CONFETTI BETTY: Saint John Gets His Monica On

BY AMY Z. QUINN Cindy McCain totally just had a Hillary Clinton moment. There she was, wearing that same expression, eyes locked on her husband as he denied having an affair with a different (though, not dissimilar-looking?) blond and trashing those who would besmirch his honor, in this case, The New York Times.

We’ve seen that look before, just as we’ve all watched this entire drama before, even down to the part where his staff tries to make the woman buzz off. Monica Lewinsky was shipped over to the Pentagon, supposedly Vicki Iseman got a stern talking-to at Union Station.

Instead of from couch in front of a “60 Minutes” camera, the way the Clintons did it back in ’92, Mrs. McCain’s moment happened in front of a bank of journalists, her every blink and smile setting off a spray of photo flashes and whirring shutters. And this in a week where the GOP frontrunner’s wife had already not-so-subtly called out Michelle Obama on her remark about being proud of the U.S.A. for the first time in her adult life. Pardon my French, but this lady’s got balls.

Of course it’s hardly going to matter at this point whether there was actually a physical relationship, and the samemccainwomensepia_1.jpg Republicans who a few weeks ago were kvetching about McCain’s values are backing him up now. One gets a feeling this won’t make it into any of Mike Huckabee’s “Saturday Night Live” skits, unless maybe Lorne Michaels doesn’t find a decent Obama impersonator in time. After all, John McCain is just a campaign rival; The Media is an enemy.

McCain has clearly and flatly denied an affair, but at this point that’s hardly the most interesting question at play. Was the story ready to publish, and did McCain engage “aggressive and angry efforts to stop any and all publication”? Is this going to be another nail in the coffin of the often-valuable anonymous source? Is this more about “redefining” John McCain as — of all things — a stud? Did a looming New Republic story about, in part, why the Times hadn’t run the story earlier spur its publication Wednesday night? (And why does it suddenly seem hilarious that Gary Hart was one of McCain’s groomsmen when the two were married in 1980?)

As a sex scandal, this thing is hardly lukewarm. There is so far no evidence of an actual sexual relationship, no suggestion of office trysts or cigars or anything more than Iseman bragging around D.C. about having sway with the office of Senator Straight Talk. Is it possible we’re all over the whole infidelity thing? Or is there just really no “there” there?

McCainPRINCESSSLEIASEPIACROPPED.jpgWhile we’re talking about “other women” in this race, let’s go there about Chelsea Clinton. No, using the words “pimped out” probably wouldn’t have been my choice — though that does effectively describe the role she’s playing in her mother’s campaign — but it was the story about her dissing the kid that really did it for me.

You’ve heard it by now, about how the former First Daughter was stumping for her mom in Iowa when a 9-year-old journalist for Scholastic News Service approached, asking Chels’ “how you think you Father would do as First Man?” In response, the cub reporter got a polite version of Talk To The Hand: “I’m sorry,” Clinton said, “but I can’t talk to press, and unfortunately that means you, even though I think you’re cute.”

Set aside, for a second, the fact that the reporter in question had already questioned seven presidential candidates during her coverage of primary campaign before she ran into Chelsea. Set aside the fact that the reporter, one Sydney Rieckhoff of Cedar Rapids, was undaunted and managed to get Clinton to at least pose for a quick photo. Even set aside the fact that Rieckhoff, a classy lady even such a tender age, understood the backhanded compliment Clinton paid her by treating her like the grown-up journalists. The point is why a ridiculous press blackout inexcusably, inexplicably still surrounds the former First Daughter.

There Chelsea is, out making eloquent, if ineffective, speeches for Hillary in Hawai’i, working hard on behalf of a candidate for whom she obviously has genuine passion. Yet, I find myself unable to really respect her because of her refusal to speak to journalists. This is a woman pushing 30 — do any of us think she hasn’t already been asked every possible inappropriate and uncomfortable question about her parents? It’s time for Chelsea Clinton to get over herself.

THE NEW REPUBLIC: The publication of the article capped three months of intense internal deliberations at the Times over whether to publish the negative piece and its most explosive charge about the affair. It pitted the reporters investigating the story, who believed they had nailed it, against executive editor Bill Keller, who believed they hadn’t. It likely cost the paper one investigative reporter, who decided to leave in frustration. And the Times ended up publishing a piece in which the institutional tensions about just what the story should be are palpable.

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