Cindy McCain on the Successful Political Wife

Cindy McCain speaking at the 2008 Republican National Convention in St. Paul, Minn. Melissa Golden / Redux

I mean this in the nicest way: when John first ran for Congress, I did not know what I was getting into. And that was probably a good thing.

Remember, I had married a naval officer, and in my head I thought we were going to be in the Navy for married life. So this was a new adventure. But I had no clue what it entailed.

Back then, the political spouse was just a supportive role. I was expected to go to dinners, barbecues, rodeos, picnics and not say too much.

I certainly didn't expect the amount of interest in our lives and the amount of interest people had in me. It started when I gave birth to Meghan in 1984. John was two weeks away from reelection at that time. People put billboards up that said, "It's a Girl! Congratulations!" It was on the front page of the East Valley Tribune newspaper. It was all very sweet.

I think my role started to change when he entered the Senate race in 1986. I purposefully took a more active role, more so than just showing up (although showing up was important, because they wanted to see the spouse).

I was afraid of flying, so without telling John, I took pilot lessons. I bought a small airplane, it was a Cessna 182. Then I told John what I had done. He was very excited about it, actually. I was his pilot for the first Senate race. We flew all over the state—to Flagstaff, Yuma, and Sedona. We went everywhere.

The year 2000 was John's first foray into the presidential race. I described it to somebody as like being catapulted off an aircraft carrier: they fling you off and they expect you to fly. It was a huge awakening for me, in good ways and bad. The intensity of the media and the media's ability (or inability, depending on how you look at it) to produce 24-hour news had changed everything.

You would think there would be more understanding of the candidates and their spouses. What I found was that because it was such a fast pace, they understood me even less. I've seen things written about me that said "she's cold," or "she is a Stepford wife." Really, I'm just very shy. No one bothered to ask that. I'm not sour-graping it here. I'm just trying to explain.

I've talked to a bunch of the candidates' wives and I've said to them: take time for yourself. You're going to find times when you just need to pull off the trail, get home, recharge for a couple days. You'll be a better person for it, and you'll be a better help to your spouse. The intensity of living inside that bubble can be very daunting.

Everything you do is scrutinized, which is a hard thing for me to swallow. And the difference between 2000 and 2008 was the level of scrutiny: blogging was not around in 2000. I did read some of it for a very brief period, and then I stopped. When I met Laura Bush after John got the nomination, her advice was don't read your own stuff. I was surprised. I assumed she read everything. She said, "I never read any of it—it's just too awful!"

Sometimes the spouses get a bad rap, because we are the gatekeepers. I think we're misunderstood by staff and others when we're trying to be a good spouse. All I ever wanted was for John to be happy and healthy, which he was. I felt like it was my job to make sure he ate and got plenty of rest and the basic things. Nancy Reagan told me years ago, "Always remember you're his eyes and ears. You have a very important voice in this, because you're the one person he can trust." That's very true. When you are the closest person to him, you hear and see things. Telling him what you think becomes a very important role.

John travels an awful lot now, which is fine because the kids are gone. Our life is a little different now. I come to Washington more, so we can see each other (and, of course, he comes home). I want him to be happy, so it takes some extra effort to make sure we're together.

I don't know if we'll ever have a normal life, I don't know if that's in the cards for us. Normal for us is having a crazy life.

Despite all the challenges of a political life, this is the most remarkable part: these women and men, along with their spouses, they all have a front-row seat to history. It's not just close—you're inside all the workings. That's just an amazing place to be.