Cindy McCain at Full Throttle

Cindy McCain: Her husband John McCain’s race for the White House may be losing steam, but she’s not. The presidential candidate’s wife speaks her mind.

By Paul Alexander
"But suddenly I met this man who was intelligent and witty and thoughtful and had such a vision about things. That’s what captured me." That, and how he looked in his dress whites. But it was John’s five-and-a-half-year stint as a prisoner of war in Hanoi that "made him the man he is," she says. It humbled him. "If I had met the cocky fighter pilot he was before he was shot down, I would never have married him."Cindy had little interest in politics, but John had already been bitten by the bug, so much so that at their wedding in 1980, Republican Senator William Cohen of Maine served as the best man and Democratic Senator Gary Hart of Colorado was one of the groomsmen. After retiring from the navy, John did public affairs work for Cindy’s father; he was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1982, then won a seat in the Senate in 1986. Cindy and the children remained at their home in Arizona while John flew back from Washington on weekends. "A lot of times what I saw [in D.C.] with families was a pecking order among the kids: whose dad or mom did this, and how close they were to the president," Cindy says. The McCains wanted their children to grow up in a more normal environment.Cindy joined her father in the family business. "My father founded Hensley & Company in 1955," she says. "I was always involved somewhat, since I was an only child and the sole heir. When my father passed away, I inherited the business." She hopes to hand it over to her children one day. "I have two who are very interested," she says. "Nothing would please me more than to have the legacy go on." Meghan, 22, just graduated from Columbia University; Jack, 21, is entering his final year at the Naval Academy, the fourth John Sidney McCain to attend the institution; Jimmy, 19, is the marine; Bridget, 16, attends high school. "My two sons want to finish their military service, I believe, and then come with me. It’d be great."When Cindy talks about her son Jimmy going to war, a subtle but noticeable edge of anxiety creeps into her voice. "I just saw the deployments are going up to 15 months versus 12 now. So he’s going to be gone for a while." Obviously, the issue of the war in Iraq has become very personal for her."It’s personal for John too," she says. "What galls me is when people look at John and say, ‘Well, you don’t get it.’ I love these military families or some of these Cindy Sheehans who say to John, ‘Well, you don’t understand.’ Believe me, we understand, and more so than they will ever know. We’re going to be one of those families really soon."How does that make her feel as a mother? "It scares the daylights out of me. But I’ll tell you something: one of the reasons I’m in this race — the reason I didn’t say ‘No, we’ve had enough’ — is because of that very factor. I knew where Jimmy was going, and I want someone in the White House who understands what it means. What this means not only to our country but also to the young men and women who are serving — and to me, because it’s my son."When I ask if she thinks her husband, had he won the White House in 2000, would have made a different decision about whether to go to war with Iraq in the first place, she answers firmly, as if she has already given the matter quite a bit of thought. "Yeah, I think he would have. You know, hindsight’s 20/20. I certainly don’t know all the intricacies of a combat situation. But, yes, I do think John would have handled it differently." She pauses. "I do not usually step into these issues at all," she adds. "But now, with my son, I do."Learning What’s ImportantThere’s an image I remember of Cindy McCain from 2000. It’s during the Republican National Convention, in Philadelphia, and McCain, in her ubiquitous two-piece suit and pearls, is standing quietly by herself in the lobby of the Sofitel hotel; she’s waiting for her husband and the rest of the entourage to show up.This time around, she’s waiting for no one. McCain, who budgets her time more judiciously since her stroke, is, for the most part, setting her own campaign and fund-raising schedule. She’ll be more out-front, in the spotlight, but she will appear at fewer events.

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