The Perfect Part

By Libby Copeland
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Cindy McCain might yearn to be invisible sometimes, or at the very least, not surrounded by the Secret Service and photographers and gawking people. The scrutiny seems too much to bear. Something about that half-apologetic manner.

"I appreciate you disrupting your day," she tells one of the administrators of a Harlem charter school during a June visit to New York, even though it's a big coup for this little school to score a visit by a potential first lady.

"I'm sorry to interrupt your work," she tells a class of frisky fourth-graders, who are thrilled to be interrupted.

McCain, 54, stands against a wall, hands behind her back, half-stooping at a respectful distance to observe the children. She's ethereally slender, and today she wears a satiny taupe suit with her hair twisted into a curly up-do by the stylist who travels with her.

She's been a candidate's wife for almost the entire course of her 28-year marriage. She looks perfect for the part. The perfection of Cindy McCain is a theme that repeats itself in interviews with those who know her -- this woman who hid her drug addiction from her husband for years, who fought her fear of campaigning via small planes by getting her pilot's license without telling her husband. There's a slight self-consciousness in her manner -- some combination, perhaps, of guardedness and careful manners and the learned posture of a child dancer. It's there in the way she keeps her hands folded close to her body, as if she's pondering where they should go, or trying not to take up too much space.

As she's leaving, a girl asks for an autograph. McCain obliges, and a minor riot breaks out as the other children try to get their own and the teacher tells them, "You can photocopy it."

She slips out the door, having left her mark in the impermanence of No. 2 pencil. Thanks for having me. Cindy McCain.

* * *

Cindy Lou Hensley grew up as an only child, and a privileged one, in a large rancher in an upper-class section of Phoenix. Her dad, Jim Hensley, founded what became a large Anheuser-Busch distributorship, and her mom, Marguerite, was a proper belle who emphasized impeccable manners. Today, Cindy's wealth may exceed $100 million.

"She was the apple of her father's eye," says Cindy's friend of 22 years, real estate developer Sharon Harper. Marguerite "Smitty" Hensley was "very protective of Cindy. I don't think she got away with too much when she was in high school."

Cindy rode horses and studied dance and went to public school. She became a junior rodeo queen. She seemed poised and put-together even during the awkwardness of adolescence, with "perfect" grades and a "perfect" look, according to women who went to middle and high school with her. Robin Thurman remembers Cindy from their Presbyterian church.

"She was always impeccably dressed and such a lady," Thurman says. "I remember sitting in these metal chairs in a circle in Sunday school and just staring at her, going, ' God, she's gorgeous.' "

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