Vicki Iseman is in the news again. It’s been a while. The last time I thought about her was back in February 2008, when the New York Times reported that a lot of people were suspicious that she had an affair with John McCain. In those olden days, it was thought that an adulterous relationship might trip up McCain’s bid for the Republican nomination. But the allegations were more sordid than that.
Early in Senator John McCain’s first  run for the White House eight years ago, waves of anxiety swept through his small circle of advisers.
A female lobbyist had been turning up with him at fund-raisers, visiting his offices and accompanying him on a client’s corporate jet. Convinced the relationship had become romantic, some of his top advisers intervened to protect the candidate from himself instructing staff members to block the woman’s access, privately warning her away and repeatedly confronting him, several people involved in the campaign said on the condition of anonymity.
When news organizations reported that Mr. McCain had written letters to government regulators on behalf of the lobbyist’s client, the former campaign associates said, some aides feared for a time that attention would fall on her involvement.
Ms. Iseman is the same age as my first wife. The year she was born, McCain was shot down in Vietnam and became a prisoner of war. She graduated from high school in 1985, when McCain was still a member of the U.S. House of Representatives and hadn’t yet been implicated in the Keating Five Scandal. But Iseman had early career success in the lobbying industry.
Within months of graduation, Iseman joined a friend in Washington, D.C. and initially got a job as a receptionist at Alcalde & Fay. After a few months, she approached the president of Alcalde & Fay and said “I’m a college graduate and I’d like you to consider me for a secretarial or an administrative position.” The president agreed to a three-month trial and within a year she became his special assistant.
From this position, Iseman learned about lobbying from the firm’s president, and soon became a lobbyist in her own right. Eight years later, she became the youngest partner in the history of Alcalde & Fay.
During this period, Sen. McCain served as a member and chairman (1997-2001) of the Senate Commerce Committee which oversees telecommunications. This is why he came into contact with Iseman. Her clients paid her to help craft the hugely consequential Telecommunications Act of 1996, and when McCain ascended to the committee chairmanship, he became the most important person to influence on broadcasting policy.
When the alleged affair was reported by the Times in 2008, the McCain campaign vigorously fought back and succeeded in knocking the story out of the public consciousness. Of course, a garden variety extramarital affair might have upset some voters but the real threat was that people would believe McCain had been having sex with someone who was actively lobbying him on policy. Quaintly, this was seen as potentially disqualifying behavior in a presidential candidate. As it happened, McCain won the Republican nomination in 2008 only to suffer defeat to Barack Obama in November.
The Iseman news cycle was long forgotten by then but, worried about her reputation, she tried suing the Times. She had to settle for a “Note to Readers” clarifying that the Times “did not state, and…did not intend to conclude, that Ms. Iseman had engaged in a romantic affair with Senator McCain or an unethical relationship on behalf of her clients in breach of the public trust.”
If Steve Schmidt is to be believed, however, the allegations were true. On May 8, the senior strategist for McCain’s 2008 presidential candidacy, wrote a long post on Substack explaining that he played a large role in killing the story and then kept its accuracy a secret for 14 years. He unburdened himself mainly because he was feuding with McCain’s daughter Meghan, and I suppose this was the most savage way he could think of to wound her.
Meghan should have known better than to provoke Schmidt because he’s been racked with guilt for years and recent events have really pushed him to a breaking point. His greatest sin was strongly advocating that McCain pick Sarah Palin as his running mate. He’s rightly been taking unceasing abuse for this misjudgment ever since. Like me, Schmidt sees a straight line between that decision and the rise of the Tea Party, Donald Trump, QAnon, and January 6.
He’s also smarting about the Russian war in Ukraine, mainly because McCain’s campaign manager Rick Davis was a lobbyist along with Paul Manafort who worked for Kremlin approved clients in Kyiv. In retrospect, McCain’s reputation looks like dogshit, and Schmidt is ashamed of the role he played in portraying him as a paragon of patriotism and integrity. Having dumped all this off his conscience and onto Substack, Schmidt says, “I will sleep softly tonight — unburdened and much lighter than I was yesterday morning.”
If Schmidt had listened to me when I debunked McCain’s heroic reputation in August 2008, he might have had better rest over the last 14 years. We’re all flawed human beings and Schmidt is right to point out some of McCain’s virtues. On the whole, though, he was very far from an honorable man. Schmidt looks mostly able to admit this now.
John McCain was human, and like all of us, including me, he was flawed. He was a legend, but not a myth. Too much of our political conversation mythologizes fantasies that never existed in the first place. Often commentators will say something to the effect of, “if only John McCain was here.” He isn’t, and he won’t be.
I would be remiss if I did not directly address some commentary about what I owe the McCain family. I owe the McCain family nothing. I have never taken anything of value from a McCain. I helped Senator John McCain because I believed. I lost my faith in him a long time ago. I have never lost my faith in America and neither did he. We shared that in common.
I don’t really care about Steve Schmidt’s bad conscience, which he richly deserves, or about the McCain family’s hurt feelings–they’ve benefited greatly from the mythologized fantasies. But it’s good to see a reckoning, of sorts, and a correction of the historical record.
To be clear, McCain was so mortified by his corrupt role in the Keating Five savings and loan scandal that he ran for president in 2000 on a campaign finance reform platform. But, at the time, he was banging a telecommunications lobbyist 31 one years his junior who had business before his committee. The man was a fraud, and he gave us Sarah Palin and all that stemmed from her. He needs to be regularly demythologized because he caused great harm.