Nearly 20 years of John McCain's contrition over his role in a 1980s banking scandal vanished this week in 17 minutes and 30 seconds. It took that long for John Dowd, McCain's lawyer in the Keating Five probe, to make the mea culpas disappear in a telephone conference call with reporters.
Dowd said Monday the Arizona senator, now the GOP presidential nominee, fell victim to “a classic political smear job” by Democrats who investigated him. The lawyer said the Democratic chairman of the Senate ethics committee during the investigation was a “stooge” of his leadership.
When a reporter pointed out that the comments seemed at odds with McCain's history of contriteness, Dowd blew through the trap – in a way that lets McCain offer new mea culpas in the future.
“I'm his lawyer and I have a different view of it,” Dowd said. “I understand why John feels the way he does. He feels this was an embarrassing and humiliating matter.”
The “matter” was the committee's probe of four Democratic senators and McCain, which ended in 1991. All had accepted contributions from Charles Keating Jr., a real estate speculator and savings and loan owner who became the national symbol of greedy thrift owners. Keating's Lincoln Savings and Loan was among many institutions that failed, and the uninsured financial products he sold cost many investors their life savings.
McCain and Keating – whose firm was in McCain's home state – were social friends and political allies. McCain raked in $112,000 from Keating, his family and associates in his early campaigns. McCain and his family – and baby sitter – flew in Keating's company plane to the Bahamas and elsewhere.
In the events that triggered the investigation, McCain and the other senators took up Keating's cause with financial regulators in 1987 as they were investigating him and referring possible criminal charges to the Justice Department. Keating eventually went to prison for financial wrongdoing.
An embarrassed McCain repaid $112,000 to the U.S. Treasury and reimbursed Keating for all the trips.
Fast forward 20 years. Dowd's news conference was part of a nasty exchange with Democratic rival Barack Obama's campaign over the character of the two candidates. His tone was nothing like McCain's writings in his 2002 book, “Worth The Fighting For.”
McCain wrote that he learned lessons from the Keating case, “And I've never forgotten a single one of them.”
“I refrained from ever intervening in the regulatory decisions of the federal government if such intervention could be construed, rightly or wrongly, as done solely or primarily for the benefit of a major financial supporter of my campaigns,” he wrote.
His attendance at two meetings with banking regulators was “the worst mistake of my life,” McCain wrote.