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by Michael Winship

The Friends of John McCain (1999)

Hell hath no fury like a convert. Or so it seemed back in the early nineties, when the political career of Arizona Senator John McCain almost went down in flames during the savings and loan scandal.

Senator McCain, you'll recall, was one of the notorious Keating Five, a group of US senators accused of using their clout to help bail out Charles Keating, chairman of the failed Lincoln Savings and Loan. All had received campaign contributions and other perks from Keating.

The collapse of Lincoln Savings cost the American taxpayer $3.4 billion. Charles Keating went to prison. Mr. McCain got off with a mild rebuke for "questionable conduct" from the Senate Ethics Committee, but so embarrassed was he, the senator vowed that from then on he would be above reproach, the Caesar's wife of Capitol Hill. A changed man, he would fight for truth, justice and the American way; battling special interests, crusading for ethics and leading the way for campaign finance reform with the evangelistic zeal of the born again.

Here's what he wrote in his 2002 book, "Worth the Fighting For:" "I would very much like to think that I have never been a man whose favor could be bought..."

And this: "I have carefully avoided situations that might even tangentially be construed as a less than proper use of my office."

And this: "Money does buy access in Washington, and access increases influence that often results in benefiting the few at the expense of the many."

In truth, Senator McCain has fought hard against pork barrel and earmarks. And the mere mention of the famous campaign finance reform bill he created with Democratic Senator Russ Feingold is enough to send many of his fellow Republicans into sputters of apoplexy. But as with so many politicians and candidates, the burdensome financial demands of campaigning for office -- the endless fundraising, the expectations of high-rolling donors -- have too often forced John McCain into that most human of hypocrisies, the one that goes, "Do as I say, not as I do."

Appropriately for a senator from the vast expanses of the American southwest, it's land deals that appear to be John McCain's weakness, land deals possibly tied to campaign donations, lobbyists and other inside connections. A week ago, the Washington Post reported McCain pushed for legislation allowing a rancher named Fred Ruskin to trade more than 55,000 acres of his land for an equal amount of Federal land, prime for development.

According to the Post, the senator was initially reluctant but, "The Arizona Republican became a key figure in pushing the deal through Congress after the rancher and his partners hired lobbyists that included McCain's 1992 Senate campaign manager, two of his former Senate staff members (one of whom has returned as his chief of staff), and an Arizona insider who was a major McCain donor and is now bundling campaign checks."

And wait, as they say on those late night, huckster television ads, there's more! Rancher Ruskin and his partners plan to have 12,000 homes built on the land by a company called SunCor Development. SunCor is a subsidiary of Pinnacle West, Arizona's largest power utility. It's run by Steven Betts, a McCain supporter who has raised more than $100,000 for the senator's presidential bid.

Betts told the Post there is "absolutely no" link between his fundraising and the land swap. But it's not the first time McCain has helped contributors navigate the corridors of Congress to help hammer down a good real estate deal.

Just last month, for example, the New York Times reported on McCain's long friendship with Donald R. Diamond, another rich real estate man from Arizona. With the senator's help, Diamond has profited in similar swaps for Federal land, including a lucrative deal that sold him California coastline property formerly part of the Fort Ord military base. Diamond, who has been called "the other Donald" -- Arizona's answer to Donald Trump -- has raised more than a quarter of a million dollars for the McCain presidential campaign. So far.

Asked about the leg up Senator McCain has given him in the real estate game, Diamond told the Times, "I think this is what Congress people are supposed to do for constituents. When you have a big, significant businessman like myself, why wouldn't you want to help move things along? What else would they do? They waste so much time with legislation."

In other words, all constituents are created equal -- but the ones with the deepest pockets are more equal than the rest of us.

Nor is it the first time McCain has fallen under the sway of the DC lobbyists whose ways he vowed to reform, lobbyists who also happen to be former or current employees of his. McCain's presidential campaign manager Rick Davis, senior advisors Steve Schmidt and Mark McKinnon and chief political advisor Charles Black, Jr. -- their usual clients have names like Verizon, General Motors and JP Morgan.

This potential for conflicts of interest snapped at the campaign's posterior just this week when Newsweek revealed that McCain's recent choice to coordinate the Republican National Convention in September is chief executive of a public relations and lobbying firm that used to be on the payroll of the military junta ruling Myanmar. That regime, under fire for resisting relief efforts in the wake of last week's deadly cyclone, has in the past been charged with gruesome human rights abuses by none other than John McCain.

Certainly, Senators Clinton and Obama are advised by people who make their livings lobbying for corporate America and other countries, too. After all, they know the ins and outs of government and politics better than anyone. But as McCain himself wrote in "Worth the Fighting For," "Questions of honor are raised as much by appearances as by reality in politics, and because they incite public distrust they need to be addressed no less directly than we would address evidence of expressly illegal corruption."

When Barack Obama questioned Senator McCain's "bearings" last week, he was talking about McCain's portrayal of him as sympathetic to the militant Palestinian group Hamas. The McCain campaign chose to interpret "bearings" as a reference to McCain's age. Lost bearings equal lost marbles. But think of it instead as the lost bearings of a moral compass, thrown off true north by the dollars, demands and compromises of a life in contemporary American politics.

© 2008 Messenger Post Newspapers

Writers Guild of America Award winner Michael Winship is senior writer of the weekly public affairs program Bill Moyers Journal, which airs Friday night on PBS (check local airtimes or comment at The Moyers Blog at and writes for the Messenger Post Newspapers in upstate New York

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Albion Monitor   June 6, 2008   (

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