Friday, February 08, 2008

Where is Charles Keating???

This election, particularly the Republican nomination fight, has been very puzzling. Numerous Democratic pundits keep claiming that they fear running against Arizona Senator John McCain more than any other Republican. I keep asking myself, why? What am I missing? Senator McCain is not an effective orator, would be the oldest person ever elected to the office (this is an issue and makes his VP selection all the more critical), agrees with them on most major issues except the Iraq War, and threatens to depress his own party so much that Donald Duck could be the Democratic nominee and win. Even if he overcomes those issues, there is another issue from McCain's past, a past he enjoys talking about when he refers to his own admirable military service, which will sink him. It calls into question his character, his credibility, and his own proudest legislative achievement, the McCain-Feingold Campaign Finance Reform Bill (it might more accurately be called the McCain-Feingold Destruction of Free Speech Bill).

What is this issue, why is it so important, and why has it not been brought up so far in this campaign? The last question I cannot answer, it baffles me. Why Mitt Romney or any of the other Republicans would not skewer McCain with his own signature issue and make him look like the fool he truly is is a question I will not try to answer. Perhaps most of the electorate does not remember the Savings and Loans "crisis" of the late 1980s (in fact I was only a very small child at the time, but as a historian it's my job to look into these things), but I am sure John McCain does.

When deregulation hit the Savings and Loans Associations in the 1980s, a predictable speculative boom occurred which eventually came crashing down. Charles Keating ran one of these businesses in Phoenx, Arizona and donated money to numerous politicians, including his friend John McCain. Standard story of modern politics, right? Wait, it gets a little more interesting. During an investigation of Keating's real estate company (which owned the S&L) five Senators who received money from Keating (including McCain) met with the investigators attempting to strongarm them and get them to back-off of Keating's business dealings and practises. Basically what Keating did was make numerous high-risk investments which did not payoff, eventually causing his companies to go bankrupt, including his S&L. In an effort to avoid investigation from regulatory agencies Keating obviously called in favors (why else would these five senators, including McCain, go out of their way in one specific investigation?) in an attempt to not be found in violation of banking regulations. When the role of these senators, the infamous "Keating Five," became known, a scandal ensued and the Senate ethics committee censured them in various ways. This ended as far as McCain was concerned in 1990.

In the subsequent decade the posterboy of government corruption and payola, McCain, reinvented himself as a "Maverick" and champion of governmental reform, particularly (in grand irony) of campaign finance. It was his chief issue in his campaign against President George W. Bush in 2000, and which he finally got passed into law when the Democrats gained control of the Senate in 2001. In fact, the Keating Scandal, as inauspicious a start in the Senate anyone could create for themselves, may be the catalyst of McCain's whole subsequent facade as an "Independent" force in American politics. Essentially, he's a fraud attempting to get so far away from what happened in his first term in the Senate that most people, hearing of the Keating scandal for the first time today, scarcely believe that it's the same guy.

As a character issue, the Keating scandal is a troubling sign about McCain's priorities. Let me preface this by saying that McCain's status as a hero in unquestioned, but military heroes do not always make the best political leaders and are not above making poor decisions in their civilian lives. Being willing to use his power as a United States Senator to intimidate investigators conducting a lawful invesitgation smacks of Nixonism. It shows, at the very least, the ability to act as unethically as any public official can act without committing an outright felony.

This does not bode well for McCain running as ethical an administration as can be expected in this day and age. Perhaps the main lesson from the Clinton administration was that ethics no longer matter, by and large, to the electorate (in spite of clearly breaking numerous laws in plain view, indeed on TV in front of everyone, he maintained high popularity throughout his impeachment and trial) and thus McCain has nothing to fear from being made to look like a liar and hypocrite. I suspect, however, that the character of the reaction will be molded by the presentation (as in the Clinton case when everyone yelled, in the face of reality, that it was "only" about sex).

Though I said I would not try to answer the question of why this isn't being talked about (yet), I will advance a suspicion. Perhaps the reason the Democratic pundits (who, like all pundits, are not to be trusted) pretend to shake in their boots about McCain is because they know McCain is like Swiss cheese, full of holes. Saving things like the Keating scandal makes sense then, they want to make sure that McCain gets nominated first and he goes around a little longer blathering about his "straight talk" before they ruin him. Then again, I'm not sure if they are actually that smart.

1 comment:

Gideon said...

I heard a story on NPR about this recently. McCain was portrayed as a naive dupe rather than a corrupt politician. In fact, the piece claimed or hinted strongly that it was McCain's unfortunate experience with the Keating Five that led to his support of Campaign Finance Reform.