Cindy McCain: A Quiet Strength

This Time Around, The Candidate's Wife Is Confidently Reserved

"CBS News RAW": GOP Sen. John McCain denies wrongdoing in response to a New York Times article suggesting he had an inappropriate relationship with a female lobbyist. Video by
By Libby Copeland
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, February 22, 2008

Cindy McCain is tougher this time around, though it's hard to imagine her otherwise. She is impeccable -- that ever-present smile, the ever-present pearls, the folded hands and elegant suits, the very proper look she said she got from her "very proper" mother.

"I'm very disappointed in the New York Times," McCain said twice yesterday during a news conference in which her husband responded to an investigation by the paper. (He denied that he did favors for or had a romance with a lobbyist.) Cindy McCain didn't sound angry or defensive or stunned when she spoke. She sounded resigned.

Then her husband took back the podium and she went back to smiling.

You get the sense there is much going on behind that smile, but she is not about to share it with the world, thank you very much. She does the candidate wife thing: She stands there and looks supportive. She straightens her husband's collar. She defends her own.

"She does keep a very private side of herself," says longtime friend Betsey Bayless, who traveled with Cindy McCain during John McCain's presidential run in 2000. For years, Bayless says, McCain was shy, and even now, after appearing on her husband's behalf during his Senate campaigns and experiencing eight years ago the crucible that is the modern presidential campaign, she retains a certain reserve.

Bayless says her friend has become familiar with just how rough the going gets.

"I'm sure she's not surprised" by the latest turn of events, Bayless says. "If not this, it would be something else. . . . You've got to be tough -- either that, or you've got to get out."

At a certain point in the past, getting out may have been tempting. In speeches, Cindy McCain has said she didn't particularly want to do this campaign. The story of the reluctant political spouse is a well-worn narrative, but it's no less believable in her case.

In South Carolina in 2000, John McCain was the object of a smear campaign that brought up Cindy McCain's past abuse of painkillers, and also insinuated that he had fathered an illegitimate child. The subject of the illegitimacy rumor was the McCains' daughter Bridget, who'd been adopted from Bangladesh years before and didn't look like the rest of the family. Bridget was too young to understand what was happening at the time. But more recently, Cindy McCain told the New York Times, Bridget Googled herself and came to her mom crying, wanting to know why she was so hated.

Bayless recalls how hurt her friend was by what happened back then, and recalls Cindy talking about it -- albeit in an unemotional, matter-of-fact way.

Last October, when there were many more candidates in this presidential race, McCain took part in a forum for presidential candidates' wives in California. There were five women there, including Elizabeth Edwards -- who, as a campaign spouse, was arguably the inverse of Cindy McCain. Whereas McCain, 53, is always camera-ready, her hair pulled back and sprayed by a stylist, her face pancaked for the television cameras, Edwards used to show up for retail politicking in sweaters, her hair mussed, offering a frankness that surprised and delighted her audiences.

So there they were onstage, and the forum's moderator, Maria Shriver, asked the women where they drew the line in matters of privacy. Edwards, who had called a news conference earlier in the year to announce her diagnosis of cancer, argued for opening up one's life to better serve as a window on one's spouse. A first lady's life will be an open book, Edwards said, so "you may as well start practicing now."

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