Having read the New York Times’ page-one piece this morning about John McCain’s alleged involvement with a young woman lobbyist during his 2000 campaign, and Bill Keller’s defense of it and The New Republic’s frothy story-behind-the-story, I can only conclude that the paper must be on very solid grounds.

I say this not because I know the inside story here — I don’t.

I say it because there is no way that a smart editor like Keller would go with a story based on two unnamed sources — former McCain aides now disaffected from him and his campaign — unless he had somehow independently satisfied himself that what they said was true.

He wouldn’t take their word for it. His reporters must have come up with corroborating support from others. The cost to him and the paper would be too great if it was wrong. He knew going in that this was going to provoke a firestorm.

The thrust of the report is simple: the two former aides say they went to John McCain and warned him that if he continued to be seen frequently with Vicki Iseman, a young, blonde lobbyist 30 years his junior, it was going to jeopardize his presidential ambitions. The Times’ story also quoted John Weaver, a close McCain confidant, as saying that he met with Ms Iseman at a café in Union Station and urged her to stay away from the Senator.

Today Senator McCain said that he had not been cautioned by aides about appearing with Ms Iseman, whose clients included telecommunications firms with important business before McCain’s Commerce Committee, and had never had an improper relationship with her. He also said he did not know of Mr. Weaver’s reported contacts with Ms. Iseman.

So there it sits as of this writing.

The New Republic, incidentally, has almost nothing to support its lighter-than-air account of the newsroom debates over the story at The Times prior to publication. Of course there was debate prior to running such a story. The suggestion that The Times would feel forced to run the piece because of The New Republic’s queries is silly.

That was the least of their worries

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