that a guy who once refused to accept his captors' offer of freedom unless all his fellow POWs were released with him sets a pretty high bar on the quid pro quo front.)

There is a substantial difference between asking for a decision and demanding an outcome, although the underdog candidate for the Republican presidential nomination well understands that in high- stakes politics, appearances alone can be fatal.

''I understand people's suspicion,'' he says, citing the insidious and corrosive influence of special-interest money in national politics. Reducing that influence has been the major preoccupation of John McCain's Senate career and is now the cornerstone of his upstart campaign for the presidency. ''I see campaign finance reform as the gateway to all other reforms,'' he says.

Such a high-profile commitment to reform certainly invites serious scrutiny of the senator's record, but McCain is learning that there are times a presidential candidate cannot win for losing.

In response to questions about his appeal to the FCC on behalf of Paxson Communications, McCain immediately released hundreds of letters he has written during his years in the Senate to various federal agencies. What he called full disclosure, the Associated Press yesterday described as a ''tell-all strategy of damage control.''

It is all so familiar.

Just last month, when his political opponents were whispering that his years as a prisoner of war had left the former US Navy pilot mentally unstable, McCain authorized the release of thousands of pages of his private medical records. The records showed no evidence of mental health problems; to the contrary, they documented his surprising stability given the trauma he suffered during the war, including more than two years in solitary confinement. Still, the anecdotes of his alleged volatility keep coming.

Had McCain not released his correspondence on behalf of corporate interests or had he failed to disclose his private medical records, we would be asking what the candidate had to hide. When he comes clean with the documents, we characterize the disclosures as a ''flood of paper'' that is part of McCain's ''damage-control strategy.''

It was a clear political miscalculation on McCain's part to write his letter to the FCC on Paxson's behalf in the same week that he joined former Senator Bill Bradley to denounce the influence of special-interest money in national politics. But a political miscalculation is not the same as political corruption.

It is no accident that McCain's five rivals for the Republican nomination took a pass on the FCC ''scandal'' during the debate in Grand Rapids, Mich., on Monday night. Who among them has not done something similar? Who in public life is not susceptible to similar questions about the access to their office that they have given to campaign contributors?

Providing access is not the same thing as peddling influence. The first is a noxious byproduct of this nation's flawed system of financing political campaigns, a system John McCain is fighting to change. The latter is already against the law.

Appearance isn't always reality and looks really can be deceiving. John McCain can only hope that in New Hampshire, voters look past the forest to the trees.

Eileen McNamara's e-mail address is