The Perfect Part
While Her Husband Takes the National Spotlight, The Reserved Cindy McCain Plays Her Supporting Role

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.' "

John McCain had much the same reaction at a party in Honolulu in 1979. He was working as a naval liaison to the Senate and, by some accounts, was separated from his wife, Carol Shepp, who'd raised their three children alone during her husband's 5 1/2 years as a North Vietnamese prisoner of war. (Years later, McCain would acknowledge what biographer Robert Timberg called "dalliances" after his return from war. In one of his autobiographies, he would attribute the collapse of his first marriage largely to "my own selfishness and immaturity.")

Peter Lakeland, then a staff director on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, remembers how McCain, white-haired and 42, walked across the ballroom like a "guided missile" in the direction of the young blonde.

Cindy, 24, was there with her parents. By that time, she'd earned a master's degree and was teaching disabled children at a public school in Phoenix.

Her youth and her innocence must have been part of her appeal, Lakeland says: "He had just come out of hell, and his marriage had fallen apart, and I think he really saw Cindy as a chance to really begin over again."

They started dating. Friends recall that they were a study in opposites, with Cindy "always deferring to John," according to William Cohen, the former secretary of defense who was the best man at their wedding. John, for his part, was animated in his excitement about the woman he called "Cindy Lou."

Shy Cindy Lou's fate was to marry in 1980 into a family of talkers.

"You just can't just help but love her, honey," says John's mother, the irrepressible 96-year-old Roberta McCain, who several times during an interview says she has nothing to say and then keeps adding things. She describes Cindy as a seamless mother who has managed her four children's lives with seeming effortlessness, all while looking fantastic and wearing the most stylish clothes. "I don't see any chink in her armor, and I'm not biased," she says.

Reticent but Resolute

Cindy McCain is a careful, watchful person. She is "reserved," friends say. She is "shy." In stories McCain tells about herself, she comes across as trying so hard not to impose her problems on her husband and others that she can seem self-abnegating. She talks often about her unease in the spotlight and her hesitation over both of her husband's presidential runs.

"Our married life began almost as quickly as our public life did," she once told the Baltimore Sun, recalling how her husband began running for Congress shortly after their wedding. She has had years to perfect her role of candidate's wife as humanizer, the one who talks about afternoon barbecues at home and kids' games and who poses for pictures, smiling, just behind the shoulder of the husband. She has refused to become a Washington wife, however. John McCain has been a fixture of the Hill for more than 25 years now, but his wife decided not to raise their children here.

During this campaign, McCain has done few large events on her own, especially compared with Michelle Obama. Several people familiar with the campaign say she has at times agreed to do campaign events and then backed out later. When she introduced her husband at a June town-hall meeting in Philadelphia, she praised the senator from Arizona as a "husband and father" who has "good judgment." The whole thing clocked in at 1 minute 10 seconds.

She steers clear of policy. "Cindy doesn't want to say the wrong things on issues," says someone familiar with the campaign who asked not to be named in order to speak candidly. "She has seemed to be always happy to give a speech . . . on the type of person her husband is."

She is, in the words of her brother-in-law Joe McCain, a self-editor. Aware she is under a spotlight, she recognizes that everything she says must be carefully framed, or it can be taken out of context. "The best way to put it in context is to not say it," he says.

In recent months, McCain has been choosy about her press, granting interviews to the Chicago Tribune and Vogue but not the Arizona Republic, to "Access Hollywood" but not USA Today. Through campaign aides, she and the senator declined interview requests for this article.

Earlier this year, after the New York Times published a story that raised questions about the senator's relationship with a female lobbyist, he called a press conference and denied a romance with her. Cindy McCain stood resolutely at his side.

"My children and I not only trust my husband, but know that he would never do anything to not only disappoint our family, but disappoint the people of America,'' she said. "He's a man of great character." Staff and friends are exceedingly protective of McCain. They emphasize her strength but discuss her guardedly, as if she were fragile. Some of her friends, contacted by phone, said they needed the campaign's permission before they could talk. Two of her closest friends were made available only under the condition that a press aide could listen in on the phone interviews.

On "The Tonight Show With Jay Leno" in April, McCain was poised and funny, but the anecdotes she recounted were unintentionally revealing of distance and secrets in the marriage.

She told the well-worn story of how they both fudged their ages when they met, she making herself four years older and he making himself four years younger and said they didn't find this out until "we applied for a marriage license." She shared the story she has told many times of her addiction nearly 20 years ago to prescription painkillers, which she said her husband did not know about until after her parents confronted her and she had kicked the habit.

And she told of how she decided to conquer her fear of flying in anticipation of her husband's 1986 Senate race. She knew she'd be flying all over the state in a tiny plane, she said, and it petrified her. She went to flight school, earned her pilot's license and bought an airplane -- all without ever telling him, she said, eliciting shocked titters from Leno's audience.

"She's a problem solver," says Cindy's friend Harper. "That is a strong way to get over fears."

Harper uses the word "strong" or "strength" five times in an interview to describe her friend, invoking it to describe, for example, how she didn't know about her friend's addiction and how Cindy "stepped up, made the change by herself." There are a number of painful episodes Cindy has seemed intent on experiencing on her own, including her 2004 stroke in Phoenix. She was lunching with friends, she recounted later on "Larry King Live," and found herself suddenly unable to talk. She was 49 at the time. She says she'd stopped taking her blood pressure medication.

"I was mainly more concerned about being caught in public . . . without my full faculties," she told King. "So I grabbed for my car keys, and fortunately my friends grabbed my car keys away from me, and said, 'No, there's something wrong with you.' "

Friend Lisa Keegan, an education adviser in both McCain presidential campaigns who traveled with Cindy during the 2000 run, recalls that Cindy was "pretty private" about the stroke shortly after it happened.

"I had the impression that Cindy was happy to talk about it after she'd conquered it, and not when it was frightening," Keegan says. "She's less inclined to want to be asking people to help her."

McCain has said she decided to recover from the stroke on her own, so she left her family and stayed in Southern California for several months.

The McCains' marriage -- like any in which a spouse has chosen to remain in the home district -- has been marked by geographical distance. The McCains lived in Alexandria during the early years of their marriage, but Cindy eventually decided to move back to Phoenix, in part out of a desire to start a family where she'd grown up, Harper says. John came home on weekends.

Cohen says Cindy didn't seem to like Washington. "It's hard on wives," he says. "There used to be a rule: If your husband isn't in town, you don't exist."

Perhaps, suggests one person familiar with the McCain campaign, staying in Arizona was a way for Cindy to maintain her own identity. The source recalls a comment she made last year: "You know, when John's around he sort of sucks up all the light."

Cindy had several miscarriages before she gave birth to Meghan, who is 23 and now blogs about her dad's campaign; Jack, 22, who is at the Naval Academy; and Jimmy, 20, a Marine who has served in Iraq. "John was with me the first time I lost a baby," she told Harper's Bazaar last year, "but not for those after, which was hard."

The couple adopted Bridget, now 17, as a baby. Cindy raised her children in the home she'd grown up in, while her parents moved to a house nearby. (In 2006, the McCains moved to a large, $4.6 million condo in Phoenix.)

The household filled up with animals, some of them the children's and some of them the strays that "sentimental" Cindy, as Joe McCain puts it, has a habit of taking in. Not having John there during the week was difficult, Cindy told the magazine, and she would "get angry" -- but, she added carefully, "always at the situation, not him."

Friends and family describe Cindy as not easily rattled, at least not outwardly. Keegan describes her as someone who puts "a lot of emphasis on conquering things" and controlling herself.

She did, however, cry in front of reporters after smear attacks during the 2000 South Carolina primary insinuated that McCain had fathered an illegitimate black child -- a reference to Bridget, born in Bangladesh.

While on vacation to Micronesia in the mid-'80s, after seeing the appalling state of a hospital there, Cindy became interested in medical care abroad. In 1988, she founded an organization she called the American Voluntary Medical Team, which sent teams of doctors and nurses to spots throughout the Third World.

It was during this time that the senator was implicated in the Keating Five savings and loan scandal. After months of unflattering disclosures, a Senate committee issued McCain a mild rebuke and concluded that he'd committed no ethics violations.

In Cindy's telling, the stress of this scandal, plus spinal surgeries for two ruptured discs and the pain of an enlarged uterus, all combined to feed her addictive behavior. She has said she did not tell her husband about her growing problem, even as she was stealing painkillers from the medical organization she'd founded.

By 1992, she wrote later in Newsweek, she was taking 10 to 15 pills a day, claiming they were vitamins if she had to swallow them in public. The fact that her husband didn't notice made her feel like she was still in control of the problem.

"I only saw him on the weekends, and I didn't want him to come home to this woman who couldn't do anything," McCain told the Chicago Tribune in April. "I completely masked it and completely kept myself somewhat pain-free and [with] the ability to function and do everything he wanted."

Close friend Betsey Bayless, a hospital executive and a former Arizona secretary of state, says she did not detect anything wrong with Cindy at the time.

"She told me many times that she wanted to be the perfect wife and mother, and she wanted to be everything that John McCain wanted her to be," Bayless says. "And she pretty much was the perfect wife and mother, but, you know, she had to come to the realization that everything isn't perfect."

"She wanted to be the best possible Mrs. John S. McCain as she could," Joe McCain says. "I think she honestly felt that she did not want to be one of his problems."

A Protector of Family

In 1994, after the Drug Enforcement Administration began looking into medication missing from Cindy's charity, and her recent addiction became front-page news in Arizona, Joe McCain says he saw the self-control fall away, briefly. He called the house in Phoenix to make her feel better, to tell her she was "decent" and "made out of real gold," and she began to cry. She cried and cried and did not stop. Joe says it was "extremely painful" to hear.

"I'd always suspected the vulnerability," he says.

Cindy McCain was never prosecuted. John Dowd, the senator's Keating attorney, got involved in her case and, in a deal with federal authorities, she agreed to a number of terms, including community service. She has said she began attending Narcotics Anonymous meetings. She has continued to drink wine, according to eyewitnesses.

In retrospect, John McCain told "Dateline" in 1999, there were times when he'd call home from Washington and his wife would sound "bleary" or forgetful. He blamed himself, he said, for not noticing.

McCain closed her charity but continued charity work. Today, she works primarily with Operation Smile, a group that repairs cleft palates and other facial deformities all over the world, and Halo Trust, a nonprofit that performs land-mine removal in countries affected by war. She has been to Vietnam, Morocco, Angola, Kosovo and many other countries in her philanthropic work. She is currently traveling in Rwanda with the One campaign, which raises awareness about AIDS and global poverty.

In 2000, when Jim Hensley died, Cindy became chairwoman of her dad's company. She is involved with big decisions there but not day-to-day operations, says President Bob Delgado.

Cindy McCain said recently that she sees herself serving a limited role in a McCain administration. Those close to the McCains say she was somewhat involved in the campaign shake-up last July after the operation went broke.

"She's not in there forging policy," says Mark McKinnon, the media adviser who left the campaign recently. "She just weighs in quietly and occasionally when she sees opportunities or problems that the campaign might address."

Cindy's friends say she has a kind of cautious radar for people. She seems to see her role as the watcher and protector of her husband and her children.

"She's told me many times that she's the only one he trusts implicitly," Bayless says. She says she's seen Cindy tell John "to watch out for certain things or certain people." They might be walking into a reception, Bayless says, and Cindy might whisper to John something like, "He's not our friend."

At the June town-hall meeting in Philadelphia, while the senator talks, Cindy sits quietly and eyes the perimeter. She smooths her skirt down on her knees. She sees two guys with their hands up, wanting to ask a question, but her husband can't see them, so she keeps signaling him subtly with her finger. He never sees her.

Afterward, several women from the audience are in a rapture over Cindy McCain. She seems so classy, they say, and her hair is beautiful, and she's a mom with children in the service, and she understands sacrifice and worry. And this might sound sexist, says Valerie Gaydos, 40, a businesswoman from central Pennsylvania, but she likes the way Cindy seems so traditional, seems to support her man and her man's dreams.

"She's flawless, flawless," Gaydos says.

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