JOHN McCAIN AND THE LOW ROAD….This is an old story, but sometimes the old ones are the best, aren’t they? It starts in 1988, following the impeachment of the loathsome governor of Arizona, Ev Mecham — a man whom John McCain had publicly called on to resign a few months earlier. In Arizona, an impeached governor is replaced by the Secretary of State, which in this case turned out to be a Democrat, Rose Mofford, a woman with a bright white beehive hairdo who had quietly overseen Arizona’s elections for decades and had no ambition for higher office.

A few days after she was sworn in Mofford headed to Washington for a largely ceremonial visit but, to her surprise, was ambushed at a congressional hearing by Idaho’s James McClure, who ran her around in circles with a series of complex questions she plainly wasn’t yet able to answer about CAP, Arizona’s main water project. Why embarrass her this way? Longtime Arizona reporter Amy Silverman tells the story:

Coincidentally, that very same day, Pat Murphy, then publisher of the Arizona Republic, was also in Washington to meet with the delegation. He and his wife had lunch plans with McCain, and as Murphy recalls, they went to the hearing room where Mofford was testifying, to meet up with him. Murphy had written glowingly of McCain and considered him a personal friend.

As Murphy recounted in an e-mail recently (he left the Republic many years ago, and now lives in Idaho), the incident crushed him. He says it was the beginning of the end of his respect for and friendship with McCain.

….”During lunch, McCain said, almost with mischievous glee, that he had slipped some highly technical questions to [James McClure] to ask Mofford — questions she wouldn’t be prepared to answer or expected to answer.

“Flabbergasted, I asked McCain why would he want to sabotage Mofford’s testimony, when in fact the CAP was the nonpartisan pet of Republicans and Democrats — such as far-left Udall and far-right Goldwater — since its inception.

“His reply, as near as I remember, was, ‘I’ll embarrass a Democrat any time I get the chance.’

“The lunch continued in strained chit-chat. We then walked back to McCain’s office, where a few reporters, all of them from Arizona papers, as I recall, were waiting. One said there was a rumor McCain had tried to sabotage Mofford’s testimony, to which he said something like, ‘I’d never do anything like that.’”

Just good clean fun! McCain was hoping to recall Mofford for no special reason — he just didn’t want a Democrat serving out Mecham’s term — and videotaping the ambush was all part of the plan. Needless to say, denying his involvement was all part of the plan too.

Like they say, politics ain’t beanbag, and McCain didn’t do anything illegal here. (Mofford served out the rest of Mecham’s term when Arizona’s Supreme Court scotched McCain’s recall plans.) But you might want to keep this story in mind when you read all those furrowed-browed accounts about how straight talkin’ John McCain is so plainly uncomfortable with the negative direction that his advisors have taken his presidential campaign. Turns out McCain might be enjoying the low road a little more than he’d like you to think.

Much more here. Mark Kleiman’s clip-n-save version is here.