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As candidate's wife, Cindy McCain finds herself in spotlight
Potential first lady grew up in affluent Arizona family, overcame drug addiction
Sunday, March 09, 2008
WASHINGTON — She was a pretty 24-year-old teacher vacationing with her parents in Hawaii nearly three decades ago when they met at a cocktail party.
"I was standing at the hors d'oeuvre table, young, shy, not knowing anybody," Cindy McCain told Harper's Bazaar. "Suddenly this awfully nice looking Navy captain in dress whites was kind of chasing me around the table. I thought, 'What's going on here?'"
The handsome pursuer was married at the time, although separated from the wife who had waited for the five and a half years that the jet pilot spent in a prisoner of war compound in Hanoi after being shot down over North Vietnam.
There was "instant chemistry" at the 1979 cocktail party, recalled Cindy McCain, who was also the heiress to an Arizona fortune.
"She was lovely, intelligent and charming, 17 years my junior but poised and confident," that Navy captain, John McCain, wrote in his book, "Worth the Fighting For."
"I monopolized her attention the entire time," he admitted. "When it came time to leave the party, I persuaded her to join me for drinks at the Royal Hawaiian Hotel. By the evening's end, I was in love."
With John McCain poised to be the Republican presidential nominee, Cindy McCain has been thrust into the spotlight. She has mostly stayed in her husband's shadow while attention has been focused on the Democratic candidates' spouses, Bill Clinton and Michelle Obama.
A child of privilege
Cindy Lou Hensley was born in Phoenix in 1954, the only child of James and Marguerite "Smitty" Hensley. Her father was the founder of Hensley & Co., one of the largest Anheuser-Busch distributorships in the country. She grew up in affluence, vacationing at a beach house on Coronado Island near San Diego and becoming a rodeo beauty queen.
She was a cheerleader at Central High School in Phoenix and a Kappa Alpha Theta at the University of California at Los Angeles. She earned bachelor's and master's degrees in special education.
She was teaching children with disabilities at a high school in Avondale, Ariz., when she went to Hawaii with her parents.
John McCain, a former POW and the son of an admiral, was a naval liaison officer traveling with a congressional delegation in Hawaii. His 14-year marriage was falling apart.
Carol McCain, a former fashion model, had been severely injured in 1969 when she was thrown through the windshield in a car wreck.
Her husband was in a POW compound, and she did not let him know for fear it would upset him further.
The couple had three children. She has rarely spoken publicly about the marriage or divorce, but did talk to Robert Timberg for his book, "John McCain: An American Odyssey."
"The breakup of our marriage was not caused by my accident or Vietnam or any of those things. I don't know that it might not have happened if John had never been gone," she said. "I attribute it more to John turning 40 and wanting to be 25 again than I do to anything else."
Family and politics
John and Cindy McCain were married on May 17, 1980, about a month after his divorce was final. When filling out their marriage license applications, they found that both had been lying about their ages — he telling her that he was four years younger, she telling him that she was three years older.
After 22 years in the Navy, McCain resigned and the newlyweds moved to Arizona.
McCain went to work for his father-in-law, but his political ambitions were plain from the start. In 1982, he was elected to Congress.
Throughout her husband's career in the House and Senate, Cindy McCain has lived in Arizona. As an only child, she wanted a big family and thought Washington was not the place to raise their children.
After suffering several miscarriages, she gave birth to Meghan in 1984, John IV, called "Jack," in 1986, and Jimmy in 1988.
With her husband home only on weekends, she said she felt often like a single mom and has said there was stress as a result.
"Did I get angry? Sure, I'm only human," she told Harper's Bazaar. "But at the situation, not him."
Her parents, who have both since died, lived across the street and helped out.
In 1988, Cindy McCain founded the American Voluntary Medical Team, a nonprofit group that organized doctors, nurses and other health care professionals to make emergency trips to Third World countries affected by natural disasters or war.
During a 1991 mission to Bangladesh, she found a baby girl in an orphanage run by Mother Teresa. She decided to bring the child back to the United States for surgery for her cleft palate. The McCains adopted the girl, naming her Bridget.
Battling drug addiction
In 1994, Cindy McCain publicly admitted that she had been addicted to the prescription drugs Percocet and Vicodin. She said she had begun taking the powerful painkillers after two back surgeries for ruptured discs in 1989. And she had stolen drugs from her own medical nonprofit.
She said her husband didn't know and that she sought help, including a stay in a rehab center, after an intervention by her parents.
"That was the darkest period of my life," she told Harper's Bazaar. "I was in pain, took too many pills, and, like many women, just fell into it."
The admission came after Tom Gosinski, who worked for the American Voluntary Medical Team, had told the Drug Enforcement Agency about the drug thefts.
Salon.com later published a 1992 entry from Gosinski's journal: "In reality, I am working for a very sad, lonely woman whose marriage of convenience to a U.S. senator has driven her to distance herself from friends, cover feelings of despair with drugs and replace lonely moments with self-indulgences."
Cindy McCain's friends, however, see her in a very different light.
Cindy is strong, said Sharon Harper, a Phoenix businesswoman who described their relationship as "the dearest of friends for 20 years."
"She incorporates a lot of interesting traits that you don't often see in one person. She's strong, disciplined, intelligent, yet sensitive and reserved," Harper said.
Back on the campaign trail
On her husband's campaign bus, the "Straight Talk Express," Cindy McCain sits in one of eight captain's chairs in the front. Her daughters Meghan — who has a campaign blog — and Bridget often sit nearby. The McCain sons are both in the military — the younger one, Jimmy, is a Marine serving in Iraq.
Cindy McCain often introduces her husband and talks about her initial reluctance to run again when he brought up the subject.
"I gulped and said 'No.' We did it in 2000," she told an audience in South Carolina.
She then tells the two reasons she changed her mind — her sons serving in the military.
"I could not in good conscience not help my husband do this because I really believe he is the only man that is experienced enough for this time and this day and age in the United States of America," she said.
She has also predicted what sort of first lady she would be.
"I think I perceive myself as just Cindy McCain," she told San Diego Magazine. She said she would continue her volunteer work and not be a co-president.
"I've never been a political person. I would not attend Cabinet meetings. I would not be a part of that process. That's my husband's job," she said. "But what I do is just as important. It's just different."
Additional material from Ken Herman of the Washington bureau and from the Arizona Republic.