The Separate Peace of John And Carol
In the Demise of His First Marriage, John McCain's Life Seems to Have Found a New Path

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.

"Divorced already?" asked King.

"Yes," McCain replied, although he would not be divorced for another year, "and had met with her parents, and she came to a reception, and I came to that reception, and . . . schmaltzy as it sounds, it was love at first sight, and so we started dating."

In his 2002 memoir "Worth the Fighting For," McCain wrote that he was separated from Carol when he met Cindy. But the McCains' divorce petition says the couple "co-habited" until Jan. 7, 1980, some nine months after he began his relationship with Cindy.

According to court records, McCain gave his wife full custody of their three children, possession of their two homes in Alexandria and Florida, and agreed to pay $1,625 a month in alimony and child support. He also agreed to pay daughter Sidney's college tuition and his ex-wife's medical expenses for the rest of her life.

The terms were so generous that the lawyer who handled McCain's divorce, George "Bud" Day, attached a note in the divorce filing. It indicated that Day had told his client that the settlement would be a "far more onerous a financial burden" to McCain than if he had taken his wife to court and litigated. But McCain ignored the advice of his attorney and friend, himself a former POW and Medal of Honor recipient.

"It was a pretty amicable divorce," Day recalled in a recent interview.

People who knew John and Carol around this time say they had no idea the McCains' relationship was so troubled. The couple were popular and sociable. McCain was then serving as the Navy's liaison to Congress, a job that entailed entertaining important Hill contacts. Carol and John hosted many events in their Alexandria home.

Connie Bookbinder, whose home was the setting of the McCains' wedding in 1965, says she didn't learn of discord in the marriage until Carol told her that she was getting divorced, a few weeks before the decree was final.

"There was never a sign of strain," said Bookbinder, a close friend of the woman she has called "Sheppie" since they were classmates at Centenary College in New Jersey. "She never told me, 'I think John's running around.' It came as a total surprise to her. I think he just fell in love with someone else. Someone younger and bright and charming. Sheppie wasn't bitter about it. She said, 'He's in love with someone else, and there's nothing we can do about it.' "

One of McCain's good friends, Peter Lakeland, recalls that Carol and John were still living together in Alexandria but that McCain mostly avoided talking about his marriage.

"My sense was, they were continuing to be married, but his heart wasn't in it," Lakeland says. "My own impression was that when he met Cindy, they were extraordinarily attracted to each other. They were both smitten." Lakeland accompanied McCain to the reception where he met Cindy; he later offered the couple his vacation home in Maryland for a weekend getaway.

Friends and family members say the marriage's demise was an outgrowth of the McCains' long separation during the Vietnam years.

"He goes off and he becomes a POW for 5 1/2 years and he lives as almost all the POWs" did, said Joe McCain, John's younger brother. "They were badly treated. They were in isolation, and they had to retreat to fantasy worlds. You know, they built houses in the air. . . . And I think that during those 5 1/2 years, they both changed to a certain degree under all that stress. When he came back, they wanted the marriage to work, [but] I think they'd just gone to different places and they couldn't put it back."

Says Bookbinder: "He lost all those years. Think of all that went on in the world during that time and all that he missed. Marrying someone 17 years younger gave him those years back. That's the way Carol saw it."

But John and Carol have rejected blaming the marriage's demise on McCain's war years. In "Worth the Fighting For," McCain writes: "Sound marriages can be hard to recover after great time and distance have separated husband and wife. We are different people when we reunite. But my marriage's collapse was attributable to my own selfishness and immaturity more than it was to Vietnam, and I cannot escape blame by pointing a finger at the war. The blame was entirely mine."

He also told his biographer, Robert Timberg: "I had changed, she had changed. People who have been apart that much change."

In a 2005 study of 98 repatriated Vietnam POWs, in fact, 56 divorced their spouses within 20 years of their return. Although that rate is only somewhat higher than divorce in the general population, it's a far higher percentage than the study's control group of Vietnam War-era Navy aviators who were not imprisoned. "Marriage can be a casualty of war," concluded the researchers, "even among those who are high functioning and have many personal advantages."

In one of the few public comments she has made about the marriage, Carol McCain -- now 70 and living quietly in retirement in Virginia Beach -- told Timberg in 1995: "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. I attribute it more to John turning 40 and wanting to be 25 again than I do to anything else."

Carol has never publicly criticized McCain; she has been supportive of his political career. She has contributed money to several of his campaigns and today sports a "McCain for President" bumper sticker on her car, according to Bookbinder.

During McCain's first race, an opponent called her seeking "negative material" to use against him, she once said. She not only declined but also told her ex-husband about the call. As she later said in an interview with an Arizona newspaper: "I told [the opponent] I believe in John McCain. He's a good person. I wish him every bit of success."

In the divorce's immediate aftermath, however, there were clearly hard feelings. Neither Carol nor the McCains' three children -- Doug, Andy and Sidney -- attended John and Cindy's wedding. Andy, who is John and Carol's second-eldest child, didn't meet the second Mrs. McCain until years later. According to Bookbinder, Carol has never met Cindy.

* * *

Carol and John were married in the Bookbinders' living room on a stifling hot day in Philadelphia in July 1965. McCain was a handsome and much-admired Navy flier. Carol, a former swimsuit and runway model for Jansen sportswear, was a statuesque beauty (5 foot 8) from Philadelphia whom McCain dreamily called "Long Tall Sally" during his long days and nights in a Hanoi prison.

John had known Carol since his days at the Naval Academy in Annapolis. She was dating one of his classmates, Alasdair Swanson, whom she later married. That marriage was brief, but produced two children, Doug and Andy.

After divorcing Swanson, Carol began seeing McCain. After their marriage, John adopted Carol's boys and the couple had a daughter together, Sidney, in the fall of 1966.

On Oct. 26, 1967, McCain took off from the USS Oriskany for a bombing run over Hanoi. When a wing of his A-4E Skyhawk was sheared off by an antiaircraft missile, McCain ejected. His broken body was dragged from a lake by North Vietnamese soldiers and civilians, who bayoneted him and beat him. He was thrown into prison.

He wouldn't see his wife or children until 1973.

Carol, living in Florida at the time, endured without her husband of 28 months. Two years after McCain's capture, her life took another traumatic turn. During a visit to her parents in Philadelphia just before Christmas 1969, she braked on an icy patch of road. The car slid into a utility pole, throwing Carol from the vehicle. The car came to rest on top of her. She lay in the cold for hours before rescuers found her.

The accident left her with two broken legs, a broken pelvis, a ruptured spleen and numerous scars. The injuries were so dire that doctors considered amputating her legs to save her. Instead, they rebuilt them with rods and pins. She was confined to a hospital bed for six months, and her children were sent off to her parents and friends in Florida.

McCain never learned of his wife's accident while in prison; Carol said she didn't want word of her grievous injuries to upset him further.

After leaving the hospital weighing 80 pounds, Carol gradually regained her strength. But the combined effect of prolonged inactivity and nearly two dozen surgeries distorted what had been her model's figure. When McCain returned home, the Long Tall Sally of his imagination was four inches shorter, heavier and moved about only with the aid of a wheelchair or crutches. He, too, was on crutches from his injuries.

Both of them gradually restored some of their physical vigor through torturous physical therapy sessions. And for several years in the 1970s, the family was whole again.

McCain, who resumed his Navy career upon his return, became a minor celebrity. He spoke often to groups about his war experiences, giving speeches that were by turns poignant and hilarious. Among the people he charmed were Ronald and Nancy Reagan, who met the McCains in 1973 during Reagan's second term as California governor.

The two couples became friendly, and Carol McCain worked on Reagan's 1976 presidential campaign in Florida. In late 1979, Nancy Reagan hired her as a press assistant for the 1980 campaign, easing some of Carol's distress about her impending divorce.

Nancy Reagan later arranged for Carol and Sidney to live with the family of future attorney general Edwin Meese in Southern California at the time of the divorce, then named her to head the White House Visitors Office after Reagan was elected.

In his memoir, McCain writes of the Reagans: "My divorce from Carol, whom the Reagans loved, caused a change in our relationship. Nancy . . . was particularly upset with me and treated me on the few occasions we encountered each other after I came to Congress with a cool correctness that made her displeasure clear. I had, of course, deserved the change in our relationship."

Carol remained in Washington for most of the next two decades. During her days working for the Reagans, she developed a knack for event planning at the White House. Among other things, she expanded the crowds attending the traditional White House Easter Egg Roll by adding activities. She was also involved in planning the national Christmas celebration.

After the Gulf War concluded in 1991, she was the spokeswoman for the committee that staged an elaborate victory celebration in Washington. Carol McCain later went to work in public relations for the National Soft Drink Association, retiring in 2003.

She never remarried.

"She had a lot of boyfriends," Bookbinder says. "She was going out with one fellow who was so terrific. And I said: 'He's so in love with you. You'll have a terrific life together.' She said, 'No, I don't think so.' She's never fallen in love with anyone else. [McCain] was a hard act to follow."

Over time, the scars from the divorce seem to have healed. Andy is now an executive at Cindy McCain's company, Hensley & Co. Sidney, a record-company executive, and Doug, an airline pilot who lives with his family two blocks from his mother in Virginia Beach, have both supported their father's campaigns. McCain himself has said, "Carol McCain is a wonderful person, and we are really good friends."

At the Republican National Convention this summer, the family came together to celebrate McCain's triumphant moment. "Everyone," says McCain's old friend and lawyer Bud Day, "was there and jovial."

Everyone except Carol. She declined to join her children and her ex-husband.

It was probably just as well. The buildup to McCain's acceptance speech included an eight-minute video that celebrated his life, work and family. At its conclusion, delegates in the convention hall erupted in applause.

Carol McCain, the woman who stood beside McCain through triumph and tragedy, was never mentioned.

Staff writer Libby Copeland contributed to this report.

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