In one of the most sensational stories of the presidential campaign, The New York Times published a 3,000-word, front-page article in February suggesting that a little-known telecommunications lobbyist named Vicki Iseman had an affair with Sen. John McCain during his first run for the White House in 1999. The story did not provide any evidence of an affair, but said that McCain's top aides became convinced that the relationship was romantic and took steps to keep McCain and Iseman apart.
The story generated massive publicity, and media and political critics accused The Times of publishing a salacious and unfair story. The Times' own public editor joined the chorus of criticism saying, "Although [the newspaper] raised one of the most toxic subjects in politics -- sex -- it offered readers no proof that McCain and Iseman had a romance."
McCain, now 72, hotly denied a romantic tie to Iseman and accused The Times of "a hit-and-run smear campaign."
What did Iseman, whose blond good looks helped to drive the story, have to say about the explosive allegations? She refused to be interviewed by The Times, but in e-mail exchanges with the paper's reporters, she denied ever having a romantic relationship with McCain and disputed key assertions made by The Times' unnamed sources.
Now, after more than seven months of silence, Iseman, who just turned 41, has decided to speak out and aggressively defend herself. In a series of interviews and e-mail exchanges with National Journal, she said she and McCain had a "strictly professional" and cordial relationship.
"I did not have a sexual relationship with Senator McCain," she said in a three-hour interview last month in a seventh-floor conference room in the Ronald Reagan Building and International Trade Center. "I never had an affair or an inappropriate relationship with Senator McCain, and that means I never acted unethically in my dealings with the senator." Iseman, a partner in the lobbying firm of Alcalde & Fay, where she has worked for 18 years, adds, "I have never even been alone with Senator McCain."
Iseman says she answered every question put to her by The Times, but that the newspaper "chose to disregard" many of her answers. "The New York Times set out to write a story about a 'romantic relationship' in exchange for legislative favors.... Make the lobbyist a prostitute -- pretty heady stuff. The only problem was, they were wrong on all counts."
In strong language, Iseman also lashed out at John Weaver, a former top McCain strategist who left the campaign after a power struggle in July 2007. She said that Weaver had an "ax to grind" and had used The Times to orchestrate the story and damage McCain's presidential campaign. "The New York Times had four reporters [work] almost four months on this," she said in an e-mail to National Journal this month, "and John Weaver made them his marionettes." Weaver, she says, was "Machiavellian" and a "Benedict Arnold."
Weaver, a seasoned political operative, flatly denied Iseman's assertions. "I love John McCain," he said in an interview, "and I wouldn't do anything to harm him." Weaver said he responded to only one of eight written questions from The Times and put the answer on the record. "I responded accurately," he told NJ. "I did not help leak that story."
The Times stands behind its article. "I think that the story stands up, an important story, a strong story," says Dean Baquet, an assistant managing editor who runs the newspaper's Washington bureau and who helped oversee The Times' reporting. The newspaper "had ample, multiple sources for the story," he says, and had aggressively pursued Iseman's side, staking her out, sending her e-mails, and leaving her phone messages. He says that his reporters sought her comment "very early on in the process," but "we couldn't get her to sit down and talk."
Iseman's decision to tell her story now comes as McCain and his Democratic opponent, Barack Obama, are nearing the end of a long and arduous campaign for the presidency. McCain's campaign has attacked The Times' coverage of the campaign. One aide told reporters last month that the newspaper was "150 percent in the tank" for Obama.
Officials in the McCain campaign did not respond to repeated requests for comment on this story.
Asked why she is speaking now, Iseman says she struggled with her decision. She says that it is not her intent to "impact the election one way or another." But, she says, she needs "to set the record straight about who I am." Iseman explains, "When The New York Times' story ran, I never in a million years felt it would be what it was. I was a mess after it came out." While defending McCain himself, she feels that the McCain campaign did not defend her strongly enough when The Times' story broke.
She went back to work a week after the article appeared, Iseman says. "I thought if I just went back to work and reminded people of whom I was as a professional that it would go away -- but it didn't." She complains that she has been the subject of "vile" comments on the Internet and even has seen an image of her face posted on a pornographic website.
Strangers, she says, sometimes blame her for damaging McCain. "While waiting in the ladies room line, [a woman] told me that I should be ashamed of myself for what I did to 'that man, Senator McCain,' " Iseman recalls. "To this day, I will be typing on my computer and will get an e-mail calling me the worst of the worst names." She also says that three clients dropped her after The Times' story.
After the Republican National Convention in early September and the many critical press stories on McCain's running mate, Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, Iseman says, she decided to break her silence. The news coverage "caused me to think that I should speak out about what happened to me."
Iseman's decision to go public -- apart from providing the first detailed accounting from her on her relationship with McCain, his aides, and the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee, which he once headed -- also places a spotlight on the nasty rivalries that have plagued the McCain campaign. Most specifically, Weaver and McCain's campaign manager, Rick Davis, do not like each other, according to many Republican political operatives.
The rift between the two men, one friend of Davis's says, is "as deep as the Grand Canyon." Weaver, a veteran of presidential politics who now operates a political consulting firm in Washington, left the McCain campaign in summer 2007 after McCain installed Davis as his campaign manager.
Davis, like Weaver, figures in Iseman's story. On leave from the Davis Manafort lobbying firm, Davis was Iseman's principal contact at the McCain campaign. The two have known each other since 1999 when she raised funds for McCain's unsuccessful bid for the Republican presidential nomination. Iseman made no effort to hide her dealings with Davis and revealed that she consulted him after The New York Times began poking into her background last year. She says that Davis told her that Weaver was behind The Times' inquiry.
Iseman says that Davis was "very decent to me" while she was under scrutiny. "When it became clear to me that The Times was not doing a typical lobbyist story, I contacted Rick," she wrote in an e-mail to National Journal. "As The Times became more intrusive and aggressive, I kept Rick up to speed and asked that he let me know what he was hearing on his end."
After the story ran, she says, she and Davis "kept in touch periodically" and last talked "a couple of months ago." Davis had nothing to do with her decision to speak out, she emphasizes. Asked whether she felt as if she got caught in a political meat grinder, Iseman said: "I'm not sure. Is Weaver after McCain? Is Weaver after Davis? I am a pawn between forces that I don't totally understand." Davis did not respond to phone messages or e-mail questions about his dealings with Iseman.
"I heard her pour out her heart, and I did not realize how badly, professionally and personally, she had been hurt."-- Lanny Davis
Iseman is uneasy in the spotlight, saying she doesn't have "a comfort level speaking with the press or being in the public eye." For most of her 18 years in Washington, she has operated pretty much under the radar, establishing contacts among lawmakers and staffers on Capitol Hill. "I work with very high-profile people," she says, "but prefer the obscurity of a nonpublic persona."
It's not surprising, then, that she approached the interviews with National Journal as if she were having a tooth extracted without Novocain. She was accompanied by a lawyer at two on-the-record interviews with the magazine. Thin and wearing crisp business attire, she was friendly and outgoing but very guarded.
Iseman can be testy and emotional, especially when asked personal questions. Inquiries about her "personal and private life," she says, are "inappropriate." She gave some strong hints, though, at the emotional anguish that she says she has suffered: "The New York Times almost broke me. I am a very strong person with a strong support system, but they almost broke me, destroyed me."
Friends agree that Iseman's emotional state has been badly damaged. Lanny Davis, a Democrat who worked in the Clinton White House and later served on President Bush's Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board, says he reached out to his friend Iseman in the days after The Times' story eight months ago. She didn't return his call. Finally, two or three months ago, Lanny Davis says, Iseman called him. "I heard her pour out her heart," he recalls, "and I did not realize how badly, professionally and personally, she had been hurt." Even months after the story, he says, "she would break down," crying.
Lanny Davis is highly critical of The Times' story. "Human beings matter, even in journalism," he says. "To any ethical journalist, if you are going to write something that will leave human wreckage behind, you need to be sure you are right." He and other friends say that Iseman is a professional and dedicated lobbyist.
Iseman sees herself as "a little slice of the American Dream." Indeed, she was born and raised in Small Town, U.S.A. -- or, more precisely, Indiana, Pa., population 15,000. That's Jimmy Stewart country, the birthplace of the late actor and the home of the Jimmy Stewart Museum. Iseman, who has two sisters and a brother, grew up as a typical small-town girl -- a cheerleader at Homer Center High School and a member of the student council. Her late stepfather worked as a strip coal miner.
She wasn't, she says, born with a "trust fund," and she began working after-school jobs when she turned 14. Iseman worked behind the counter at a diner into her college years at Indiana University of Pennsylvania. She understood the value of a job, she says. "I grew up in a place where I saw the faces of hardworking people who lost their jobs. All they wanted was another job, not a handout." In 1990, she graduated with a degree in elementary education and was soon on her way to Washington.
She arrived that spring -- "all of my belongings fit into two plastic garbage bags," she says -- and moved into a friend's apartment in Arlington, Va. Two weeks later, on June 1, she started as a receptionist at Alcalde & Fay, a lobbying firm founded by a well-connected lobbyist named Hector Alcalde. She soon became Alcalde's special assistant and was made a partner in 1998.
Iseman has represented some big-time clients, including BearingPoint, Computer Sciences, Ion Media Network, the information-technology company CACI, and the city of Miami. She also has taken smaller clients, including her old school board, for which she helped to get an $80,000 education grant last year.
One of her principal assignments in the lobbying firm was to work the Senate Commerce Committee -- and work it, she did. She established ties to committee staffers, including Mark Buse, who has been one of McCain's closest aides and is now chief of staff in his Senate office. She recalls meeting McCain at the committee "in the mid-to-late 1990s." McCain was chairman of the panel from 1997 to 2001, and again from 2003 to 2005.
Describing her role with the committee and McCain's first run for the White House, Iseman says she supported McCain's bid and raised money for him. She thinks that she attended three fundraisers for him during that campaign. There is no question that she could get clients in to see McCain and the committee staff, she says, but she maintains that she had no "special" access to the senator.
Former Senate aides, speaking anonymously, say that they saw no evidence that Iseman had a personal relationship with McCain, but they add that she could be flirtatious while working the Hill. "People see what they want to see," Iseman says, insisting, "I have not done anything" to justify such talk. These same former staffers also say that Iseman worked extremely hard for her clients.
Buse, who often met with Iseman when he was staff director of the Commerce Committee, says that Iseman had a "normal, working professional relationship" with McCain -- "friendly," he says, but nothing out of the ordinary. Asked if she had more access to McCain than other lobbyists, Buse said, "No, none whatsoever."
Iseman's clients interviewed by NJ support her, saying that she was dedicated and that she aggressively pursued their issues. Dean Goodman, the former president of Paxson Communications, a West Palm Beach, Fla., firm now known as Ion Media Network, says that Iseman was "very effective for us." Goodman, who oversaw Paxson's Washington lobbying operation, says that there "was absolutely nothing personal between [Iseman] and McCain." As it turned out, Paxson Communications became a central figure in The New York Times' story on McCain and Iseman last February.
Enter The Times
The Times began its inquiry late last year after reporters heard a report that McCain was involved with Iseman. The rumors about Iseman and McCain had been around a while -- Iseman says she heard such a rumor during the 2000 presidential campaign. "I didn't take it seriously," she says. Four highly regarded Times reporters -- Jim Rutenberg, Marilyn Thompson, David Kirkpatrick, and Stephen Labaton -- were assigned to the investigation.
The Times appears to have spent about four months reporting the story. Reporters contacted former Senate staffers; other lobbyists, including current and former employees of Alcalde & Fay; her clients; and political operatives, among others. They also reviewed years of her lobbying files and other government records. The reporters sought comment from McCain's campaign and pressed Iseman repeatedly to sit down for an interview. She would not agree to an interview but did agree to answer questions in writing.
The above-the-fold story, headlined "For McCain, Self-Confidence on Ethics Poses Its Own Risk," broke with a thunderclap on February 21 -- a carefully worded article that had the potential to seriously damage McCain's campaign. It relied almost entirely on anonymous sources said to be associated with McCain at one time or another.
The lead-in was short but powerful: "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 fundraisers, 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...." The story also noted that Iseman's clients often had business before McCain's committee and had benefited from the senator's help.
In February 1999, The Times said, "McCain and Ms. Iseman attended a small fundraising dinner with several clients at the Miami-area home of a cruise-line executive and then flew back to Washington along with a campaign aide on the corporate jet of one of her clients, Paxson Communications." That aide was not identified.
By then, according to The Times' report, "some of the senator's advisers" -- again, they were not identified -- were concerned that McCain and Iseman were romantically involved. The story said that "a former campaign adviser described being instructed to keep Ms. Iseman away from the senator at public events, while a Senate aide recalled plans to limit Ms. Iseman's access to his offices."
The story added that two former McCain associates, also not identified, reported that they had confronted McCain and warned him that he was risking his campaign and career. "Both said Mr. McCain acknowledged behaving inappropriately and pledged to keep his distance from Ms. Iseman." The newspaper did not explain the nature of the inappropriate behavior cited by the two sources.
(In a news conference on the day of the story, McCain denied that staff members ever confronted him over his relationship with Iseman.)
The story described a meeting between Iseman and John Weaver, then a top McCain campaign aide, at a café in Washington's Union Station -- the same John Weaver whom Iseman now alleges worked behind the scenes to help The Times go with its story. Weaver's e-mail response to The Times' questions was carefully worded.
Weaver, The Times said, responded that he arranged the meeting after "a discussion among the campaign leadership" about Iseman. The story quoted Weaver as follows: " 'Our political messaging during that time period centered around taking on the special interests and placing the nation's interests before either personal or special interest. Ms. Iseman's involvement in the campaign, it was felt by us, could undermine that effort.' " According to The Times, Weaver added that the brief conversation was only about "her conduct and what she allegedly had told people which made its way back to us."
In responding to the Times reporters by e-mail, Iseman acknowledged the meeting with Weaver but wrote, "I never discussed with him alleged things I had 'told people,' that made their way 'back to' him." She also denied receiving special treatment from McCain's office. The Times also resurrected an old story, detailing how McCain had written two letters to a federal agency in behalf of Paxson Communications, her client. The paper had written about those letters during the 2000 presidential race, although Iseman was not identified at the time as Paxson's lobbyist.
McCain's top aides, Rick Davis and Mark Salter, who have worked on both of McCain's presidential campaigns, disputed the story, telling The Times that they did not discuss Iseman with McCain or with their colleagues. The two aides also said that McCain had frequently refused Iseman's requests on behalf of her clients.
In interviews over the past three weeks, Iseman gave National Journal access to her e-mail exchanges with The Times. In one e-mail to a Times reporter, dated last January 2, Iseman assailed the reporting methods, saying they were "reminiscent" of Jayson Blair, a young reporter who was forced to resign from The Times in May 2003 after repeatedly fabricating elements of his stories. Iseman also made it clear in her e-mail exchanges with The Times that she believed that The Times' primary source was Weaver.
Iseman told National Journal that Weaver was the unidentified aide who The Times' story said flew back to Washington on Paxson's corporate jet with Iseman and McCain after the Florida fundraising event in February 1999. She says that The Times had asked her, in an e-mail, about an incident on the plane in which she reportedly asked McCain to share a blanket with her. Only Weaver, she says, could be the source for that allegation, which she heatedly denied. The Times did not publish the allegation, and Weaver strongly denies being the source of that information.
Iseman says that Weaver, in his on-the-record comment to The Times for its story, "totally distorted the Union Station conversation, to the point that it was an outright lie."
In interviews with National Journal, Iseman and Weaver agreed on one thing: The conversation at Union Station had nothing to do with her being romantically linked to McCain.
Iseman's version of events is that she had been to the Florida fundraiser and also attended a speech that McCain had given to a business group. After speaking, McCain saw Iseman and asked her how she liked his speech. "I said [to McCain] I really like it when you interact with the audience" in a town-hall-type setting. "Weaver got huffy."
Not long after, she says, Weaver called and asked her to meet him at the café in the center of Union Station. "I sit down and he starts beating down on me," she recalls. "He says, 'Don't you ever give your opinion to Senator McCain.' He said, 'We put a lot of time into his speeches.' He was being a bully.... He's 6 [foot] 4, intimidating. He never said -- and this is important -- that I had been exploitive of Senator McCain by throwing his name around or that I acted inappropriately." Asked whether Weaver told her to stay away from McCain or the campaign, she says, "I don't know if he said it that way. He said, " 'Don't give your opinion.' It was clear that was the inference. He did not say the senator or the campaign."
Weaver agrees that Iseman got angry and left the table after their brief conversation. He says that the meeting had nothing to do with him admonishing her for reportedly bragging about an intimate relationship with McCain. "The conduct I was talking about," he says, "was her telling people that she had unusual access to the [Senate] Commerce Committee and the Senate office" of McCain. He needed, Weaver says, "to make sure" that McCain's image as an anti-lobbyist reformer back in 1999 was not damaged. Weaver said he did not criticize Iseman about giving McCain advice on his speeches.
Weaver explains that he gave a statement to The Times about the Union Station meeting when it became apparent to him that the newspaper might not have the correct information about what actually took place at the meeting. Weaver says he took a campaign aide with him to the meeting as a witness; Iseman disputes that and says she met with Weaver alone.
The New York Times told National Journal that it was extremely careful in its reporting. Marilyn Thompson, one of The Times' reporters who is now an editor at The Washington Post, says that the story was "handled with great care." She says that The Times' editors and reporters engaged in "careful deliberations" before the story was published. Asked if Weaver helped The Times, she said she would not discuss sources other than to say, "The original tip on this did not come to me." She also was asked if aspects of her reporting were left out of the final version of the story. "Reporters contribute to a story, but the decision on what to publish is made by editors," she says. "You should talk to the editors at The New York Times."
The Times' Washington editor, Dean Baquet, declined to discuss the newspaper's reporting methods. Asked if The Times had any source saying that Iseman had bragged about an intimate relationship with McCain, he said he would not discuss sourcing. "I am just not comfortable getting into sourcing," Baquet says. He says that The Times "bent over backwards" to get Iseman's side of the story. He also says that later media reports of pre-publication internal disputes within The Times over how to handle the story were exaggerated. "There were disagreements at various times," he says, "but it was an exaggerated notion that there was huge fighting.... We are comfortable with the way the story turned out."
But Clark Hoyt, The Times' public editor, apparently wasn't so comfortable with the published story: "A newspaper cannot begin a story about the all-but-certain Republican presidential nominee with the suggestion of an extramarital affair with an attractive lobbyist 31 years his junior and expect readers to focus on anything other than what most of them did. And if a newspaper is going to suggest an improper sexual affair, whether editors think that is the central point or not, it owes readers more proof than The Times was able to provide."
"If a newspaper is going to suggest an improper sexual affair ... it owes readers more proof than The Times was able to provide."-- Clark Hoyt
The fallout from the story, Iseman says, has been costly. She has retained Rodney Smolla, a First Amendment scholar and the dean of the Washington and Lee University School of Law, as part of a legal team and is considering filing a libel suit against The Times. She believes she has lost three major clients as a result, she says, although she can't prove that. She recounted how one longtime client terminated its arrangement with her firm shortly after The Times story hit.
Iseman also says that another client, Saga Communications of Dearborn, Mich., discontinued using her firm earlier this year. But Sam Bush, the chief financial officer at Saga -- which owns radio and television stations in multiple markets -- says that his company's decision not to sign a new contract with her firm had nothing to do with the publicity over the story. He says that the project Iseman worked on ended last April and that his company would consider using her services again.
Bush praises Iseman as a very professional lobbyist and says that she could open doors on Capitol Hill. "She got us meetings with everyone we needed to see" in Washington. "There wasn't a door we needed to get into that we didn't get into," he says, "and she gave us great advice."
Former Senate staffers who know Iseman well say that she faces an uphill battle to re-establish her credentials on Capitol Hill. "This town can eat you up -- and that's what happened to her," a former McCain aide says. "That's what happens sometimes in the Washington fast lane." Separately, another former Senate aide says that Iseman has become "kind of toxic" on the Hill. "She will be forever linked," he says, "as the lobbyist in question with John McCain."
Managing Editor Robert Gettlin contributed to this story. The author can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This article appears in the Oct. 18, 2008, edition of National Journal.