WASHINGTON — It seems odd, but for John McCain it was a blessing to have the chance to bury questions about his dealings with lobbyists beneath an alleged sex scandal. The prurient part of the story was easy to deny, and voters are sick of sex scandals.

But even if the sex goes away, the underlying questions raised last week in the story for which The New York Times took such grief are unlikely to disappear. The McCain campaign’s sweeping denials may have been a bit too sweeping, and sex, in the end, is not what the story was really about.

The Times got into trouble largely because of the second paragraph of its Thursday story about the relationship between Vicki Iseman, a telecommunications lobbyist, and McCain, then the chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee.

Noting that McCain’s staff was anxious about their relationship in the run-up to McCain’s 2000 presidential campaign, the Times wrote: “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. …”

A story opening that way was inevitably going to be seen as being about sex, even though the Times had no corroboration of that “romantic” relationship. On Sunday, Clark Hoyt, the Times’ internal critic, observed that editors who claimed otherwise ignored “the scarlet elephant in the room.”

“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,” Hoyt wrote. Exactly.

“The pity of it,” Hoyt added, “is that, without the sex, the Times was on to a good story.”

McCain’s denunciation of the sexual innuendo won him allies well beyond the world of Times-hating conservatives. Many fans of the Times (including this one) think journalists should stay away from the sex lives of politicians unless there is a truly compelling public reason for doing otherwise. Last year I urged that we ignore the escapades of Sen. David Vitter, R-La., precisely because it’s important to preserve, as much as possible, the distinction between the public and private lives of politicians.

But McCain’s denials didn’t stop at sex, and the story didn’t, either. On the same day the Times ran its account, The Washington Post ran its own story that stayed away from the “romantic” angle, but reported (as the Times also had) that McCain had written two letters to the Federal Communications Commission urging that it vote on the sale of a Pittsburgh television station to Paxson Communications, one of Iseman’s clients.

The Post wrote that at “the time he sent the first letter, McCain had flown on Paxson’s corporate jet four times to appear at campaign events and had received $20,000 in campaign donations from Paxson and its law firm. The second letter came on Dec. 10, a day after the company’s jet ferried him to a Florida fundraiser that was held aboard a yacht in West Palm Beach.”

In denouncing the story, McCain’s campaign denied he had ever met with Lowell “Bud” Paxson, the president of the firm. But Paxson later told the Post that he had met with McCain. More telling, Newsweek reported that McCain himself acknowledged in a 2002 deposition that he had met with Paxson.

As Newsweek wrote, “With his typically blunt, almost cheery way of admitting the sinfulness of man, including his own weaknesses, he acknowledged in the deposition that his relationship with Paxson … would ‘absolutely’ look corrupt to the ordinary voter.”

And on Friday, the Post reported that while McCain may relish attacking lobbyists, many of the top officials of his campaign — including Rick Davis, his campaign manager, and Charlie Black, his chief political adviser — are themselves well-known lobbyists with long client lists.

Why does this matter? Many of us have praised McCain over the years for his reform work and his criticism of special-interest politics. His reformer image is one reason he’s so close to securing the Republican presidential nomination. It’s thus perfectly reasonable for journalists to explore how McCain’s strong words about lobbyists square with how he’s actually dealt with them.

The Times has been rightly chastised for improperly opening the door on McCain’s private life. But the window it opened on the candidate’s relationship with Washington’s special-interest world will not close any time soon, especially if McCain’s explanations keep raising new questions.

E.J. Dionne’s e-mail address is postchat(at)aol.com.

© 2008, Washington Post Writers Group

Your support matters…

Independent journalism is under threat and overshadowed by heavily funded mainstream media.

You can help level the playing field. Become a member.

Your tax-deductible contribution keeps us digging beneath the headlines to give you thought-provoking, investigative reporting and analysis that unearths what's really happening- without compromise.

Give today to support our courageous, independent journalists.