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Tuesday, July 22 at 1 p.m. ET

Cindy McCain Finds Her Perfect Part

Cindy McCain overcame her fear of small planes by learning to fly, but during her husband's campaign she has stood quietly to the side, feet firmly on the ground.
Cindy McCain overcame her fear of small planes by learning to fly, but during her husband's campaign she has stood quietly to the side, feet firmly on the ground. (By Ricky Carioti -- The Washington Post)
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Libby Copeland
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, July 22, 2008; 1:00 PM

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.

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Washington Post staff writer, Libby Copeland was online Tuesday, July 22 at 1 p.m. ET to discuss today's article about Cindy McCain and her role in her husband's career.

The transcript follows.

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Libby Copeland: Welcome everyone. Cindy McCain is an interesting and complicated figure and I hope this piece gets at some of that. I'm curious to hear your thoughts about this propective first lady. What are the popular images of her? Are there perceptions you've had that you think are inaccurate? What do you want to know about her? How do you feel about her versus Michelle Obama, who's had a different public image in many respects?

I wanted to explore this concept of Cindy McCain's seeming "perfection" because I think that's one of the primary media images we've seen of her. I recall a few media protrayals I noticed in reporting this story, including one that asked something like, "Can Cindy McCain possibly be that perfect?" and another in which a television reporter -- noting that McCain had left her shoes in a pile in the middle of her apartment floor -- informed her (and I paraphrase): "That's so *normal*!"

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Arlington, Va.: How long were you working on this piece? Since you couldn't speak directly with Cindy, it must have taken a while to piece together the story.

Libby Copeland: A long time. About six or seven weeks of solid reporting (with, um, some vacation right in the middle.) It is often difficult to report around a subject. You can't ask them the questions that are most on your mind. You can't get them to reflect on themselves, and those reflections can be quite revealing.

But the flip side is that -- if the subject doesn't talk -- you often wind reporting more thoroughly because you are forced to talk to people you might not otherwise talk to in an attempt to reconstruct the subject's life. A lot of people helped me with this story by discussing Cindy McCain as far back as her middle school years.

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Richmond: I really want to know the outcome of her drug stealing incident. The article I read said she repaid the medical charity she stole the narcotics from and did community service. But, it didn't say if she was ever charged, or if they agreed to not charge her if she repaid. If she was charged, were the charges dropped, or did she just get all probation? I'd be pretty angry if she wasn't ever charged, obviously because of her wealth and power.

Libby Copeland: She was not charged, as I wrote in my story. She reached an agreement with federal authorities, and there were a number of terms she agreed to, including paying restitution and doing community service.

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Lusby, Md.: Why isn't mainstream press or the conservative news crews talking about Cindy's drug addiction? I wasn't aware of her addiction or her charges for stealing drugs. If this was Michelle Obama the press would be calling for Barack to drop out of the race during the primary. What gives?

Libby Copeland: I couldn't tell you what the stories would look like if this situation involved Michelle Obama.

I can tell you that Cindy McCain's addiction and the fact that she stole painkillers from the charity she'd founded was in my story, as it has been in many of the profiles I read, and that the reason you know about it is because the press reported it (and has continued to report it) in the first place.

As for the TV talkers -- the folks who usually "call" for stuff -- I can think of two reasons why they might not think this is as salient a topic as you might expect. One is just time. The news of Cindy McCain's addiction broke 14 years ago, in 1994.

The other is that when John McCain ran in 2000, the story of Cindy McCain's addiction was rehashed. So it might not feel as new to the talkers as it did in 2000.

And a third reason I just thought of: The McCains and their campaign have been very good at getting out in front of the story. Cindy McCain speaks openly about her addiction and how harrowing that time in her life was. A willingness to confront and discuss an issue can tend to defang it, so to speak.

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Albany, N.Y.: Did Cindy really adopt a child without first consulting and coordinating that choice with John?

Libby Copeland: That is the story they both tell. I do know that other close friends knew she was bringing Bridget home, though it isn't clear if they knew she was adopting the child, or just bringing her home for medical treatment. Bridget was born with a severe cleft palate that needed to be repaired.

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Libby Copeland: An an addendum to the Bridget question: the McCains tell a story that Cindy McCain brought Bridget to the U.S. and then told Sen. McCain that she hoped to bring the child home with them. Presumably the actual adoption was a longer process that involved both of them, and that happened later.

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Rockville, Md.: Your puff piece on Cindy McCain is shameful. To most people, Cindy McCain is the woman that had an affair with a married man almost double her age, an opportunistic harlot who stole a man from his wife who needed him most, and who had waited faithfully and patiently for her husband to return from captivity. Your article failed to mention how Cindy McCain's beer fortune has helped McCain's candidacy during difficult times, and that she still refuses to release her complete tax returns till this day (even though we know she has benefited from investments in rouge nations like Somalia). I was expecting some balance from a Washington Post article, but it seems that the character traits and actions of Cindy McCain adhere to a different standard than the rest of us, including Michelle Obama.

Libby Copeland: I am surprised you think of it as a puff piece. I tried to create an honest and nuanced portrait of a woman whose life has included struggles. I urge you read the entire thing, if you haven't already.

I received an angry email from a reader who wanted to know why I thought Cindy McCain was "perfect." I think my response to this reader might also help answer your note. What I wrote was this:

"I urge you to rethink whether the article was really pointing to 'perfection,' or playing with the notion of seeming perfection -- and by this, getting at some deeper themes."

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River City: Wow, perfect is the last word I'd use to describe her. She started dating McCain, knowing he was still married with kids, still living wiht his wife (the official line is he was separating, not separated). His ex says she didn't know the marriage was over at that time. How is that perfect? She has about the worst record of any first lady... drug addict, stealing narcotics, committing adultery. Where does perfect come in, besides her make-up?

Libby Copeland: See the previous question.

The point, again, is not perfection, but the pervasiveness of the notion of Cindy McCain's perfection (see the many accusations that she's a "Stepford Wife"), both in media portrayals of her and in accounts from those who know her. What does that tell you about her and the people around her, about her world, about the image that's been constructed about her? I'm not offering any conclusions, since my reporting certainly couldn't support them, but I am encouraging you to think about her in a complex and careful fashion. I think she's a fascinating figure.

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Richmond: She seems very sheltered in her privileged rich world when she said "you have to have your own airplane to get around in Arizona!" How does she think real folks get around? Is she really that clueless about regular working people?

Libby Copeland: She did say that, or something along those lines, during a recent TV interview. I can guess that what she might have meant is that when you're campaigning for office statewide, it's easier to fly, and it might be difficult to fly commercial. Of course, many candidates can't afford to buy their own planes.

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Gaithersburg, Md.: Did the Hensley family (particularly, Mrs. McCain's sister and her son) talk to you about your article? Were they helpful?

Libby Copeland: I'm sorry, but I can't tell you who I spoke with and who I didn't, unless it's in the story.

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Wilmington, N.C.: You wrote: McCain "by some accounts, was separated from his wife, Carol Shepp" when he met Cindy. The LA Times reported 2 weeks ago: "An examination of court documents tells a different story. McCain did not sue his wife for divorce until Feb. 19, 1980, and he wrote in his court petition that he and his wife had "cohabited" until Jan. 7 of that year -- or for the first nine months of his relationship with Hensley." And referring to the nine months of the affair:"Carol McCain later told friends, including Reynolds and Fitzwater, that she did not know he was seeing anyone else."

My question is, are the "some accounts" you refer to reliable and accurate?

Libby Copeland: Yeah, this is a matter I have not reported in great depth, but I can tell you there are differing accounts.

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Framingham, Mass.: When comparing Cindy and Michelle it's sort of no contest for me. Michelle is just so Impressive -- smart, accomplished, and pretty amazing in her own right. She went to Harvard Law for goodness sake. With Cindy, while I respect her choices and her charitable works, I'm not nearly as impressed. The drug habit doesn't taint her for me as much as the fact that she and her husband don't seem to have much of a partnership. They just don't seem on equal footing. And I find her lack of confidence off-putting. For the record, I'm a 27, female, white, professional. I'm also from New England. Maybe that colors my judgment, but I'm more impressed by a woman who is something in her own right, and not just a candidate's wife.

Libby Copeland: Thanks for your thoughts. It's interesting how much latitude first ladies and prospective first ladies have these days in their roles as compared to thirty years ago. I'm also interested to read you characterize Cindy McCain as having a "lack of confidence." What aspects of her personality/identity point you in that direction? Are there certain things you're thinking of?

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Bethesda,Md.: Is she still withholding her tax return information from the public? What does she need to hide?

Libby Copeland: She is not. If the producer has a moment, I will see if she can post our story on that. She did release her tax returns some time back, after initially resisting, citing her desire for privacy.

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Bethesda, Md.: It's interesting that McCain's campaign has tried to dance around the issue of Cindy's wealth. Did they ever release her tax returns? Do you think that issue will rear its head again before the campaign is over? And how will the pending sale of Budweiser (her stock) to InBev affect her personal wealth?

Libby Copeland: Oh boy. To back up, Cindy McCain's father ran a company that distributed Budweiser; now (since her dad's death in 2000) she is chairwoman of the company.

The InBev thing has been really hard for me to follow. I'm embarrassed to confess that I read a few articles about this and haven't quite been able to figure out the bottom line. If it hadn't been somewhat beyond the scope of the profile I was doing -- which I thought of as more a profile of her identity and personality -- I'm sure I would have had to buckle down and do the math.

Cindy McCain's wealth -- which may exceed $100 million -- does seem to be a prevailing theme for stories about McCain and his campaign. I imagine it will not go away easily.

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washingtonpost.com: Cindy McCain Reported Income Exceeding $6 Million in 2006 (Post, May 24)

Libby Copeland: Thanks.

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Wilmington, N.C.: On the question of separation at the time he met Cindy, it's interesting where the sources of the differing accounts diverge. It seems those who knew McCain through the office believed they were separated, while those who knew them as a couple, and Mrs. McCain believed they were together. This is not an unusual state for this type of situation. Do you think Sen. McCain might have been the only spouse aware of the separation?

Libby Copeland: Again, this is somewhat beyond the scope of my reporting, but I think some of the confusion on this issue may have to do with what people mean when they say "separated." Do they mean living apart? Or do they mean living together but emotionally estranged and/or with an understanding? Or something else?

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Lack of confidence: That was me. It's more intangible, I think. The way she talks, about herself, her husband, her role. Also, the way she carries herself. I found the quotes you used about her apologizing to be very telling. Maybe it's not a lack of confidence, maybe it's assertiveness? Hard to put my finger on it, but it sort of plays into the hole "perfect" thing. No one is perfect, and anyone who puts on that front isn't going to carry it off.

Libby Copeland: Just posting this observation. Thanks for following up. I think the persona of any public person can be a fascinating issue to discuss. Who is the person, how do they see themselves, how do they and others construct their image, how does it get interpreted, how do people respond to it...?

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Boston: I'm an Obama fan, but some of these comments really bother me. I absolutely appreciate that the R's go after wives like dogs (see Hillary, Teresa, Michelle). And it's tempting to want to retaliate.

But Cindy McCain is neither perfect nor a monster. She's done some regrettable things but she's also used her money to make a big difference in a lot of people's lives. I do have a question, though. The talking heads keep saying that Michelle is fair game because she's out stumping. Is Cindy not stumping for McCain at all?

Libby Copeland: Cindy McCain has done campaigning for her husband, but she tends to do few large events on her own as compared to Michelle. She often introduces the senator briefly, and then sits. She also has traveled abroad, doing philantropic work, granting media interviews along the way. It's a way of attempting to humanize herself outside of a campaign setting.

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Pittsburgh, Pa.: How aware was John McCain of Cindy's painkiller addiction at the time? Did he play any role in her getting off painkillers? I recall that Gerald Ford and the Ford children held an intervention where they confronted Betty, which led to her going to rehab and a life helping addicts to various substances onto the road to recovery.

Libby Copeland: He has said he did not know. He and Cindy McCain have said on a number of occasions that she called him and told him approximately a year after she stopped taking painkillers. He has since said he believes he should have known, and that there were clues along the way.

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Fairfax, Va.: I'm sure Cindy McCain is a lovely person. I admire her for the work she's done with Operation Smile and other charitable organizations. However, the way the media portrays her as the "Little lady" who can do no wrong, versus the treatment of Michelle Obama, the "Angry Black Woman" is unfair, unwarranted, and tinged with racism. I admit that Hilary Clinton was vilified the same way that Michelle Obama is being vilified in the media when her husband ran for president. What I don't understand is how in this day-and-age strong females aren't lauded but instead slammed and told to "know their role." It makes me sick. Michelle Obama isn't any different from many women I know, black, white, green, purple, and polka-dotted. Nor is Hilary Clinton. Cindy McCain is not extraordinary to me and again, except for her volunteerism, she's not someone I would want my daughter to emulate. I hope the Post will consider devoting an entire hour chat to Michelle Obama. Thanks for your time.

Libby Copeland: Michelle Obama is as underserved by simplistic generalizations of her character as Cindy McCain. And so are we underserved.

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Baltimore: Your portrait of Cindy seemed familiar to me, reminded me of someone I know who survived spousal abuse. I've heard rumors that John has been verbally abusive towards Cindy -- have you heard any corroboration for this?

Libby Copeland: I have not pursued this line of reporting.

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Washington, D.C.: I sort of think it is irrelevant what each candidate's wife is like -- what is more telling is what the relationship is like and what that tells us about the candidate, not the spouse. The fact that McCain was committing adultery with respect to his previous spouse while carrying on with his current spouse is bothersome, but ultimately not so damning. What is more bothersome to me is Senator McCain's abandonment of the moderate views that endeared him to non-Republicans in his attempt to woo the conservative right. Guess he just can't be very faithful.

Libby Copeland: Just posting this one. Thanks for joining in.

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Washington, D.C.: I wonder if part of the reason Cindy McCain's drug use hasn't been trumpeted is because the Obama campaign is taking the high ground in terms of its messaging. I'm not a Democrat, but I've been impressed that Obama and his people haven't stooped to conquer, at least not yet. I hope the same would hold for the McCain campaign.

Libby Copeland: Just posting this one, too.

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Reston, Va.: During your reporting/research, what did you personally find to be the most interesting nugget?

Libby Copeland: There are a lot of aspects that I find interesting to her, including her childhood and her brief period as a teacher, which I was not able to find out as much about as I would have liked.

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Libby Copeland: Alrighty. That's it. Thanks for joining and...happy readin'.

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Reston, Va.: It's interesting how many people want to sling mud through this chat.At least you did your research to do the article as opposed to the individuals using half-truths. How many half-truths and muddied truths did you need to wade through in order to get this story? There seems to be a bunch of 'colored' information out there.

Libby Copeland: One more...hold on....

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Libby Copeland: I wanted just to answer that last question, which is a smart one.

Very tough story to report, because, yes, everyone's got an opinion or a theory, and not all of them are true or can be confirmed.

Signing off.....Ciao for now.

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Editor's Note: washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions. washingtonpost.com is not responsible for any content posted by third parties.


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