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
And McCain, who serves on the boards of CARE, Operation Smile (which repairs the facial deformities of indigent children), and the HALO Trust (which removes land mines), insists on carving out time for the activities that are important to her. So on the night of the first CNN debate in June, she was not with her husband in Manchester, New Hampshire, but kicking off a week of free surgeries for kids in Southeast Asia."I just talked to Cindy, who’s over in Vietnam, believe it or not, with Operation Smile," her husband called out in amazement to the crowd that had packed into a local bar for a post-debate party. "She’s over there with a group of doctors and nurses. ... But from some godforsaken place in Vietnam, she watched the debate and called me!""The thing that you learn from the first race to the second race is what’s important to be at and what’s not," Cindy says. By late summer, she expects to be on the campaign trail full-time. But what will full-time look like? "I don’t know yet," she admits.Back on the BusWhat Cindy does know is just how vicious and brutal a presidential campaign can be. She learned that firsthand during the South Carolina primary of 2000, a spectacle that was, says one of her husband’s advisers, "The dirtiest race I’ve ever seen."The rumors about an illegitimate child? Indeed, John was the father of a little girl, Bridget. The couple had adopted her when she was 10 weeks old from Mother Teresa’s orphanage in Bangladesh, which Cindy had visited with the American Voluntary Medical Team, a nonprofit she had founded to provide medical care to children in need. As for Cindy’s drug addiction, that was an old story, revisited and twisted to hurt John’s political chances. In 1989, following surgery on two ruptured disks in her back — "I blew them carrying Jimmy, my number-three child, on my back at Disneyland," she recalls — Cindy was in chronic, excruciating pain. "I told people I would have chewed broken glass if it could have helped. Here I was, in my late 30s, and I felt like I was 90 years old. I couldn’t move. I was sick. People say to me, ‘Why would your husband not know?’ Well, I hid it from him — on purpose. I didn’t want him to know I was taking a drug, and I didn’t want him to worry about me. He had enough on his plate."For three years McCain visited various physicians in search of relief and prescriptions, including doctors affiliated with the nonprofit she had started (which ultimately brought her addiction to light in the press). "At that time, doctors would just give you a prescription and really not listen to you," she says. "It was frustrating. I really was trying to get help. I was not doctor shopping." Out of desperation, she went to an acquaintance who was an obstetrician. "Believe it or not, I needed a hysterectomy. My uterus was 10 times the normal size. I’ve never had an ounce of pain since." After the operation, she quit the pills cold turkey and assumed that this difficult chapter of her life had closed. She was in for a surprise."The first time, in 2000, I really thought I was politically seasoned," she says. "You know, we had run how many races out here? We had five or six congressional races under our belts at that point. But I did not have a clue."The attack on her stung, but not as much as the remarks about Bridget. "Okay, so they picked on me," she says. "I’m an adult. But to involve my daughter was unconscionable. I was blown away by it. I’m angry — but I’m not bitter. You’ve just got to move on. I learned that from John."Make no mistake, though, things will be handled differently this time. A plan is in place outlining how they will respond to another smear campaign. Still, despite all of the caveats about politics and campaigning, Cindy admits it has a certain appeal. "It was fun to get back on the bus," she remembers with true affection that day on the terrace. "You know, the same bickering … the same lack of space. The only place you can go to make a phone call to your children is inside the bathroom. The same drill I went through before." And what about the doughnuts? "They are just as bad!

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