HuffPo Political Journalist Extraordinaire Sam Stein wants to know why the New York Times ran their odd story on alleged lobbyist-fucker and MAVERICK presumptive GOP presidential nominee John McCain now, of all times. Popular conspiracy theories include: they wanted to wait until the story wouldn't affect McCain's stunning primary victory, because they love him, or hate Rudy Giuliani; they wanted to dump it when it would be least effective against McCain, in the long winter between the end of the GOP primaries and the start of the bloody general election battle, because they love McCain; they wanted to wait until the Dems could use it against him and not maybe have to face a Republican candidate without an embarrassing cheat-y past, because they hate America and love Democrats; finally, they ran it now because after it had been killed twice, they finally cleaned it up and hedged its claims sufficiently to meet their standards of publication, just in time to beat a New Republic piece about how they killed the story. Our money, more or less, is on the last one.

Stein might also be upset because the Times never jumped on his pet political scandal, John Edwards' alleged affair (remember that one?). That particular story presents a fine little case study in how not to run with a maybe poorly sourced story of political infidelity, as it fizzled pretty quickly after about a week of internet buzz, without having really cracked any mainstream news sources. Either because there wasn't actually anything to it, or because Edwards was already a probable loser, and what's the point in throwing your investigative weight behind a guy who'd never win a primary? Another decent argument for the Times running this story now: a conspiracy not of ideology but of newsworthiness.

The Times dislikes playing catch-up on stories (like when they ignored the Walter Reed scandal broken by the Washington Post until it was embarrassingly apparent that it had legs) and they also hate spending a great deal of resources sending their star reporters after stories that don't turn out all that sexy (see: their "we couldn't actually find anyone who witnessed Barack Obama doing cocaine, but boy did we try" shocker from earlier this month), both factors that played into their decision to finally run this story (there must be something to some of it, especially with Lewinsky-almost-breaker Michael Isikoff apparently working on it).

Amusingly, when Drudge tried to break this in December, he left out the sex. Because a hint of anonymous claims of sex from Drudge actually carry more weight in the traditional media than the same claims, presumably vetted in a slightly more rigorous manner, made by the New York Times, and Drudge doesn't use that power against Republicans (see: his embarrassing lag covering the Senate page scandal).

What is there to the story itself? The basic thrust of it, summed up nicely by Time's Michael Sherer:

  • Anonymous former McCain staffers either think McCain fucked this lobbyist or that she was trying quite hard to fuck him.
  • McCain's campaign was sufficiently scared of embarrassment to bar this lobbyist from seeing McCain.
  • In order to justify running such a thin-sounding story, the Times will illustrate McCain's history of hilariously unethical behavior, as a framing device for the piece as a whole.
  • Even if he didn't fuck her, he did her legislative favors.
  • Former McCain staffers are leaking to the press!

We imagine that the story in its current form is a profoundly watered-down version of what Rutenberg et al actually reported, but it is actually surprising that the Times ran any version of it at all. Whether over Keller's objections or not, beating up on the Times for started this feeding frenzy seems unfair to us. Because the Times of 1998, 2000, or 2004 would've deigned to consider themselves above such tawdry foolishness. And we, as you might have gathered, are 100% in favor of tawdry foolishness.