Old Town resident and renowned political strategist James Carville once famously said, “Drag a hundred dollar bill through a trailer park, and you never know what you’ll find.”
The bedroom community of Alexandria has no trailer parks, only a lot of expensive homes where many big-gun lawyers and top lobbyists return at night from plying their trade in the corridors of power four miles due north in the nation’s capital.
So it was both a curiosity and an annoyance for some residents of the quiet Cameron Station community to wake up Thursday and find the hot glare of the national media fixed squarely upon them. Big satellite trucks beamed to the networks images of the normally tranquil street in which lobbyist Vicki Iseman lives, as reporters jostled for positions and neighbors opened their front doors and went about their daily business.
Residents returned from work to find a full-on media scrum, with local and national media huddled around one another in the cold, hoping for a glance of Iseman, the 40-year-old lobbyist who reportedly had an inappropriate relationship with Republican presidential candidate John McCain, according to a New York Times article which broke Thursday morning.
Iseman, a resident of Cameron Station, was nowhere to be seen when reporters lined up near her home on Cameron Station Blvd. Neighbors dodged reporters questions as they entered and left their homes, frustrated with the spectacle. Its an invasion of privacy, said one resident, who would not reveal his name. This is private property and its an intrusion.
But what was a frustrating spectacle to some was celebrity fanfare to others. We dont know her, said one of two residents in a minivan who pulled over in hopes of getting the gossip. But we just wanted to see what was going on.
Some residents, who wished to be quoted anonymously, said they were warned via email from the assistant manager of the Cameron Station Community Association of “an occurrence” that might put their peace in jeopardy: “As you may be aware, there has been a newsworthy event that has caused an influx of press to gather within Cameron Station over the last 24 hours,” Leah Pommrehn write. “We regret that this may cause an inconvenience to you; however, the Association has taken the appropriate steps in an effort to minimize the impact to you.”
But they were seemingly unbothered as they chatted about former Washington power hitters who previously resided there former presidential candidate Tommy Thompson and a player for the Washington Wizards.
Did someone die? another motorist asked as she passed the commotion of camera shutters, news vans and policemen. According to an Alexandria police officer, they came to the scene in response to an anonymous tip, but he would not elaborate, and left soon after.
The New York Times article was criticized nationally for its lack of nominal sources anonymous informants were the bulk of source material and McCain himself called the story untrue.
But the rumors about McCain’s alleged dalliance have long coursed through Alexandria’s cocktail circuit. In social settings and at the bar at Landini Brothers, lobbyists, lawyers and lawmakers who often have daily contact with political elites such as the Arizona senator often speak openly about their personal peccadillos, usually with a deep guffaw and a healthy dose of schradenfreude.
This is, after all, the city where the famous scene from the 1987 spy movie “No Way Out” was filmed, in which “Secretary of Defense” Gene Hackman accidentally kills his “mistress” Sean Young and then tries to pin the death on a young Naval officer, played by Kevin Costner.
While the plodding authority of The New York Times was aggressively questioned by some Republican boosters of McCain, one Alexandria lobbyist, who has had regular contact with McCain for two decades said Thursday he believed the rumors to be true. “Of course he did it…We’ve all known about that relationship for years,” the lobbyist said. “And there were five or six others, both here in DC, Texas and California. It was common knowledge.”
The lobbyist, who asked not to be identified, has several decades of experience in federal legislative and regulatory advocacy, public policy research and public affairs, and has worked closely with McCain on issues in the areas of Defense, national security and international trade policy. Campaign finance records show he has donated almost $50,000 to political candidates, both Democrats and Republicans. “McCain is a great guy, but many of us knew for years he was having affairs,” the source said.
Iseman attended high school in Homer, Pa., before attending Indiana University of Pennsylvania, graduating in 1990 with a degree in elementary education. She moved to the Washington area two weeks after graduating from college, starting as a receptionist at an Arlington-based lobbying firm, Alcalde & Fay. Eventually she became the firm’s youngest partner, representing high-profile clients. “Ms. Iseman is a hardworking professional whose 18-year career has been exemplary,” the firm’s president, Kevin Fay, said in a statement.
She did well enough that in June, 1995 she bought a four-bedroom townhouse at Cameron Station for $790,000, according to Alexandria City property records.
The Times was unable to locate neighbors or community leaders who knew Iseman, which can be typical of many professionals who lead demanding, high-pressure jobs outside of Alexandria. But most had strong opinions either way. Pete Kaiman of Alexandria, who said he was a Republican but not necessarily a supporter of McCain, offered: “Whether you like him [McCain] or not, he tells it how it is — or at least how he believes it to be — and we can no longer say that about the New York Times.”
On how it impacts his view of McCain, Kaiman said, “It shouldn’t, but it does. That’s the world we live in.” Chris Ross of Alexandria disagreed. “I still think any election should be about the issues and where they stand.”
An Alexandria habitue
McCain essentially grew up in Alexandria, having moved here after his father was assigned to the Navy Yard in 1948 after service in World War II.
Back in the 1950s he was a young cut-up who spent six years in Alexandria at two of the citys private all-boys schools, first at Saint Stephens on W. Braddock Road and then at Episcopal High School off Quaker Lane. The most formative years of my life were at Episcopal, McCain told a small gathering of alumni in Alexandria back in December. I did not excel academically, but I enjoyed it immensely. I certainly did not have the most number of demerits at Episcopal or Annapolis, but I was close.
At Episcopal, students called McCain the Punk, a moniker he relished. From his senior yearbook entry, McCain is pictured in a trench coat, collar up, cigarette dangling from his lips. His classmates wrote: It was three fateful years ago that the Punk first crossed the threshold of the high school. His magnetic personality has won for him many life-long friends. John is remarkable for the amount of gray hair he has; this may come from his cramming for Annapolis or from his nocturnal perambulations.
From a school bio, approved by his Senate office, just about everything McCain did at Episcopal he did aggressively and competitively, from playing J.V. football under Episcopals legendary coach William B. Ravenel, to setting a school wrestling record for fastest pin. Mr. Ravenel was the foremost inspiration of my life, recalled McCain, a Navy fighter pilot who was shot down in North Vietnam in 1967 and spent five years as a prisoner of war. When I got out of prison he was the first person I wanted to see, but sadly he passed away two years before I could get home.
At Episcopal, McCain was also an editor of the schools newspaper and yearbook, and
involved in the Drama Club, its Missionary Society and Blackford Literary Society. Young McCain was also a waiter, serving the hungry boys platters while they flipped butter pats onto the ceiling, as journalist and Episcopal alum Ken Ringle once wrote in The Washington Post.
The unofficial but definitive bio of the Punks Episcopal years was written by Robert Timberg, who writes in John McCain: An American Odyssey (Free Press, 2007) that it was at St. Stephen’s he began to display a defiant, unruly streak and that by Episcopal those qualities emerged with a vengeance.
Classmates describe McCain as rambunctious, combative and raffish, wearing blue jeans with his coat and tie and shoes held together by tape. He prided himself as a tough guy, seemingly ready to fight at the drop of a hat, one classmate is quoted. McCain ran with a clique of other tough guys, slipping out of Alexandria for nocturnal jaunts, often ending up at a burlesque house on 9th Street, Timberg writes.
Back then, Ringle recalls, the schools identity was found in its proud but threadbare gentility of the Reconstruction South. Tuition was low, living conditions spartan, staff was unaccredited and students slept in sagging pipe-frame beds, he writes.
I guess I would have bathed more often if there were females at Episcopal, McCain said in December. You always have to go back to the people you know and love the best.”
For decades, McCain, who keeps an apartment in Crystal City, just a half mile from the Alexandria-Arlington line, was known to frequent Alexandria restaurants and shops regularly, attending Episcopal football and basketball games on the weekends and then taking friends out afterwards to one of its restaurants, usually Landini Brothers on King Street.
Its easy to rally around a guy like this, said Craig Stewart of Alexandria, a 1970 grad who worked at Episcopal for 10 years as associate director of development and now heads the American Wartime Museum in Manassas. You realize that despite the wisecracks, his honor and his character are core values of his life. Two weeks ago, the 71-year-old McCain returned to Alexandria and accepted the ultimate prize in American politics: that of the presumptive Republican nominee for President, after winning the Potomac Primaries.
He told a ballroom of supporters at the Alexandria Holiday Inn on First Street that Democratic presidential hopeful Barack Obama’s message of hope “is not enough” for Americans. McCain added that although he doesn’t know “who will have the honor of being the Democratic Party’s nominee for president,” he’s sure of where the Democrats will lead the country.
“Hope, my friends, is a powerful thing,” said McCain, taking a swipe at the Democrat whose autobiography is titled The Audacity of Hope. “To encourage a country with only rhetoric rather than sound and proven ideas that trust in the strength and courage of free people is not a promise of hope. It is a platitude,” McCain concluded. “I’m fired up and ready to go.”