Cindy McCain’s life without John

In an extensive interview, the widow reflects on fighting for Arizona senator’s legacy.

Cindy McCain’s life without John

In an extensive interview, the widow reflects on fighting for Arizona senator’s legacy.
Cindy McCain, widow of Sen. John McCain, at her new home in Phoenix. (Dominic Valente for The Washington Post)

Cindy McCain’s new house is a lot like her new life: a place for family, for comfort, and for honoring her late husband. The center of the house is a big hug of a room with a widescreen TV, sprawling old couch, huge fireplace and a wall of custom shelves holding awards and mementos. Photos cover the walls and tables, with more stacked on the floor waiting to be hung. On the hearth sits a bronzed pair of shoes with holes in the soles that John McCain wore during his first congressional campaign in 1982.

The conventional advice for a new widow is to avoid big moves in the first year, but Cindy bought this place a couple months after he died last August at age 81. It’s just a block from her childhood home, where she and John raised their four children. They sold that house after the kids left and moved into a luxury condo overlooking Phoenix. Facing the next chapter of her life without John, Cindy purchased this French-country style home, inextricably intertwining her future and past.

Cindy McCain, widow of Sen. John McCain, at her new home in Phoenix. (Dominic Valente for The Washington Post)

“This neighborhood is very comforting to me and I feel very secure here,” she says. “This is where I went to school, where I grew up, where I learned to drive.” When she told John — in one of the intimate moments they had before he died of brain cancer — that she was thinking of moving back, he was all for it.

She’s still not quite settled in, more a result of her travel schedule than grief: Speeches in New York, Davos and Munich, election monitoring in Ukraine, chairing the McCain Institute for International Leadership in Washington. Last week, she was inducted into the Arizona Women’s Hall of Fame. This month, she’ll receive two honorary degrees, celebrate her 65th birthday and mark what would have been her 39th wedding anniversary.

“The last thing that John would have wanted me to do was just to sit here alone and cry — and mind you, I’ve had my moments,” she says. “One thing he taught me, among so many things, was the importance of getting back up, the importance of keeping doing what you’ve been doing. I’ve been doing these things all along. I think the reason people are noticing now is because he’s gone.”

Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), with his wife, Cindy, announces his vice presidential running mate, Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin (R), accompanied by her family, at an Ohio rally in 2008. (Melina Mara/The Washington Post)
Cindy McCain uses a hand puppet to make her husband laugh as they ride a campaign bus to a polling station in Charleston, S.C., in 2008. (Charles Dharapak/AP)
Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), with his wife, Cindy, announces his vice presidential running mate, Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin (R), accompanied by her family, at an Ohio rally in 2008. (Melina Mara/The Washington Post) Cindy McCain uses a hand puppet to make her husband laugh as they ride a campaign bus to a polling station in Charleston, S.C., in 2008. (Charles Dharapak/AP)

Gone and yet not gone. The McCain legacy looms large, so much so that Republicans continue to praise his service and statesmanship even as President Trump obsessively punches at his ghost.

Before, Cindy was the elegant if aloof political spouse, standing on the side while her husband held the spotlight. Now she doesn’t have to worry about saying something that could damage her husband’s political career — and, despite the sadness of the past two years, she is a woman at ease with herself.

“You hit a certain age — women do, at least in my opinion — where you’re going to say what you think and not hold back,” she says. “For so many people, especially political wives, you have to be careful and remind yourself that you can’t say exactly what’s on your mind. I’m not saying that I’ve become rude, but I think the issues are important and it’s easier for me to stand up to somebody now and say, ‘No, you’re wrong on that.’ ”

Cindy is now the keeper of John’s flame, a surrogate for her husband’s vision, values and principles for a fractured Republican Party.

“You’re basically seeing her come into her own,” says Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.), who remains a close friend of the family despite his vocal support of Trump. “The truth of the matter is that John’s political profile and John’s work cast a large shadow. He was incredibly proud of Cindy and tried to help her as much as he could, but the fact is that Cindy has the stage now differently than she did before.”

The McCains smile as confetti falls on them during a New Hampshire town hall meeting in January 2000. Cindy was the catalyst for Johns second career as a congressman, senator and two-time Republican presidential candidate. (Stephan Savoia/AP)

‘Cindy cowgirls up’

She was never an actual first lady, but Cindy McCain has one of the highest profiles of any political spouse. She was married to a congressman, then senator and two-time Republican presidential candidate for almost four decades — after a brief courtship during which John pretended to be younger and Cindy pretended to be older. They discovered the 18-year age difference (he was 43, she was 25) when they applied for their marriage license and wed in 1980.

She was his second wife and the catalyst for his second career. After years in the Navy and as a prisoner of war, John moved to Cindy’s native Arizona and realized his political ambitions thanks to his charisma, military valor and Cindy’s family fortune. Her father owned an Anheuser-Busch distributorship, a business that she inherited and still owns; her wealth (an estimated $200 million today) allowed the McCain family to devote their lives to politics.

The couple decided to raise their children in Phoenix, treating John’s time in Washington as a weekly deployment. He came home almost every weekend and congressional breaks, and the family usually retreated to their beloved ranch, Hidden Valley, near Sedona. It was, and remains, the place of their happiest memories.

Presidential candidate John McCain with Cindy and their children at home in Phoenix in 1999. In later years, Cindy pursued her life as a businesswoman and advocate. (Karin Cooper/Getty Images)

The kids grew up, John’s Senate career made him even more famous and Cindy quietly pursued her life as a businesswoman and advocate. There were challenges: She overcame both a mild stroke and a prescription drug addiction, as well as two bruising, unsuccessful presidential campaigns. But it was, according to close friends, a love match of two equally restless, independent people.

The McCains became royalty of the Republican Party. So it was shocking to just about everyone in politics when Trump insulted John’s years as prisoner in Vietnam (“He’s not a war hero . . . I like people who weren’t captured.”) and continued the attacks after John’s cancer diagnosis in 2017.

The contempt between the two men was so great that the president did not utter the McCain name when he signed a defense-spending bill named in John’s honor. Trump was pointedly not invited to the funerals last year in Phoenix or Washington. The president has continued to disparage the late senator, decrying his health-care vote, his academic record, his views on Russian election interference. “I was never a fan of John McCain, and I never will be,” Trump told reporters.

Two months ago, the McCains’ daughter Meghan, a co-host on “The View,” laced into Trump: “Listen, he spends his weekend obsessing over great men because he knows it, and I know it, and all of you know it: He will never be a great man.”

Cindy, who says she did not vote for Trump in the 2016 election, has never responded directly to the president. “I don’t intend to,” she says. “And not because I’m angry about anything. I’m not. My job is my family, and what I’m concerned about is whether or not they’re happy, whether everyone’s got their lives together, whether they need anything. I’ve not thought about responding.”

It’s a diplomatic and a measured answer — not unlike the woman herself — if hardly plausible. The McCain Institute, however, has not only thought about responding but asked supporters to “protect John’s legacy” by donating to the nonprofit. “The search is on for people who serve causes greater than themselves,” tweeted Cindy last year. “Join the movement.”

But she did respond to a hater in March after receiving a vile Facebook message shortly after yet another Trump attack. “Your husband was a traitorous piece of warmongering s— and I’m glad he’s dead,” the woman wrote. “Hope your Miss Piggy looking daughter chokes to death on the next burger she stuffs down her fat neck too. . .,” ending the missive with a vulgar epithet. Above an image of the woman’s message, including her name, Cindy tweeted: “I want to make sure all of you could see how kind and loving a stranger can be. I’m posting her note for her family and friends could see.”

It was, Cindy had decided, “enough. I mean, seriously? You take it upon yourself anonymously to send me this garbage? So I thought ‘Okay, game on. Let’s do it.’ I lit her up and I’d do it again.”

Despite all of this — which is a lot, even for someone familiar with the darker side of politics — she considers herself a loyal Republican, “a Reagan conservative, a little more liberal on some of the social issues. . . . I believe in what we stand for when we’re together as a party and functioning the way we should.”

But those hoping she’ll lead the resistance against Trump have the wrong woman. She is the only child of a “very Southern” mother who preached restraint even as her Western father confidently handed her the family business. The combination is self-sufficient but not showy — which means she sees no value in engaging in a public fight with the president.

“You know the expression ‘Cowgirl Up?’ Cindy cowgirls up,” says former senator Heidi Heitkamp (D-N.D.). For non-cowgirls, the term means getting the job done, jumping back on the horse if it throws you, and moving on.

The McCains greet President Barack Obama during Obama inauguration in 2009. A close friend of the family is Obama's former vice president, Joe Biden, but Cindy has denied reports that she would endorse him in his presidential bid. (Melina Mara/The Washington Post)

Cindy describes herself as someone who likes issues more than politics — close friends call her a pragmatist more interested in solving problems than debating them. And yet her oldest child, Meghan, has become a famous conservative pundit.

“We used to joke when Meghan was a little girl that she was John McCain in a dress because she is just like him,” Cindy says, with a knowing laugh — calling her daughter tenacious, smart, driven, impatient and opinionated.

She extends the same familial generosity to Graham, despite his staunch and unfailing support for Trump. “I would love him regardless of what he did,” she says. “He’s part of our family. That doesn’t affect our friendship at all.”

Graham, who says he “adores” Cindy, explains that they “have a mutual desire to make sure that John McCain’s legacy is honored and defended.” And his support for the president? “Cindy completely understands that my job as a senator from South Carolina, where Trump is popular, is to represent my state’s interest but also to be a voice for the things that matter to her, me, Senator McCain and the country.”

During the congressional spring break last month, the two traveled to Tunisia and Rwanda to work against human trafficking.

Another dear friend: Joe Biden, who was one of the speakers at John’s funeral in Arizona, was, perhaps, the person most helpful to Meghan and to Cindy during John’s illness, using his own experience with his son’s cancer to guide them through.

But last month, Cindy denied reports that she would endorse Biden and announced she would not campaign for him.

“I think what’s best for me is to not just stay out of it, but make my own self happy. And presidential politics is combat,” she says. “Right now, I don’t have any intention of doing anything.”

As for herself, she never gave elected office any real consideration; her name was tossed around to fill John’s seat but she and Republican Gov. Doug Ducey never sat down to talk about it. “I think I can be just as effective in other ways,” she says. “I like doing what I’m doing.”

Cindy McCain speaks during the Women In The World Summit in New York in April. She works on human rights projects including efforts against human trafficking. (Mike Coppola/Getty Images)

‘Haunted’ by human trafficking

Of all her human rights projects, none has captivated Cindy quite like the issue of human trafficking. She taught herself everything she could about the problem, travels around the globe to educate people, and is relentless in her quest to put a stop to it.

She traces her obsession back to a trip to India, where she had gone to see the grave of Mother Teresa. She stepped into a small shop to buy sari material for her younger daughter, Bridget — who was adopted from Bangladesh — and noticed children staring up from underneath the floorboards. Something felt off. She says she was later told by locals that children were probably for sale.

“I walked out of there and got on my nice airplane, came to my nice house with my nice family, and I didn’t do anything,” she says. “It haunted me. I see these kids from my own children’s eyes and it’s like, ‘There by the grace of God go mine.’ ”

She decided she needed to figure out what was happening, and then figure out a way to stop it.

“Cindy is just fearless,” says Josette Sheeran, a McCain Institute board member who worked with her on food programs in Congo.

She brought her business background to the task: research, resources, problem-solving. The goal is to prevent both sex trafficking and slave labor of minors — runaways, homeless kids, those easiest to exploit. She publicized the issue when Arizona hosted its second Super Bowl and successfully lobbied for a Phoenix law allowing police to seize cars from men caught hiring prostitutes.

She got the topic on the roster at the Munich Security Conference and the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, this year. About the same time, she thought she spotted a child being trafficked at the Phoenix airport and alerted the police.

“It was a woman with a child and the child was reacting horrifically,” she says. “This child was terrified, kicking and screaming. There was something wrong.” The police determined there was no evidence of criminal conduct or child endangerment, but not before Cindy described the incident on the radio, was excoriated on Twitter and forced to apologize.

“I got carried away,” she says. “I made a mistake because I believed that’s what happened. As it turned out, it was not. But I don’t want to discourage people from saying something if they see something.”

Cindy McCain says a prayer at John McCains casket during a ceremony to honor the six-term senator from Arizona in the Capitol Rotunda last August. (Jonathan Newton/The Washington Post)

‘John’s watching us’

The entire family was at the ranch the day John died — Cindy, John’s three children from his first marriage and his four with Cindy. His bed was pushed out on the patio overlooking the land he loved. Sinatra’s “My Way” was on the playlist. A hawk flew across the house and planted in a tree not far from him.

“He heard the music, he saw the hawk, and he passed,” Cindy says. “He totally was in charge, and I mean this in the most loving way.”

And now, life without him. Cindy has just received news that their eldest son, Jack, finished his final deployment in Afghanistan and is safely in Qatar. Younger son, Jimmy, and his wife are expecting a baby boy in August, close to John’s birthday. John’s mother, Roberta, is doing well at 107 years old.

“If there’s one thing about the McCain clan: We’re strong,” Cindy says. “It has not been without its bumps, obviously, these past few months. But we know John’s watching us, and we know he’s going to remind us when we’re not doing things right. We want his legacy to go on.”

Before he died, John asked for one last thing: Every year, around the anniversary of his death, “why don’t you just have a party, play my playlist, and everyone enjoy themselves?”

So that’s what the McCains will do. And then Cindy will go back to work.

Credits: By Roxanne Roberts.