Cindy McCain Opens Up — On Her Terms

11 minute read

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There are a handful of great American families in politics that have risen to the rank of legend. The Kennedys and the Bushes, the Rockefellers and the Roosevelts. But perhaps no mythology has been nursed with such purpose and a sense of national service than that of the McCains — and not without good cause or true mission. Country First was more than a slogan for John McCain’s ill-fated 2008 presidential bid. It might as well have been tattooed as a family crest on the brood, men and women alike.

Cindy McCain’s memoir, released today, is both a predictable layer on top of that existing family lore and perhaps an unintentional moment of coloring outside the lines. Stronger is at once a love-letter to her late husband, who died of brain cancer in 2018, and an indictment of the party-line politics he fought against. It’s also a late cry for help in a political system that still expects spouses to be mute and insists successful women married to politicians defer to the men whose names are on ballots. ”As a woman, you walk a really fine line, and if you put one toe over it, you risk being portrayed as the crazy, shrieking wife,” McCain writes.

This is the Cindy McCain we suspected was at his side for so many years, but who chose to stay out of the political fray so as not to cause trouble for her husband. She literally avoided the spotlight, and now we know why: the bright lights at events triggered migraines, a fact she says never shared with anyone. “It was my nature not to complain — and watching John stay stoic and strong over the years had made me even more intent on resisting any weakness,” she writes.

Mrs. McCain is now ready to tell you what she was really thinking the whole time. Her writing is replete with the famed tales that make the McCain legend so compelling. There is the requisite moment when they read their wedding license and realize for the first time both had been telling fibs about their real age. Future Defense Secretary Bill Cohen as the best man at their wedding. President George H.W. Bush telling the Senator that he was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross by none other than McCain’s grandfather. It’s the stuff of political destiny.

But not all of it adds to the gauze around the family that is, in a sense, the Republican Camelot. We all know the fabled stories about the Senator’s war-hero father and grandfather and his own personal honor while spending five years as a prisoner of war. Now, we have new revelations about how they were so worried about Jimmy McCain’s health as a newborn, they had him baptized in the hospital on fears he might not make it out of the maternity ward. We also have the awkward moments, like Meghan McCain grabbing a handful of condoms upon dorm check-in at Columbia.

Stronger isn’t the type of book you publish if you’re trying to make friends in the Senate dining room. Political memoirs are supposed to be graced with sufficient niceties and vagaries that make voters buy the brand. Mrs. McCain instead chooses blunt-force candor, veering at times into tales of taking young children into that same Senate dining room, asking for high chairs that don’t exist and trying to ignore the shower of food that falls at kiddos’ feet. Through small glimpses like that of Mrs. McCain’s life, split for decades between Phoenix and D.C., the book reveals a business exec and philanthropist trying her level best to help an ambitious husband along, and a mother determined to maintain some level of normalcy for her children.

Not that most marriages require you to spend months — literally, months — writing handwritten notes on holiday cards to constituents. Nor is it normal for most mothers to leave a political event in South Carolina to find your adopted daughter from Bangladesh branded John McCain’s “Black love child” in flyers left on windshields. Even before John ran for President, Cindy worried about the crazies coming for her family, either for political or financial gain. She claims drones pestered the final months of her husband’s life, buzzing over the Sedona ranch, and that an unnamed tabloid offered $250,000 for a photograph of him. She told the groundskeeper at their home in Sedona, Arizona, to shoot down the drones if he saw one.

That sense of anxiety pulses through Mrs. McCain’s writing. As she chronicles, she held deep insecurities about her own place in her husband’s political orbit, Washington’s staid protocols and the Navy hierarchy. A particularly cringe-worthy scene has her sharing a meal at the White House with Nancy Reagan, who snaps to another guest who is congratulating Mrs. McCain on the recent Senate victory: “She’s not the one who won. Her husband did.” Mrs. McCain likens herself to Kate Middleton, marrying into Navy royalty. (This, of course, requires us to see Sen. McCain’s naval career to be the result of his family lineage and not his merits, which, well, might be true but is probably not advisable to say aloud, given her own sons’ military careers.)

Although Mrs. McCain is more candid about her courtship and marriage to the ornery Senator than she is about politics, it’s the campaign chapters that will draw the most attention. She reveals that she was rooting for Joe Lieberman to be the VP pick and she believes McCain would have been President had he not selected Sarah Palin of Alaska as his running mate. She understood well before Election Day that they were skidding towards a loss, as did the candidate. “Let’s appreciate these moments,” he said. “We won’t have them forever.”

Like most political spouses, Mrs. McCain allows for little grey in her portrait of her late husband. John McCain is, from the start, a larger-than-life figure committed to fighting for the good. When he bucks doctors’ orders to attend an international conference weeks after surgery to remove a brain tumor, it was his rakish nature and irrepressible will. The same was true when he insisted over doctors’ orders to return to Washington to vote down a plan to repeal Obamacare without a replacement at the ready. When John falls for Cindy while still married to his first wife, she bears little responsibility. McCain’s retirement from the Navy and his interest in politics were completely separate events, in her telling, but conveniently sidled up.

When the Senator faces setbacks or failures, Mrs. McCain casts him as a victim of circumstance, and not an active player. For instance, when his 2008 campaign ran out of money, she blames the advisers even though the Senator privately lamented that aides had turned the Straight Talk Express into “a rolling Ritz.” She spends only one paragraph on what was perhaps her husband’s biggest campaign blunder— suspending it in the middle of the Wall Street meltdown. She blames the media for hyping the campaign’s dismal fundraising, bloated spending and his sinking poll numbers.

Yes, her contempt of the media is also a running theme, and it manifests in ways big and small. For instance, she spotted two reporters chatting in the back of the campaign plane one day. Upon landing, one of the reporters — she doesn’t name names, of course — was on the air reporting what “an unnamed source on the campaign” had told him, and Mrs. McCain says that the journalist was relying on the other reporter. It’s an irresponsible claim on par with Trump’s “fake news” epithets, even if she believes it to be true.

Elsewhere, she betrays a surprisingly thin skin given her steely demeanor during four decades in the public eye. She writes that she resents when we write about her parents’ wealth without mentioning her father’s self-made success as a beer distributor. She hates the trope — pervasive to this day — that John married Cindy for her father’s money and connections to help launch his political career. And The View host Joy Behar’s jab that she isn’t a natural blonde still grates on her.

That media interest started early in her marriage. After all, she married America’s most-famous POW. Once, after her shopping at a local bookstore became fodder for a local media column early in her time on the national stage, a friend tried to comfort her. “You’re Cindy McCain, and the rest of us try to imagine what that’s like,” the friend told her after the piece was published. She says the sustained media attention over the years had a profound impact on her. “As you start getting higher in visibility, the press comes after you, and it’s their job to tear you down,” Mrs. McCain writes. “My natural caution became even more acute, and I started to build a wall of wariness that I wouldn’t let down for decades.”

Her bristles about the press and her image don’t always lack merit. For instance, she bitterly complains that journalists tried to find Jimmy McCain, deployed in Iraq, for a story — a move she believes could have put him and his fellow Marines in greater danger. Mrs. McCain openly wonders if a man as unqualified as Sarah Palin would have faced the same degree of skepticism from the press. And she laments that there was no way the Oscar de la Renta outfit that she wore at the convention cost $300,000, as Vanity Fair estimated.

The last third of the book might be the most revealing as Mrs. McCain steps out from behind her husband’s headlines. After the 2008 loss, Mrs. McCain threw herself into service — embodying the McCain family ethos fully — and rededicated herself to caring for her husband. Between trips with Ben Affleck to the Congo and Rwanda for humanitarian causes and summoning her husband’s pals back to Africa over the State Department’s objections, an independent Cindy McCain shines. She emerges as a fighter of human trafficking at home and abroad. She set into motion what is today the McCain Institute, a think tank that goes well beyond papers and reports and actually does the work on national security, professional networking and promoting the rule of law that others contemplate.

And in John McCain’s final 14 months and amid declining health, the McCain partnership comes into relief in a way that, from the outside, was always tough to figure out. When an insurance company rep gives Mrs. McCain the run-around about her husband’s chemo and prescription, she threatens to pull all 1,600 of her employees’ provider contracts from the company if the rep did not yield to the doctors’ orders.

It’s been 976 days since Sen. McCain passed away at his beloved ranch just outside of Sedona, a beautiful compound reachable only by dirt driveway and the site for countless barbeques, hikes and paintball fights. From those grounds, we watched as the hearse and motorcade made its way down the dusty driveway that August afternoon and the world bid farewell to truly an American original. Perhaps, we worried, we were also saying goodbye to his brand of politics that weekend at Washington’s National Cathedral.

It turns out, we didn’t. Mrs. McCain picked up the maverick mantle right where her husband left it. She endorsed the Democratic bid of Joe Biden — the first person to invite her and John to dinner when they moved to Washington — over constant tormenter Donald Trump. And with this memoir, the still-committed Republican is signaling that the grit that defines the McCain brand in American political life and its mythology is still here.

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