In Search of Cindy McCain
She may be the next First Lady. But Cindy McCain hasn't been living her life hoping and waiting for that day.
Ambitious naval officers who hope to make admiral know they must put in years of sea time, long deployments aboard ship where they prove themselves as sailors and earn the respect of their superiors. Back home, their wives work, chase after the kids and take care of the house, building lives of their own while their husbands build their careers. Cindy McCain knows what that's like. Over the 28 years of her often long-distance marriage to Capt. John McCain, USN (Ret.), she says she thought of herself as a Navy wife whose husband was off on tour—albeit on Capitol Hill instead of somewhere in the North Atlantic. "It was almost like a deployment," Cindy told NEWSWEEK. "What I told the kids from the time they were little is that their dad was deployed and serving our country in Washington."
Cindy has sometimes likened herself to a single mother; now 54, she has often been far away from her husband during difficult moments, including two of three miscarriages she suffered in the 1980s. Years later, her husband did not notice when she became addicted to painkillers, a habit, she says, brought on in part by the stress of politics. In 2004, he was on the other side of the country when she suffered a stroke that left her partly debilitated. On her own, she learned to walk again. Cindy says she doesn't resent the time she has spent without her husband. It was her choice to stay in Arizona while he rose in Washington, and she says she knew when she married him that he was always going to "put country first."
She certainly isn't looking for pity. Unlike many Navy wives, Cindy McCain has never had to worry about scraping up enough money to pay the phone bill. The heiress to a fortune that is estimated at more than $100 million—her father built the largest beer distributorship in Arizona—she raised the couple's four children in the house where she grew up, and the couple has a ranch near Sedona. Her life away from Washington has given her the freedom to unhitch herself from her husband's career and pursue her own interests. She is chairman and majority owner of her family's beer business, and oversees a family charity that supports groups that provide medical care to people in some of the world's poorest countries. An amateur pilot (she says she got her license so she could fly John on campaign swings around Arizona), she also learned to drive race cars with her son Jack, a cadet at the U.S. Naval Academy. Last week she was in Vietnam with Operation Smile, a group that brings American doctors to repair children's cleft palates (she sits on the charity's board).
There isn't much about Cindy's life lately that can be called private. Talking with her, one gets the sense that if there is anything about her marriage that she would change, it might be to reclaim the privacy that she has lost as the wife of the presumptive Republican nominee. She may have prepared herself for a largely independent life, but she didn't count on—and never sought—the close, often unforgiving, scrutiny that she now cannot avoid.
Her tax records, her hair and clothes, even the authenticity of "family" recipes posted on the campaign's Web site have become the subject of intense attention on the Internet and cable TV (it turned out that an intern lifted some of the recipes from the Food Network). The talk shows spent hours last week teasing up a feud between her and Michelle Obama, after Cindy chided Michelle for saying, months ago, that she is proud of her country "for the first time" in her life. "I have always been proud of my country," Cindy responded, repeating comments she'd made when Michelle first made the remark.
All the attention has yet to leave an impression on many voters. Despite decades alongside one of the country's most visible politicians, the new NEWSWEEK Poll shows that 48 percent of registered voters still don't know enough to have an opinion about her. Many know her only as the blonde standing alongside her gregarious husband, lips fixed in a practiced smile, ice-blue eyes serene and adoring, but inscrutable.
Recently, Cindy has set out to show the country that she is no vacant "Stepford wife." She has started doing more press interviews and can be surprisingly candid about her personal life and her feelings. Still, she clearly finds the confessional mode of American politics distasteful, and does not feel the need to overshare. "It's more about … feeling comfortable … and not feeling compelled to do things that I wouldn't normally do," she says.
John McCain has made a virtue—and a career—of his unwillingness to go along, an independent streak his wife shares. If he doesn't want to be reined in by convention, neither does she. After nearly 30 years together but apart, she has her own sense of mission, one that does not necessarily require a husband in the White House.