Media asserted that McCain flew coach in 2007, without noting expenditure records showing payments for use of wife's jet

››› ››› MATT GERTZ

Despite the availability of expenditure reports showing that Sen. John McCain's campaign used a corporate jet owned by his wife's company over a seven-month period beginning in the summer of 2007, several members of the media asserted earlier this year that McCain flew coach when the campaign was low on funds.

An April 27 New York Times article reported that Sen. John McCain's campaign used a corporate jet owned by his wife's company, Hensley & Company, "over a seven-month period beginning last summer," and that "[f]or five of those months, the plane was used almost exclusively for campaign-related purposes." Similarly, an April 27 Boston Globe article reported that the McCain campaign "gave up the policy of not using private jets when it was struggling financially in mid-2007," and that the Globe had "identified campaign reimbursements to at least 10 corporations for private jet transport." But in January, several members of the media asserted that McCain had flown coach on commercial airliners when the campaign was low on funds, without addressing the fact that Federal Election Commission filings available when they were making this assertion (and, indeed, were first available October 15, 2007) showed that the McCain campaign had paid his wife's holding company, King Aviation, more than $29,000 for travel between July 1, 2007, and September 30, 2007. Moreover, some members of the media made the assertion in February that McCain flew coach without noting another FEC filing showing that the campaign had paid King Aviation more than $139,000 between October 1, 2007, and December 1, 2007.

The Times reported that the plane owned by Cindy McCain "is a Cessna Citation Excel, a midsize corporate jet that typically seats eight and can fly four hours at a time" which is "owned by Hensley & Company, through a holding company, King Aviation." The Times also noted that "King Aviation is listed on Mr. McCain's Senate disclosure forms as one of his wife's assets." According to McCain's Federal Election Commission filing for the period from July 1, 2007, to September 30, 2007, the campaign made seven payments totaling $29,415.50 to King Aviation for "travel." The report was filed October 15. In its January 29 filing for the period from October 1, 2007, through December 31, 2007, the campaign reported 22 payments totaling $139,500.25 to King Aviation. In its February 19 filing for the period from January 1 through January 31, the campaign reported 7 payments totaling $56,439.29 to King Aviation. In its March 20 filing for the period from February 1 through February 29, the campaign reported three payments totaling $9,996.26 to King Aviation. And in its April 20 filing for the period from March 1 through March 31, the campaign reported one payment of $3,798 to King Aviation. The expenditure reports filed in October, January, and February also show payments for "travel" to several companies, which the Globe reported were for the use of those companies' private jets.

The Times quoted campaign spokeswoman Jill Hazelbaker's assertion that "Senator McCain's paid use of Mrs. McCain's family plane is explicitly permitted under the new law and does not represent any change of position on corporate jets and lobbyists." The Times also reported that "Ms. Hazelbaker turned down repeated requests to meet with a Times reporter to discuss the newspaper's analysis and declined to release a detailed accounting of how much the McCain campaign paid for its use of the corporate jet. " The Globe reported:

Last December, McCain spokeswoman Jill Hazelbaker told the Globe that McCain took no corporate travel but "on a few occasions, prior to the passage of the law" flew on the jets of "individual supporters." Many are major McCain fund-raisers.

But when the Globe last week identified campaign reimbursements to at least 10 corporations for private jet transport both before and after Sept. 14, another McCain spokesman said: "The campaign will not fly on private aircraft owned by public corporations employing lobbyists."

An April 27 post on CNN.com's Political Ticker blog reported that, when asked about the Times article at a Coral Gables, Florida, news conference, McCain asserted, "What we did was perfectly legal and appropriate." The blog post also reported that McCain "didn't answer the part of the reporter's question about whether the use of plane contradicted McCain's stance on campaign finance reform."

Despite the availability of these expenditure reports, several members of the media asserted earlier this year that McCain flew coach during the time when his campaign was very low on funds:

  • On the January 3 edition of PBS' Charlie Rose, Newsweek editor Jon Meacham said of McCain: "He, you know, all of us, I think, talked to him in August and September when he was flying coach and couldn't get arrested."
  • On the January 6 edition of Fox News' Fox Report with Shepard Smith, host Shepard Smith said to Cindy McCain, "You're fighting against a guy who's a neighbor of this, has a house in this state. That's a tough battle that I'd say in the summer when he was flying by himself in coach in the back of the plane, a lot of people would have thought not only improbable, but probably impossible -- the smart folks in the political game."
  • On the January 10 edition of Morning Joe, host Joe Scarborough said, "Well, and if I could just make a point too, how fascinating that John McCain, when he had all the money, he had all the consultants, he had 100 people on staff, was doing horribly. After he ran out of money, started flying coach, suddenly took off."
  • On the February 7 edition of MSNBC's Tucker, guest host David Shuster asked, "In a year when John McCain was flying coach and Mitt Romney's $50 million saw him step aside today, how much does money really matter?"
  • On the February 14 edition of Morning Joe, Scarborough said, "When John McCain had lots of money, he was doing terribly. When he had no money, when he was flying coach in the center seat, he started winning."
  • On the February 24 edition of Fox News Sunday, host Chris Wallace said, "Written off by pundits, McCain went back to carrying his own bag and flying coach."

In addition, on the February 13 edition of NPR's All Things Considered, co-host Michele Norris did not challenge McCain media consultant Mark McKinnon's statement that "we felt and he felt that if he could just survive, if he could just stay in the game -- and he was flying coach, carrying his own bags. I mean, the whole thing was run on spit and glue." Similarly, Cox News Service reported on March 9:

The contrast between [former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney] and McCain was obvious at South Carolina's Greenville-Spartanburg Airport in mid-October as the Arizona senator queued up, emptied his pockets and removed his shoes like everybody else heading for the US Airways flight back to Washington.

"It was a matter of doing everything we could to stay in the game," McKinnon said. "That was really tough. McCain was flying coach and carrying his own bags. We were literally day to day in terms of finances."

By contrast, on the April 28 edition of MSNBC's Morning Joe, co-host Mika Brzezinski noted that "we find through, I think it was a New York Times article, that back when we were reporting that he was flying coach, and his campaign was out of money, and it was lean and mean, that John McCain was actually flying around on his wife's chartered jet through her company."

From the April 27 Political Ticker blog post:

Sen. John McCain, the presumptive Republican nominee, didn't waste a lot of verbiage reacting to the New York Times report on his use of a private jet belonging to his wife's company for campaign trips - at less cost than normal charter flights

At a news conference in Coral Gables, Florida, McCain used just eight words to respond to a reporter's question before moving on. "What we did was perfectly legal and appropriate," McCain said. The Arizona senator didn't answer the part of the reporter's question about whether the use of plane contradicted McCain's stance on campaign finance reform.

There is nothing illegal about what McCain did. Under a law which McCain supported, presidential candidates are now required to pay charter rates rather than just less expensive commercial first class rates when they use corporate jets. But under an FEC exemption, candidates don't have TO reimburse full costs if the plane is owned BY a candidate, a candidate's family, or by a privately held company controlled by a candidate or a candidate's family member. (The FEC has tried to end the family exemption, but didn't have enough sitting commissioners to change the rule, according to the Times report.)

From the April 28 edition of MSNBC's Morning Joe:

BRZEZINSKI: I have a question for you. Just, given the fact -- sort of a side issue that came up over the weekend -- but given the fact that John McCain backed legislation requiring campaigns to pay charter plane rates, we find through, I think it was a New York Times article, that back when we were reporting that he was flying coach, and his campaign was out of money, and it was lean and mean, that John McCain was actually flying around on his wife's chartered jet through her company. What do you make of that, and do you think it's a big deal? And how does he sort of pin Obama as an elitist -- I believe he said over the weekend that Barack Obama is out of touch with low-income Americans, opposing the suspension of the fuel tax -- how does he pin Obama as an elitist when he's flying around on a private jet?

GOV. CHARLIE CRIST (R-FL): Well, I don't think that Senator McCain uses --

BRZEZINSKI: Put out by his wife?

CRIST: -- I don't think Senator McCain uses that kind of word, and, you know, if your wife can't help you in a campaign, who can?

From the January 3 edition of PBS' The Charlie Rose Show:

CHARLIE ROSE (host): But what about McCain?

MEACHAM: Well, because there -- people -- I think that same establishment's uncomfortable with McCain, despite his eight years of, since 2000, of being a team player with President Bush.

To me, the great story about Senator McCain is, when in doubt, give principle a try. He did that with the surge. He, you know, all of us, I think, talked to him in August and September when he was flying coach and couldn't get arrested. And he said at the time -- I remember sitting in the presidential suite of the Doubletree Hotel in Times Square. I couldn't even find it. And the papers were -- the cups were plastic, you know, and all that.

And he said, "If people believe that there is some progress or stability in Iraq in the late winter, they'll take another look at me. If they don't, they won't. But this is the right thing to do."

From the January 6 edition of Fox News' Fox Report with Shepard Smith:

SMITH: You're fighting against a guy who's a neighbor of this, has a house in this state. That's a tough battle that I'd say in the summer when he was flying by himself in coach in the back of the plane, a lot of people would have thought not only improbable, but probably impossible -- the smart folks in the political game.

CINDY McCAIN: Oh, I know.

SMITH: How'd it happen?

CINDY McCAIN: It's John McCain; it's what he's all about. He's a maverick. I knew even at the darkest hour that he would pull this out in some way.

From the January 10 edition of MSNBC's Morning Joe:

SCARBOROUGH: Well, and if I could just make a point too, how fascinating that John McCain, when he had all the money, he had all the consultants, he had 100 people on staff, was doing horribly. After he ran out of money, started flying coach, suddenly took off. There's something to be said, isn't there, for running a lean, mean, hungry campaign like you've been doing?

From the February 7 edition of MSNBC's Tucker:

SHUSTER: Bad news and good for Hillary Clinton's campaign funding. She made the Romneyian move of donating $5 million of her own to the cause. But reports say that some of her senior staff are working for free. On the other hand, online fundraising by her campaign finally caught fire after her solid Super Tuesday.

Barack Obama, meanwhile, continues to raise money like no other: $7 million since Tuesday night on his way to another $30 million month. In a year when John McCain was flying coach and Mitt Romney's $50 million saw him step aside today, how much does money really matter?

From the February 13 edition of NPR's All Things Considered:

NORRIS: I want you to do me a favor, if you could. Take me back to the summer, when so many journalists -- and I should say including NPR -- were almost writing off John McCain, writing his political obituary at that moment. You stayed with him. What was his mindset in that moment?

McKINNON: Well, John McCain is one tough guy, and he is a survivor. And this whole primary process is about humiliating people and beating them down and stripping them naked, and that's what it did to John McCain. But he's been through tougher times. And he -- we felt and he felt that if he could just survive, if he could just stay in the game -- and he was flying coach, carrying his own bags. I mean, the whole thing was run on spit and glue.

But we believed that people still liked and admired John McCain; they just thought he was no longer a viable candidate. So the whole strategy was literally as simple as just saying, "Stay in the game," and then by that time, people would have looked at the other candidates and realized that John McCain is really best-suited to be president and say, "Well, look at this, surprise, he's still here." And we thought it could -- we thought it could break late and fast to John McCain and move wholesale, and that's exactly what happened.

From the February 14 edition of MSNBC's Morning Joe:

SCARBOROUGH: Yeah, you always have to look at the consultants and all the polling, but, you know, the interesting thing here is, Andrea, is that Karl Rove actually wrote a column, an op-ed, I think it was in Newsweek or The Wall Street Journal a couple of weeks ago, where he talked about this campaign season was a new kind of campaign season driven more by personality and candidate than by the tactics he used in 2004 and 2000. And think about it. On the Republican side, Mike Huckabee wins on a shoestring Iowa and so many other states. Mitt Romney has a well-funded, heavily top-down organization, doesn't do as well, underperforms. And then you've got John McCain. When John McCain had lots of money, he was doing terribly. When he had no money, when he was flying coach in the center seat, he started winning.

ANDREA MITCHELL (NBC News chief foreign affairs correspondent): But the difference --

SCARBOROUGH: So what does that say about politics in 2008? It's -- I think it says some very positive things.

From the February 24 edition of Fox News Sunday:

WALLACE: All this pales in comparison to last July when, almost broke and crashing in the polls ...

McCAIN [video clip]: You mean in the words of Chairman Mao, it's always darkest before it's totally black?

WALLACE: ... McCain fired much of his top staff and put [Rick] Davis in charge. His first job: to chop spending, which meant trading in the Straight Talk Express.

DAVIS: We went from a very expensive bus to a very, very cheap bus, which we still have to this day. It's broken down a number of times, but it's a lot easier to repair a bus than it is to get a new one.

WALLACE: Written off by pundits, McCain went back to carrying his own bag and flying coach. But Davis says the candidate kept up his staff's spirits.

DAVIS: He told me once that the campaign would be fun because we would never have a day that would get anywhere near the worst day of his life.

WALLACE: Davis caught the political bug in the '70s at the University of Alabama. Every four years since, he's worked for a Republican presidential candidate. But this is no hired gun. Since last July, Davis, who's on leave as a lobbyist, has worked without pay.

From the March 9 Cox News Service article:

Town hall meeting by town hall meeting, McCain regained supporters while Giuliani, Fred Thompson and Mitt Romney took turns as presumed front-runner. Giuliani traded on his post-Sept. 11 fame. Thompson was a darling of conservatives. And Romney, who became McCain's main opponent, dipped deeply into the fortune he had made as a business executive to propel himself to the top of the polls.

The contrast between him and McCain was obvious at South Carolina's Greenville-Spartanburg Airport in mid-October as the Arizona senator queued up, emptied his pockets and removed his shoes like everybody else heading for the US Airways flight back to Washington.

"It was a matter of doing everything we could to stay in the game," McKinnon said. "That was really tough. McCain was flying coach and carrying his own bags. We were literally day to day in terms of finances."

Luck kicked in when people started voting.

"A hundred things had to happen, most of them improbable," McKinnon said. "We were a lucky campaign."

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