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Cindy McCain Flaunts Her Privilege

A Commentary By Joe Conason

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Double standards are endemic in American journalism. But Cindy McCain, wife of the Republican presidential candidate, displayed poor taste in flaunting her family's special immunity from press scrutiny. Declaring on NBC's "Today" that she would "never" release her income tax returns even if she becomes first lady, the Arizona beer heiress showed no concern that she and her husband will have to meet the same tests as other would-be White House occupants -- ever.

Unfortunately, Mrs. McCain's arrogance is probably well founded.

While her personal net worth is estimated somewhere north of $50 million, she can surely rely upon the discretion of right-wing media organizations and commentators, which so far have given her and her husband a free pass on the income tax question. In contrast to their unrelenting demands for absolutely complete disclosure by Bill and Hillary Clinton over alleged or suspected conflicts of interest, the so-called conservative media have remained mum about Mrs. McCain.

That silence similarly contrasts with the hell raised four years ago over Teresa Heinz Kerry's reluctance to reveal her tax returns alongside those of her spouse, the Democratic presidential nominee and senator, John Kerry. Back then The Weekly Standard ran a smirking headline calling her Mr. Kerry's "sugar mommy" for a column that salivated over the "lavish lifestyle" and "vacation homes" to which her tax returns would draw attention. The Standard editors didn't even pretend to any substantive concern. They just wanted to play the politics of envy and elitism.

But the National Review's editors cited weightier reasons for curiosity, including the very size of the Heinz Kerry holdings and the use of her money to finance her husband's presidential campaign, "at least in its bleaker moments," as well as the "potential … for conflicts (or the perception of conflicts) of interest." So did The Wall Street Journal, in an editorial that said the Kerrys would be "the richest couple ever to live in the White House. … Their assets should be disclosed to the voters so that they can assess whether there are any potential conflicts of interest." The same editorial noted that since Sen. Kerry was proposing to raise taxes on higher income brackets, "most people would probably like to know whether the Kerry household uses tax-avoidance techniques to avoid paying its 'fair share.'"

These partisan sleuths could scarcely contain their outrage when Mrs. Kerry, who had inherited the ketchup fortune of her late husband, John Heinz, cited the privacy of her children as an excuse to resist disclosure. "Privacy? Oh, come off it," scoffed the Review. "How can disclosure of any part of Mrs. Kerry's personal 1040 relate to her children, all of whom are now in their thirties?"

Now comes Mrs. McCain, whose case suspiciously resembles that of Mrs. Kerry. Although she and her straight-talking husband keep their finances separate for tax purposes, her company plane has been flying him and his entourage of lobbyists around the country at bargain rates, a particular boon during the many months when his campaign was out of cash. As for conflicts of interest, the patina of reform has long rubbed off of Sen. McCain, whose penchant for using his office to assist donors with federal land swaps and other sweetheart deals should surprise no one paying close attention to his career.

Is there further revealing information to be found in Mrs. McCain's tax returns? Nobody knows except Cindy, but the clues provided in her husband's returns would certainly tantalize those busybodies on the right, if only the McCains were Democrats. For instance, they appear to have used their charitable foundation, in part, to ensure that their children attended elite schools, by strategically donating very large sums to those institutions. They also appear likely to have benefited very handsomely from the Bush tax cuts, which Sen. McCain formerly opposed but whose extension he now supports in perpetuity.

Yet Mrs. McCain is getting away with stonewalling on her taxes. "This is a privacy issue," she said, and nobody has responded with the mockery directed at Mrs. Kerry. (Imagine the gale-force media uproar if the Clintons had refused to release their returns because they claimed to be protecting Chelsea.) Indeed, the deputy editorial page editor of The Journal, who oversaw those august columns when they howled for disclosure from Mrs. Kerry in 2004, dismissed any concern over Mrs. McCain's tax returns as "a fairly marginal issue."

The question that remains is whether other major media outlets will challenge the McCains to meet the same standard of disclosure demanded from Democratic political families. So far the record is not encouraging.

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