The Separate Peace of John And Carol

By Paul Farhi
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, October 6, 2008

In early 1980, John McCain was a man in transition -- and in a hurry.

Nine months earlier, at a cocktail reception in Hawaii, he met a glamorous young heiress named Cindy Lou Hensley and, by all accounts, fell instantly in love. McCain spent months flying from Washington to Arizona pursuing this new relationship. Soon, the 43-year-old naval attache and his 25-year-old sweetheart were engaged.

There was only one complication: McCain was still married.

Carol Shepp McCain, then 42, had endured much in more than 14 years of marriage to John. She had raised their three young children alone while her husband languished in a North Vietnamese prison camp for 5 1/2 years. Her tribulations grew immeasurably after a near-fatal car accident that immobilized her for months and left her scarred for life. Despite their reunion and physical rehabilitation, by the late 1970s the McCains' marriage had begun to crack, as John engaged in what he later termed "dalliances" with other women.

Now it was being torn apart by his relationship with Cindy Hensley. McCain didn't hesitate in bringing his marriage to a swift end.

According to public records, he and Cindy received a marriage license in Maricopa County, Ariz., in early March 1980, four weeks before his divorce from Carol was final. A judge in Florida dissolved the McCains' marriage April 2, entering a default judgment after Carol failed to respond to three court summonses. John and Cindy were wed six weeks later, on May 17.

This rapid-fire sequence of events raises a question about John McCain's path to the White House: Would he be where he is today had he not changed his life, and his wife, when he did?

Much has been said and written about Cindy McCain during her husband's bid for the presidency. But the first Mrs. McCain has remained an enigmatic figure. Much of this is by choice: Carol McCain -- she still uses her married name -- has declined countless requests for interviews throughout the campaign and in the years preceding it. In a brief conversation with The Washington Post recently, she declined to speak about herself or her relationship with her former husband. The McCain campaign did not respond to repeated requests for comment.

Nevertheless, John McCain's divorce and remarriage marked a pivotal moment in his public and private life. Restless in his job as the Navy's chief liaison on Capitol Hill, McCain was by then reconsidering his life and work. His break with Carol and marriage to Cindy set him in a new direction.

Just a few months after his divorce, McCain had a new wife, a new address and a new ambition. Abandoning his dream of following in the footsteps of his father and grandfather, who had become admirals, he retired from the Navy a few months after remarrying and then resettled in Arizona. His father-in-law, Jim Hensley, hired McCain into his beer-distribution company in Phoenix as a public relations man. The job enabled McCain to travel the state, where he made contacts with influential Republicans. By 1981, he was poised for his first run for political office, something he had considered for several years. The next year, McCain waged a successful campaign for an open House seat in Arizona's 1st District.

Over the years, when the subject of his divorce has come up, McCain has responded with contrition and remorse, blaming himself for the marriage's failure. During a campaign forum in August, he called the end of his first marriage "my greatest moral failure."

But McCain has also given inconsistent accounts of what happened to the relationship. In an interview with Larry King on CNN in 2002, for example, McCain spoke about his first meeting with Cindy, describing his excitement.

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