Today's New York Times' expose on John McCain is rightly criticized, by Slate.com and others, for its curious thinness of evidence about his supposed political and perhaps amorous coziness to a lobbyist during the 2000 presidential race. The expose also earns a measured defense by Slate media critic, Jack Shafer, not an easy man to impress. Likely, the story is the opening shot of more reporting by the paper, and others. It's a familiar pattern, where a figure from a media backwater turns out to have a lot of interesting back stories that the local press has already revealed but had little national salience at the time. This pattern of belated digging is intensified, in McCain's case, by his extremely good relations with national reporters. A good place to start, in looking at the McCain that the Arizona press dislikes, is this story from the Phoenix New Times, called "The Pampered Politician." It outlines, in the paper's trademark acid prose, the excessive fondness of the national media and McCain's shrewd, if cynical restoration of his reputation after the Keating Five savings and loan scandal (McCain used the first Gulf War as the way to recast his image as courageous patriot and survive re-election in 1992). Then it digs into the local stories that have tarred McCain's image and so angered him that he barely speaks to the local papers. It notes that he has regularly ranked at the bottom of the list of environmental senators, his wife's family connections with Hensley and Co., major Anheuser-Busch beer distributors, and his wife Cindy's battles with barbituate addiction. In summary: The Arizona media have been cataloguing his meanderings for years, building a case that John McCain--despite his status as a war hero--is a meanspirited, hot-tempered, opportunistic, philandering, hypocritical political climber who married a comely beer heiress and used her daddy's money to get elected to Congress in a state he can hardly call home. Shades of Arkansas? The pattern is a depressing one. Political figures from large states, such as Hillary Clinton's New York, can get so much national attention that they accumulate negatives and cannot rise further. Those from small states, or newcomers, arrive without national baggage. Then comes the opportunity to dig into the neglected background, normally finding that small-state leaders operate in a kind of pork-barrel, lobby-friendly, good-ole-boy environment that seemed natural for them at the time. The tough question is whether past practices in such an environment are predictive of presidential practices. Did Sen. McCain reform himself, much as Sen. Warren Magnuson did when faced with political problems over his past, carefree behavior? Maggie clearly did, helped along by excellent aides who saw how to reposition the free-living pol as the consumer-protection champion. (Curiously, both Maggie and McCain headed the Senate Commerce Committee, rich with regulatory powers that draw lobbyists.) If so, when does the statute of limitations come into effect? And is there a different pull date for opposition research and for mainstream media? Hard to resist raking old muck, of course, particularly when you feel guilty for having overlooked it so long and having fallen for the McCain story line so ardently. And when a politician's sanctimonious bearing and rhetoric virtually invite a comeuppance. One thing to keep in mind, during the coming wallow: politicians, like most of us, are capable of growing and changing for the better. True, power can corrupt over time, but that doesn't mean that the cliche always applies.