People have gathered outside John McCain’s office in the Russell Senate Office Building to pay their respects to the late senator on Aug. 31, 2018
Dan Nowicki, The Republic | azcentral.com
This story originally was published in The Arizona Republic on Dec. 13, 2007.
Cindy McCain needed to be convinced.
She was a reluctant presidential candidate’s wife during the 2000 campaign. Although she warmed up somewhat to the experience, she wasn’t sure whether she could go through it again. So much had happened.
As a mother, she knew campaigns could hurt. She saw one of her daughters used in a dirty political trick. As a daughter herself, she had lost both her parents since that 2000 run.
And she was just two years removed from a life-threatening stroke.
Now, her husband, John McCain, Arizona’s senior senator, wanted to make a run for 2008. His presidential run was widely expected since his loss in the primaries eight years ago. By everyone, it seems, but Cindy McCain.
“You can see the toe marks in the sand where I was brought on board,” she said. “I was reluctant to get involved.”
What helped convince her was the fact that she is the mother of a son serving in Iraq.
“That’s really what brought me back to the table,” she said. “I felt so strongly about the importance of the actual situation our country is in, and now being personally involved in it, I couldn’t say no to John. I couldn’t say no.”
Although politicians seem motivated by a curious mix of ambition, goodwill and ego, candidates’ spouses don’t often share the love of the limelight or power. Cindy Hensley McCain certainly doesn’t.
But she has gamely been back out on the trail this year, trudging through the New Hampshire snow in February. And, by October, hobbling around South Carolina in high heels and crutches, the latter the result of a fall at a Phoenix grocery store.
She may draw voters to her husband. At the same time, McCain is looking to protect her children, her husband and herself from the perils of a political campaign.
Close family friend Wes Gullett, a political consultant who has worked for John McCain, compared a second presidential run to a second running of white-water rapids.
“The second time, you know the river and the rapids, but it can be fundamentally different,” Gullett said. “You also know where the rapids are and how to get around them.”
At times for McCain, supporting her husband has meant swallowing hard and forgiving some of the perceived wrongs from 2000.
It meant heading back to South Carolina, the state where her husband was wrongly accused of having a child out of wedlock.
All to help her husband’s election effort.
“John is a man for our time right now,” she said.
Cindy McCain seems a woman of the times.
The 53-year-old is chairwoman of Hensley and Co., the Budweiser distributor for Arizona that her father started. She also serves on the boards of several charities, serving causes such as land-mine removal and global poverty.
Yet when it comes to being a potential first lady, she sees herself playing a traditional role, one in which she is silent on political issues.
“I think the American people truly still want a traditional family in the White House,” she said.
The public wants a first lady who “does not participate in Cabinet meetings and take on legislative issues,” she said. “Whether that’s right or wrong, I’m not here to tell you that.”
That could be why the country bristled at Hillary Clinton, the current Democratic presidential contender, handling national health policy when she was first lady. McCain says she hasn’t analyzed why the country wants a non-political presidential wife, but it is a vibe she has picked up along the campaign trail.
“It’s wonderful we have powerful, intelligent women in this country. But this is a very unique job. There’s only one like it in the country,” she said.
“So there is a perception, and there is a part of the American people that are looking for something, I believe, that tends towards the traditional side as we see it.”
That does not mean people can expect her to simply smile as she stands by her husband.
“I’m not saying they want someone who is just a puppet,” she said. “I think they do look for someone who is more traditional.”
McCain won’t stifle her political views to fit that role. She already is comfortable with avoiding those issues.
“I’ll freely tell you that, when my husband comes home, the first thing we discuss is not politics,” she said. “We have other things to talk about. I do question my husband and ask him because I am interested in things, but I am not the legislator in this family. He is.”
McCain’s charities are affected by international politics. Operation Smile travels to countries such as Vietnam and India to fix children’s cleft palates. Operation HALO works to remove land mines in places like Sri Lanka, Cambodia and Angola. The American Voluntary Medical Team works in war-torn countries. McCain says she reads up on issues that could affect her work but doesn’t press her husband for Senate action.
“I’m not reliant on what they do or whatever the government decides to do,” she said.
But the McCain household does provide its senator with plenty of advice. Before John McCain made his decision to run, he convened his first town hall of potential voters: his family.
“It kind of morphed into a conversation that was not specifically about whether he should run or he shouldn’t run, but they had questions,” Cindy McCain said.
“And not so much that they doubted their dad, but it was an opportunity for them to find out, at that time, what his stand would have been on certain global-warming issues and other things.”
Dinner-table conversations would touch on who was dating whom but would often veer to the issues of the day.
“They were always in tune with what was happening and very opinionated, also,” she said. “They’re very broad in where they stand on things and how they look at things.”
McCain won’t detail any policy differences between her husband and their children but says family discussions are always civil.
“Until someone criticizes someone’s hair or something,” she said with a laugh, “then it’s a whole different deal.”
The McCains’ youngest daughter, Bridget, had a specific reason to be concerned about another presidential run by her father. During the South Carolina primary, she was used in a notorious political ploy.
Bridget was adopted from a Bangladesh orphanage. The infant, who needed medical attention, was handed to Cindy McCain by Mother Teresa.
But in South Carolina, the child’s dark skin was used against the senator. Voters received calls from fraudulent pollsters who asked if they would think less of him if they knew he fathered an African-American baby. Ministers also preached about the couple having a child conceived out of wedlock.
“Obviously, South Carolina was certainly not my favorite place to be at that time,” Cindy said, with a measured tone. “Sure I was mad. Not so much about what they did to John and I, but what they said about my daughter.”
Bridget was “cocooned” in the campaign and didn’t find out what was being said.
“Quite frankly, I didn’t hear a lot about it until it was all over,” Cindy said. “Later on, I found out the depth of the disingenuous behavior on the parts of some of these people.”
The trick also resonated back in Phoenix with Gullett. McCain brought back from Bangladesh Gullett’s daughter, Nikki, along with Bridget. The two girls, who were in the same orphanage, were born 10 days apart.
“It’s dirty pool talking about someone’s child and bringing them into the race in that fashion,” Gullett said. “It’s really pretty low, dirty-dog politics.”
No one has ever claimed responsibility for the South Carolina stunt. The campaign of George W. Bush, John McCain’s chief rival at the time, denied any involvement.
“The way these attacks are run anymore, they’re pretty anonymous,” Gullett said.
McCain figured someday she would have to tell her daughter about the dirty tricks of the 2000 campaign. She just wasn’t sure how or when.
Bridget found out about it on her own. In 2006, the teenager typed her name into Google and read the stories.
“She asked me why President Bush hated her, and I had to explain to her it was not President Bush doing this. It was the political process. Which is, well, I need someone to explain it to me,” she said with a laugh.
“She understands that politics is a contact sport now, and it was a learning curve for her.”
Mourners in Washington, D.C., line up to pay respects to the late Sen. John McCain as he lies in state in the U.S. Capitol Rotunda.
Dan Nowicki, The Republic | azcentral.com
Then and now
It also has been a learning curve for Bridget’s mother, who says she is much more savvy about the process now.
Longtime Arizona politician Betsey Bayless remembered a shy and quiet McCain who would sometimes read stiffly from prepared texts while standing in for her husband at events. That awkward McCain disappeared in 2000.
“She has a very, very sincere, personal way of talking to people,” Bayless said. “I saw the effect it would have on the crowds.”
McCain knows the 2008 campaign means the couple’s life is being sifted through again.
She knows stories about her will inevitably bring up her admission that she was addicted to painkillers, pills she took from her medical organization.
She shies away from commenting on how she might be treated if the story broke now, at a time when the general public is more understanding, and possibly forgiving, of addiction.
“It’s hard to say,” she said. “I can’t answer that question. But things have changed. I don’t know why.”
She shows the same polish when discussing religion. During the 2000 campaign, her husband criticized the evangelical Christian wing, and he was criticized, in turn, for not falling in line. During this run, he has been less critical, even speaking at Liberty University, the school formerly run by televangelist Jerry Falwell.
Cindy McCain seems to answer with her face when asked whether religion matters in a political campaign. But her verbal answer doesn’t contain the same wince.
“I’ve never seen it matter a whole lot,” she said. “I think your faith matters, whether faith has been part of your life.”
Her own faith was renewed, she says, after her 2004 stroke.
She passed out at a restaurant and woke up to see that “doctors and nurses were running like hell; everyone was in a complete panic.
“I took one look at what was going on around me, and I knew there was a problem.”
McCain’s thoughts went to her husband and children. “I thought if I was going to pass, I’d like to be able to tell them I loved them one more time,” she recalled.
She shows no trace of the stroke’s effects. But there has been one tangible result: The attack prompted her to move out of the only home she ever knew.
The property, near Central and Glendale avenues, was large. With just one child left at home, the couple decided to downsize. McCain is glad she was able to see her sons and daughters through their childhood in the same place she grew up.
“It was very important to me to share my roots with them,” she said.
The McCains now live in a high-rise condominium off Camelback Road near 24th Street.
“I love it,” she said, looking out from the tower’s rooftop, which offers a panoramic view of the city’s mountain ranges. “What a great spot to be here because we’re right at the base of everything.”
Although she wouldn’t mind if, in January 2009, the couple moved to another house, also at the center of everything.
Cindy McCain and family stand as Sen. John McCain is carried out of the Arizona State Capitol on Aug. 30, 2018.
Alyssa Williams, The Republic
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