John McCain's "Checkers" Speech

It was the kind of press conference reporters show up for even when they're not working.

They put on their best suits and get their shoes shined. They make sure they have fresh batteries in their tape recorders.

Senator John McCain had promised to give his version of Richard Nixon's "Checkers" speech. His political career was on the line. He would meet the press in a basement conference room of the downtown Sheraton Hotel.

The place was packed. Even the editorial writers from the Arizona Republic and Phoenix Gazette emerged from their bunkers, two blocks away, to make rare public appearances.

But despite the pressure caused by the big turnout, the advantage was always McCain's.

He held the high cards. The reporters were actually at a disadvantage. To badger a United States senator in this forum would appear churlish. McCain's strategy took that into account. If his version of the story went unchallenged, his side of the story would make it for both the television sound bites and the live radio coverage. And that's exactly how it turned out.

Let's consider the McCain story for a bit.

His success has two elements. First, of course, is the fact that he was a prisoner of war for six years during the Vietnam War. Everything proceeds from that. He is like a man who wins the lottery. Without his war record, McCain would be a political nonentity.

The other, much less important element, is that he has an engaging personality and the ability to appear self-deprecating. Without the war record this would perhaps be sufficient enough for a seat on the town council. These assets are counterbalanced by the fact that he is clearly duplicitous and a man who is willing to shade the truth.

But in the world of politics, McCain's dark side merely adds to his advantage.

By comparing himself to Nixon, McCain was unwittingly admitting not only his guilt but his overweening ambition for national office.

Nixon's speech on national television in the 1952 presidential campaign remains a classic of the artful politician at work. We have all seen it rerun many times.

Like McCain, Nixon was accused of taking funds from power brokers. He was running for vice president on Dwight Eisenhower's ticket at the time. The speech would either save him or result in his being removed from the ticket.

"I did get a gift," Nixon said. "A little cocker spaniel dog . . . and our little girl, Tricia, the six-year-old, named it Checkers . . . Pat and I have satisfaction that every dime that we've got is honestly ours.

"I should say this--that Pat doesn't have a mink coat, but she does have a respectable Republican cloth coat."

Nixon's answer was cloying and childish. And it didn't really address the charges. But the reaction to his speech was one of overwhelming approval. The public went for a man who had a dog named Checkers and a wife with a "respectable Republican cloth coat."

The secret of Nixon's escape is simple. Any politician willing to stand up and prevaricate sincerely can be assured of carrying the day.

This is exactly how McCain handled his crisis last week. Surely, he understands the political rule that a sincere attitude is 90 percent of the battle.

A United States senator who admits he made a mistake can win over his critics every time. In the case of McCain, the public is caught up by a special emotional problem. They don't want to believe that the man they've honored as a war hero can also be a cheap and conniving political climber.

We do not give up our heroes so easily.

McCain came to his meeting with the press armed with a seven-page written statement. He insisted on reading it first.

His reason was simple. The more McCain talked the less film there would be of him answering embarrassing questions. And given the time constraints, most television stations would run portions of McCain's prepared speech rather than his jousting with reporters.

"I want to clear the air," McCain began.

"I am not going to stand here and tell you that everything I have done is above reproach and without fault . . . I freely admit my errors . . . " This was very clever. Having told everyone he was admitting his errors, he then gave his transgressions such an artful spin that McCain's dishonesty appeared to be the most normal behavior imaginable.

McCain is nothing if not an accomplished fabulist. If you don't watch the thread carefully, you will be convinced by him that he really isn't a greedy opportunist after all.  

But consider these things:

* McCain sought out Arizona only because a seat in Congress was readily available to him.

* He knowingly cultivated Charlie Keating because he was the man with the deepest pockets in the state.

* He took $112,000 in campaign donations from Keating without a murmur and scoffs at the suggestion he return them.

* McCain and his wife, Cindy, and their baby sitter made so many trips to Keating's vacation home in the Bahamas that people on Keating's housekeeping staff thought they were part of the family. And in a way, they were.

* McCain's wife and father-in-law were brought into a profitable shopping center deal with Keating. The deal was for better than $359,100. McCain wants us to believe that that kind of investment means nothing to him.

* McCain and his wife and baby sitter rode free on Keating's corporate jets. He never made an effort to pay until he realized the free rides would become a matter of public record.

* When five senators ganged up on Edwin Gray, then head of the Federal Home Loan Bank Board on behalf of Keating, McCain eagerly joined the pack.

* The relationship with Keating was so close that one of McCain's top aides, Brad Boland, married one of Keating's daughters and then left McCain's staff and went to work for Keating.

Given the rules limiting campaign contributions, how does McCain justify taking part in Keating's scheme to get around them?

Clearly, Keating directed the donations made by his family and underlings all over the country in order to reach a figure that tops $100,000.

There are page after page of McCain political donations. It would take days to digest them. But they provide clear evidence that the money was bundled by Keating for McCain, who willingly accepted it.

Now McCain is as desperate as a politician can be. He has been exposed as Charlie Keating's kept man in the United States Senate.

Last week, the Wall Street Journal addressed the matter. It referred to the senators involved with Keating as "The Keating Five."

They are McCain and Dennis DeConcini from Arizona, Alan Cranston of California, John Glenn of Ohio, and Donald Riegle of Michigan.

The newspaper points out that the failure of Keating's Lincoln Savings and Loan is the largest thrift failure in history. Because of the actions of McCain and his fellow senators, $2.5 billion must be made up.

Common Cause has asked for a senate-ethics investigation of the five senators. It wants an outside counsel to conduct the probe as was done in the case of former Speaker of the House Jim Wright of Texas.

Maybe nothing can help John McCain now.

Self-serving press conferences can only temporarily stem the tide.

But McCain's game may be nearing its end. If the investigation goes deep enough, his political career may be destroyed.

"What I have not done is abuse my public office," McCain said the other day.

But that is precisely the thing McCain has done.

"I first met Charlie Keating in the spring of 1981 at a Navy League dinner," he said. "I looked upon Keating as the prime example of the Arizona success story, a guy from back East who comes to Arizona and has the vision to see its unlimited potential.

"Keating and I became friends. When I decided to run for Congress, he indicated his willingness to be helpful in raising money."

One thing McCain did not mention at his press conference was the possibility of returning the money.

He has, however, brought that up at other times.

"If I gave Charlie Keating back his money, it would be admitting I did something wrong."

Beautiful. Politicians like McCain never do anything wrong. McCain admits he made a "serious error," committed an "oversight." McCain assures us that there is "absolutely, positively nothing illegal" in the shopping center deal that his wife has entered into with Keating.

This totally begs the question. The mere appearance of the deal is so wrong that even a politician so hungry for money and power as McCain should be able to see it.

"It saddens and concerns me that there is an appearance that something about this is not right," McCain says.

He adds, facetiously, that there is nothing he can do as a U.S. senator to help or hinder the success of a shopping center.

This is pure sophistry. The main reason the shopping center deal looks so bad is that it appears to be a payoff for McCain's help in fighting off the bank regulators.  

Keating, of course, says that he also did nothing wrong. But then again, a man with Keating's arrogance does nothing but march to the beat of his own drum.

I remember Keating's last public appearance.

"Do you think all that money you gave affected those politicians?" Keating was asked.

"I certainly hope so," Keating said without hesitation. In person, Charlie is man who exudes self-confidence. Some call it unbridled arrogance.

But Keating forgot something. It's always dangerous to say things that people might remember.

And there's a dark undercurrent to this strange tale of friendship between McCain and Keating.

The popular theory holds that Keating corrupted politicians. Did you ever think that the reverse occurred in his relationship with McCain?

Keating was the one who was used. What a pair. They were a perfect match, these two opportunists.

Two cynical hard chargers on their way to the top. But their dreams and schemes are shattered now.

Keating will be lucky to stay out of prison.

McCain's political future may be in ruins. There will be no coming back from this savings and loan debacle, which affects more ordinary people than either Watergate or Teapot Dome.

So there's no reason to weep over the fall of McCain and Keating.

They deserve what comes next. They also deserve each other.

It's surprising that Keating emerges from the wreckage as actually the more sympathetic character of the two.

McCain comes off as manipulative and dishonest. He used Keating just as he has always made capital of the fact that he was a prisoner of war.

The record shows McCain has used everyone in his path. Perhaps he shouldn't be faulted for this. He was, after all, playing for the highest stakes.

But even allowing for that, I find McCain's alleged friendship with Keating and his family sobering.

McCain wormed his way into the good graces of Charles Keating, the man who had the deepest pockets in Arizona.

So McCain and his wife--and even their baby sitter--accepted the airplane rides to Keating's exotic vacation home in Bermuda.

They accepted his hospitality both at his home and hotel.

And McCain gladly kept his hand over his wallet while "Good Time Charlie" paid for everything.

And now McCain wants us to believe that he "forgot" to repay Keating until the spotlight fell on Keating's fallen empire.

It wasn't that Keating couldn't afford McCain. After all, the money for the airplanes and the homes and the hotels and the campaign contributions came from the ordinary people who invested in Keating's savings and loan.

Certainly, McCain knew all about that. But he never envisioned there'd be an end to the free rides.

Hell, McCain thought, he might even be in the White House before anyone learned what a fast game Keating was dealing.

Then there was the matter of the meeting in Dennis DeConcini's office.

There would be no risk involved. Nobody would ever know.

Five senators, all bought by Keating earlier, would lean on the federal regulator, hoping he'd desist from efforts to stop Keating's looting of the savings and loan system.

McCain and DeConcini represented Arizona. The powerful Alan Cranston came from California. John Glenn, another genuine American icon, represented Ohio. And Don Riegle represented Michigan.

But these men were not there representing their constituents in this sorry business. They were there to do the bidding of Keating, who had bought them long before.

It was, they thought, a no-risk game. Five powerful senators were present. They could stick together and say they did not try to lean on the regulator.

Who would ever believe one regulator against five senators?

But truth is a funny thing. It has a way, sometimes, of getting out despite all odds.

Once the heat came, McCain bailed out. The friendship was over. McCain told Keating he was on his own.

"You're a wimp," Keating replied.

Life goes on.

Keating corrupted politicians with his millions.

McCain took Keating's money, used his vacation home and took free rides in his private jets.

McCain offered Keating his friendship and went along with his schemes.

Now McCain says he did nothing wrong.

"I have made some errors for which I apologize," he says. "What's important to me now is to retain the public's trust that I feel I have earned." It's much too late for that.

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