McCain talks of 'higher plane'

By John Aloysius Farrell, Globe Staff, 1/6/2000

ANCHESTER, N.H. - Senator John McCain told a New Hampshire audience yesterday that American government has become ''little more than a spectacle of selfish ambition,'' and asked for help to ''turn the practice of politics toward a higher plane.''

But in the hours before and after his lunchtime address, McCain showed how fine and difficult a line he is walking when trying to reform a political system in which he is also a leading player.

McCain, in a campaign swing through central New Hampshire, spent part of his time denying that his acceptance of corporate jet travel and contributions from broadcasting interests, as reported yesterday in the Globe, had led him to seek favored treatment for the donors.

His leading opponent, George W. Bush, suggested that McCain's actions in the matter had smacked somewhat of hypocrisy, given the Arizona senator's standing as an outspoken advocate for limiting special-interest influence in Washington.

''I think it's really important for people who are advocating reforms to live up to the spirit of reforms they are advocating,'' Bush said, adding that he believes McCain to be an honest man.

McCain acknowledged that he had written a letter to the Federal Communications Commission on behalf of broadcasting interests that rented him its corporate jets at a low but legal rate, and that gave $20,000 to his campaign over the past year. But he stressed that his letter had only demanded that the FCC make a decision after a two-year delay, and had not suggested how the commissioners should vote.

But as the Globe reported yesterday, McCain's letter, in its timing and tone, was widely interpreted inside the FCC as exerting pressure to reach the outcome desired by the broadcasting conglomerate, Paxson Communications.

The FCC chairman, William E. Kennard, a Democratic appointee, replied to McCain last month that his intervention was ''highly unusual,'' and suggested that it might be inappropriate since it might ''have substantive impacts'' on the FCC's deliberations.

McCain was unapologetic yesterday. ''They are probably the least responsive agency in Washington,'' he said. ''If I had asked them to act affirmatively or negatively, there may be some concerns.''

He did not, he said, and ''it's my responsibility as chairman of the oversight committee to ask them to act.''

McCain campaign officials also noted that two Globe reporters covering McCain had also ridden on the broadcast industry jets with him, and that they could attest that no lobbying went on during the flights. The Globe story did not suggest that lobbying took place on the flights, which are a common and legal, though disputed, way for corporate interests to subsidize travel by public officials. (The Globe pays all travel costs for its employees.)

McCain used the Paxson jet four times, including on the day before and the day after the Dec. 10 letter to the FCC.

McCain was philosophical about the flap, and said it was a sign that his presidential campaign was gaining credibility as he rose in the polls. ''With increased traction you get increased visibility'' and scrutiny from both the press and his opponents, he said. In a town meeting in Bedford, he brought up the episode as an illustration of how the pervasive influence of big money ''taints'' politics, and makes Americans suspicious and skeptical.

That was also a theme of a luncheon address to the Boys and Girls Club of Manchester, in which McCain deplored ''corrosive cynicism'' in American civic life.

''For too many Americans, the business of politics has become an ugly spectacle,'' he said. ''The battle of bucks instead of ideas; the dishonest attack ads; the smearing of personal reputations; the lies we call spin - all have contributed significantly to disillusioning an entire generation about the value of public service.''

''My friends, please do not think I claim some special virtue among the candidates. I have failed far, far too often in my public and private life to be the model of rectitude I try to be to my children,'' McCain said. ''I cannot say that I am a better man than my opponents. But I hope you believe that I take my responsibilities to America seriously enough to honestly endeavor to rise to the occasion before me.''

Talking with reporters on his campaign bus, McCain used Vice President Al Gore's attacks on former Senator Bill Bradley as an example of tactics that exceeded the bounds of fair play, and that thus demeaned all candidates.

But a few hours later McCain was wincing at the rhetoric his staff had used in a press release pounding the Bush tax plan. The release tagged Bush for issuing a ''political plan for the 2000 election'' that was ''leaving Social Security in danger'' and using 60 percent of the federal budget surplus to reward the wealthiest 10 percent of Americans, ''like most of his top contributors.''

''I deserve some static on that,'' McCain acknowledged. The senator plans to detail his tax plan in a speech Tuesday in New Hampshire.