July 11, 2008

Since the start of the campaign, John McCain's personal controversies have been off limits in the media, but there have been a few cracks in the ice. There was, for example, this report in the UK’s Daily Mail last month about John McCain’s first wife. It was quite a painful story, involving physical difficulties, infidelity, and divorce. “My marriage ended because John McCain didn’t want to be 40, he wanted to be 25,” Carol McCain said.

The first substantive report about this in the U.S. media appeared this morning, in the LA Times.

McCain, who is about to become the GOP nominee, has made several statements about how he divorced Carol and married Hensley that conflict with the public record.

In his 2002 memoir, “Worth the Fighting For,” McCain wrote that he had separated from Carol before he began dating Hensley. “I spent as much time with Cindy in Washington and Arizona as our jobs would allow,” McCain wrote. “I was separated from Carol, but our divorce would not become final until February of 1980.”

An examination of court documents tells a different story.

Yes, McCain committed adultery — and then was far from truthful about it.

McCain did not sue his wife for divorce until Feb. 19, 1980, and he wrote in his court petition that he and his wife had “cohabited” until Jan. 7 of that year — or for the first nine months of his relationship with Hensley.

Although McCain suggested in his autobiography that months passed between his divorce and remarriage, the divorce was granted April 2, 1980, and he wed Hensley in a private ceremony five weeks later. McCain obtained an Arizona marriage license on March 6, 1980, while still legally married to his first wife.

McCain, not surprisingly, doesn’t want to talk about the subject. Asked for comment, his campaign spokesperson said, “Of course we will not comment on the breakup of the senator’s first marriage, other than to note that the senator has always taken responsibility for it.”

To reiterate a point I’ve raised before, as far as I’m concerned, McCain’s marital difficulties and adultery aren’t particularly significant in this campaign, especially years later. I’m inclined to see a distinction made between public and private worlds. I defended Bill Clinton, and said his personal controversies had no bearing on his ability to be a good candidate and a good president, so I can’t very well turn around and say the opposite about McCain, no matter how badly he treated his first wife.

But that nevertheless leads to two relevant angles here. First, is the partisan double standard. If Clinton’s personal history was a matter of tremendous national significance as a presidential candidate (and as a president), then it’s not unreasonable to wonder why McCain isn’t subjected to the same scrutiny. I’d prefer both issues are off the table, but I’m hard pressed to imagine why only Democratic presidential candidates’ personal lives are of interest in the context of a national campaign.

In 1992, long before the election, then-Gov. Clinton’s personal life dominated the political discourse, and journalists weren’t the least bit embarrassed about making this a critical campaign issue. And yet, today’s LAT piece is, as far as I can tell, the first U.S. newspaper to highlight McCain’s background as an adulterer.

Second, even for those who are willing to say that McCain’s personal/family difficulties are a private matter, there’s also the fact that McCain apparently lied about his infidelity. Now, I understand why he lied; he’s no doubt embarrassed. But, again, if Clinton’s lies about adultery were evidence of a poor character, McCain’s obvious untruths warrant similar scrutiny, don’t they?

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