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

Cindy McCain’s New Campaign StrategyPretty, petite Cindy McCain sits snugly in the driver’s seat of a 2004 Cadillac sedan that’s been converted into a race car, one hand grasping the steering wheel, the other working the four-on-the-floor. Dressed in dark straight-leg jeans, tan sneakers, a cropped white denim jacket, and white polo shirt, her shoulder-length blond hair pulled into a ponytail and stuffed under a baseball cap, she casts an image distinctly different from her typical one of pastel dress with pearls — the standard-issue candidate’s wife uniform. It’s a crisp, clear April day, and McCain is decidedly not on the campaign trail. At the Bob Bondurant School of High Performance Driving in Chandler, a suburb 18 miles outside Phoenix, she is doing what over the past three years she has come to love: negotiating a racecourse. But even as she rounds one curve after another, downshifting and upshifting, a cameraman is in the passenger seat filming her for a promotional campaign video. Because when your husband is fourth-term Arizona Senator John McCain and he’s running for president, everything you do is part of the message. Cindy does her best to ignore the cameraman. Finally, she pulls into a holding area, drops him off and speeds away again.Before long McCain moves on to another exercise, one that requires the driver to zigzag through a row of red plastic cones. This time, I join her. She jerks the steering wheel with such force that it feels as if the car could flip over. But McCain is in total control. After she has run the course, she looks in the rearview mirror to see whether she has toppled any cones. "I hate to knock one down," she says. "It messes things up. I like to keep things tidy."There have been times in her life that were anything but. In the early 1990s, McCain was addicted to painkillers. Her reliance on them ended once she finally discovered the cause of her back pain, but that didn’t stop her husband’s opponents during the 2000 Republican presidential primary in South Carolina from distributing flyers depicting her as a drug addict. The smear campaign also fallaciously suggested that John McCain had "fathered a black child" with a prostitute. Even though Cindy was furious about what was happening, John chose not to dignify the allegations by responding. His refusal "to take the low road to the highest office in the land," as he put it in his concession speech, is widely thought to have cost him the nomination.This time, Cindy is heading into the campaign with a different attitude. She has since lost both of her parents and seen three of her four children leave home for school or military service. After her father’s death in 2000, she became chair of her family’s $300 million beverage company. Then, in 2004, she suffered a stroke and nearly died. The stroke occurred while she was out to lunch with some friends. "I started talking, and the next thing I knew, what was coming out of my mouth was just gibberish," she recalls. "My first thought was just to get out of there, but I couldn’t walk. One of my friends’ husbands actually picked me up and carried me to the car, then drove me to the hospital."But now Cindy McCain is back in the game. She has taken control of her business, her health, and her approach to politics. I have been covering the McCains since 1999, and I’ve never seen her so forthright. Gone is the quiet, supportive political spouse willing to remain in the shadows and look adoring; stepping forward is a new, confident, formidable woman. In July, for example, when fundraising fell well below expectations, staff was being let go and rumors were rife that John McCain was dropping out of the race, Cindy did not hesitate to blast back at her husband’s critics. "Listen, all Republicans are doing badly with fund-raising," she says. "The reason we are is because of the state of our party. To blame it on one particular candidate is simply not fair." She has been through this before; all campaigns have their ups and downs. But this time she’s not fretting over every negative news report. "Life is too short," she says. Her focus is more on the couple’s 19-year-old son Jimmy, a marine private first class preparing to leave for Iraq."I’ll be really honest — I have good days and bad days," she says. "There are days when I think, I can’t believe this. He’s a child. But he’s doing what he wants, and he’s good at it."At 53, McCain has a new sense of urgency, of perspective. "Life experience changes you," she muses. "When we started all this, I was 26, 27 years old. I was very naive. What life has taught me is that things aren’t always as you see them; you need to be aware. Politics does that to you."Healing After Her StrokeThe day before our outing at the racecourse, McCain and I settle onto the terrace of her new home, located off a main drag in one of Phoenix’s newer neighborhoods. Each room in the sprawling, well-appointed condominium is tidy in the extreme, with not an Indian throw rug or a campaign memento out of place. The family moved here late last year; it’s the same size as their previous home in an older part of the city, but easier to care for because Cindy no longer has to oversee any yard work or outside maintenance. The transition to the condominium was difficult; the McCains had taken over Cindy’s childhood home when they married, so she had lived there all of her life. Only recently did she work up the nerve to drive by the old place, which, she was startled to see, had been all but razed by the new owners.Today, wearing a simply cut pink cotton dress with a single strand of pearls, McCain looks toned and healthy — thanks, she believes, to exercise (an hour a day of weights or cardio), diet (no more salt or sugar), and some quality time behind the wheel."It’s called drift racing," she says of her hobby, adding that her elder son, Jack, bought her professional driving lessons for her 50th birthday. "It was three years ago, right after my stroke. I was really hesitant. I thought, well, I’m weak. But he said, ‘Mom, I want to do this with you. You can do this. It’ll be good for you.’"It’s not about speed, she says. "It’s this new Japanese style. Basically, it’s skidding and spinning around," she explains, "so that you don’t, number one, roll; number two, skid off the track; and number three — you know — screw your car up. It’s really fun." And, as it turned out, great rehabilitation as well, "both mentally and physically, because I had to use everything I was having trouble using."McCain shows almost no signs of permanent damage from her stroke, which has been attributed to her failure to take her blood pressure medication regularly. "I was feeling fine, so I only took the medication once in a while," she notes. In conversation, she will occasionally have trouble remembering certain facts, especially from the recent past, and if you look closely you realize she cannot make her right hand into a complete fist, which has affected her handwriting, if not her ability to grasp a gearshift knob. "It’s not bad," she says, describing the damage to her hand. "I can function. I have short-term memory loss. I can remember all the major details of my life, but I sometimes can’t remember what happened last week."In the immediate wake of the stroke, McCain’s prospects did not look so good. Her right leg was dragging, and she had no use of her right arm. After a few months of physical rehabilitation, she decided to start hiking the trails behind Squaw Peak Mountain, which is visible in the near distance from the terrace. Then she announced that she was going to Coronado, a manicured resort town in San Diego Bay. "I’m going to take the summer, and I’m going to fix myself," she told her family. She stayed for four and a half months. "My husband was not happy with me," she recalls. "He didn’t understand … but it was a good thing for me to do." A Family HistoryTaking herself away from her family for such a long time was an unusually bold move for Cindy McCain, the only daughter of Marguerite and James Hensley (a homemaker and a beverage distributor). Her bond with her parents, especially her father, was so strong that, even after she had graduated from the University of Southern California and was teaching elementary school back in Phoenix, she had her parents accompany her on a vacation to Hawaii. It was there, in the summer of 1979, that she met John McCain, a handsome, charismatic, 42-year-old Navy lieutenant commander who was working as a liaison in the U.S. Senate. "Up until then, I had dated very nice men from college," Cindy recalls. "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. 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! But I’m trying to bring a sense of health to the bus, so I’m insisting on other things besides the garbage lying out on the counters there."When, during the course of our conversation, I happen to refer to Cindy McCain as a feminist, she is quick to correct me. "Oh, I’m not a feminist," she asserts. "I am an independent Western woman!" Western women, she says, learn to fend for themselves, and they understand full well that "you never know where life is going to take you." Off and on, a dry desert breeze blows in, catching her hair when it does. Finally, as we look across the way from the terrace, onto Squaw Peak, whose trails helped her grow strong and surefooted again, I end the interview with the obvious question. "Do you want to be first lady?"She stops, as if surprised. She takes a long time to answer. "I don’t know," she says at last. "I’m not trying to dodge the question." Another pause. "I don’t know." she stops again. Then she seems to resolve something in her mind. "If given the opportunity, I would do my absolute very best to do the best job I could." Yet another pause. "I don’t know." One last beat. "You know, I’ve never gotten close to that question, because I don’t want to jinx it."Originally published in MORE magazine, September 2007.

First Published Mon, 2009-04-06 18:07

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