In short, she seemed . . . perfect.
That word shows up a lot in Cindy McCain’s new memoir, a slim but bracing volume titled “Stronger: Courage, Hope & Humor in My Life with John McCain.” But in her telling, this illusion of perfection was a torment, one to which many women, whether or not they live their lives as she did on a public stage, are likely to relate.
It led, among other things, to McCain’s addiction to pain medications and her denial of the high blood pressure that led to her having a stroke that nearly killed her in 2004, when she was not yet 50.
During an interview with me for a Washington Post Live event last week, McCain said she decided to write the book in the past year, as she continued to deal with the grief of her husband’s 2018 death amid the isolation imposed by the coronavirus pandemic, which she has spent mostly at the ranch they shared in Arizona.
“I just started putting things together and working with someone to really put the story down on paper,” she said.
One of the things she began to understand about herself, McCain said, was how she had suffered from “a drive to be perfect, and in the early days in Washington, for a political spouse, it was kind of expected of you. You were to look perfect, be perfect, but also keep your mouth shut. . . . It was something that I realized that for women — not just me, but other women around the country — you were expected to work, to raise your children, to have a beautiful home, to entertain, to do all the things you do, and do it perfectly.”
In her book, McCain wrote about the ostracism she felt when she first came to Washington as a second wife who was blamed for the messy end of her husband’s first marriage.
McCain recounted one episode in which first lady Nancy Reagan — who was close to John McCain’s first wife, Carol — humiliated her at a White House dinner. When someone at their table asked Cindy McCain how she felt about her move to D.C., Reagan interrupted before she could answer: “She’s not the one who won. Her husband did.”
McCain had little in common with congressional spouses, most of whom were older and whose children were grown. But one who recognized and sympathized with what she was going through was another senator’s wife, who had once herself been, as McCain noted wryly, “the new blonde in town.”
Jill Biden invited the McCains to spend a weekend at her own sprawling home in Delaware. “All weekend, I watched her, admiring her ease at entertaining and her comfort with life in general,” McCain wrote. “The house was busy with children and friends. Nothing seemed to faze her, and I liked how down-to-earth the whole family seemed.”
The McCains and the Bidens would spend many happy times together over the years, and Cindy McCain would follow Jill Biden’s example in centering her life back in her home state, rather than inside the Beltway. She would also find her own identity pursuing humanitarian causes, including the fight against human trafficking,
Cindy McCain’s decision to endorse Joe Biden against President Donald Trump in the 2020 election was understandable, not only because of her personal history with the Bidens, but also because of the compulsive vindictiveness that Trump had shown against John McCain, even after McCain was dead. But the backlash has been intense; in January, the Arizona Republican Party voted to censure her.
“Our party has been led astray, and our party is not the party of inclusion, the party of acceptance, the party of Abraham Lincoln, that it was when John and I started doing this,” McCain told me. “But I also believe that we can come back from this. You know, there is a great pendulum in politics. We swing one way and then we swing the other way, and in the case of the Republican Party, I truly believe we can come back from this, and will come back from it.”
President Biden is expected to name McCain ambassador to the U.N. World Food Program, which would make her the first Republican to be appointed by Biden to a position that requires Senate confirmation.
“Well, really, I can’t talk about it yet because I haven’t heard anything,” she said. “More importantly, what I look forward to is having Republicans in the administration, as President Biden said he would do.”
When asked whether she might ever run for office, she laughed and said no, but she noted she has four children, and there are three from her husband’s first marriage. “I’m hoping maybe another McCain will, another junior McCain will go in there,” she said. Anyone else might even say that would be perfect.