Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) has spent the past 16 months telling the American people that his candidacy and eventual ascension to the presidency will spell the end of the “old politics” of division and rancor. His is a different kind of politics, he says, one that eschews partisan or personal attacks in favor of transformational change and unity.
Yet, in the week that his campaign and its willing followers in the media all but declared Obama the Democratic presidential nominee, his first step toward the general election was to take the low road by raising one of the sorriest episodes in the history of the Democratic Party — the Keating Five scandal of more than 20 years ago.
Introducing Obama at an Oregon town meeting Friday, Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.) happily did the candidate’s dirty work by lobbing the first cheap shot of the general election campaign. Ridiculing Sen. John McCain’s (R-Ariz.) support for less regulation, DeFazio sneered, “I guess maybe for a guy who was up to his neck in the Keating Five and saving[s] and loan scandal, less regulation is better.”
If Obama were sincere in his calls for a new kind of politics, one might have expected him to denounce DeFazio. But when asked about DeFazio’s attack, Obama instead called the Keating Five scandal fair game, saying, “I don’t have any doubt that John McCain’s public record about issues that he’s apologized for and written about is germane to the presidency.” So much for the “new” politics of Barack Obama.
Clearly, DeFazio’s attack and Obama’s reinforcement signaled a calculated decision to use the savings and loan scandal as political ammunition to hit McCain hard as a conventional Washington politician — corrupt and beholden to special interests.
There is just one impediment to the nasty little narrative Obama and DeFazio are trying to peddle: longtime Democratic lawyer Bob Bennett. In November 1989, Bennett was appointed special counsel to the Senate Ethics Committee by then-Chairman Howell Heflin (D-Ala.) and Vice Chairman Warren Rudman (R-N.H.) to investigate the relationship between five Senators and Charles Keating, owner of the failed Lincoln Savings and Loan in California.
Bennett devotes an entire chapter in his new book, “In the Ring,” to the Keating Five scandal; his firsthand account not only clears McCain of wrongdoing, but to this observer, provides evidence of the grossest kind of political manipulation on the part of Senate Democratic leaders at the time.
After months of thorough investigating, Bennett recommended to the committee that no further action be taken against either McCain or then-Sen. John Glenn (D-Ohio), a result that didn’t go down well with Democrats on the committee. As Bennett puts it in his book, “My recommendation that the only Republican in the group, John McCain, be exonerated caused a big political problem, but my recommendations were based on evidence not politics.”
Bennett lost the fight when Senate Democratic leaders, fearing a political backlash if the bipartisan “Keating Five” became three Democrats, decided to ignore Bennett’s counsel and hold public hearings on all five Senators. Calling this decision “pure politics,” Bennett today says this was “perhaps the first time the recommendation of a special counsel not to charge a Senator was rejected.”
Simply put, Democrats on the Ethics Committee needed a Republican target to ensure the investigation did not become a one-party scandal even if it meant sacrificing John Glenn to do it. Apparently, Democrats were willing to ruin the reputations of two national heroes to protect the Democratic Party’s political fortunes.
The truth, which we can thank Bennett for revealing, is that neither McCain nor Glenn should have been included in the public hearings. This is an astonishing revelation that represents exactly the kind of morally bankrupt politics Barack Obama says he rejects. But his actions of last week call into question his rather insistent and constant claim to the moral high ground in this year’s election.
In choosing to use this issue, Obama made a conscious decision to ignore the Ethics Committee’s final report on the Keating affair in 1991, which concluded that “Senator McCain’s actions were not improper nor attended with gross negligence and did not reach the level of requiring institutional action against him.” Obama also chose to disregard later comments about McCain made by Fred Wertheimer, the head of Common Cause, which filed the original ethics complaint behind the Ethics Committee investigation.
Wertheimer was quoted in a 1999 New York Times article saying, “Senator McCain’s commitment on the issue [campaign finance reform] has been real and deep, and his leadership has been courageous in publicly challenging his own party and Senate colleagues.” Moreover, McCain himself has publicly and painfully accepted responsibility for his handling of the Keating situation.
Yet, Obama, the “new” politician, says this issue is fair game in the general election.
Last week, Mark McKinnon, the McCain campaign’s media strategist, suggested a series of debates and joint town-hall meetings between the two presumptive nominees beginning this summer. When asked about the McCain campaign proposal for these less structured joint appearances, Obama called it “a great idea,” telling reporters he would welcome the “opportunity to debate substantive issues before the voters with John McCain.”
Now we know what the Obama campaign considers a “substantive” issue, and it isn’t positive or “post-partisan.” What DeFazio and Obama did in raising the Keating Five scandal was no different than Senate Democrats’ willingness, almost two decades ago, to sacrifice the good names of two of the nation’s most devoted sons for pure political expediency.
There is nothing new or different in that, and it certainly isn’t what Barack Obama is selling. Instead, he has methodically created a self-serving self-portrait of a different kind of politician, one who will not stoop to the kind of raw campaign tactics that, too often, have marred our elections.
Obama’s actions last week make it increasingly clear his campaign is becoming all too familiar. It’s called politics as usual.