Holly Bailey: In Search of the Real Cindy McCain

Ambitious naval officers who hope to make admiral know they must put in years of sea time, long deployments aboard ship where they prove themselves as sailors and earn the respect of their superiors. Back home, their wives work, chase after the kids and take care of the house, building lives of their own while their husbands build their careers. Cindy McCain knows what that's like. Over the 28 years of her often long-distance marriage to Capt. John McCain, USN (Ret.), she says she thought of herself as a Navy wife whose husband was off on tour—albeit on Capitol Hill instead of somewhere in the North Atlantic. "It was almost like a deployment," Cindy told NEWSWEEK. "What I told the kids from the time they were little is that their dad was deployed and serving our country in Washington."

Cindy has sometimes likened herself to a single mother; now 54, she has often been far away from her husband during difficult moments, including two of three miscarriages she suffered in the 1980s. Years later, her husband did not notice when she became addicted to painkillers, a habit, she says, brought on in part by the stress of politics. In 2004, he was on the other side of the country when she suffered a stroke that left her partly debilitated. On her own, she learned to walk again. Cindy says she doesn't resent the time she has spent without her husband. It was her choice to stay in Arizona while he rose in Washington, and she says she knew when she married him that he was always going to "put country first."

She certainly isn't looking for pity. Unlike many Navy wives, Cindy McCain has never had to worry about scraping up enough money to pay the phone bill. The heiress to a fortune that is estimated at more than $100 million—her father built the largest beer distributorship in Arizona—she raised the couple's four children in the house where she grew up, and the couple has a ranch near Sedona. Her life away from Washington has given her the freedom to unhitch herself from her husband's career and pursue her own interests. She is chairman and majority owner of her family's beer business, and oversees a family charity that supports groups that provide medical care to people in some of the world's poorest countries. An amateur pilot (she says she got her license so she could fly John on campaign swings around Arizona), she also learned to drive race cars with her son Jack, a cadet at the U.S. Naval Academy. Last week she was in Vietnam with Operation Smile, a group that brings American doctors to repair children's cleft palates (she sits on the charity's board).

There isn't much about Cindy's life lately that can be called private. Talking with her, one gets the sense that if there is anything about her marriage that she would change, it might be to reclaim the privacy that she has lost as the wife of the presumptive Republican nominee. She may have prepared herself for a largely independent life, but she didn't count on—and never sought—the close, often unforgiving, scrutiny that she now cannot avoid.

Her tax records, her hair and clothes, even the authenticity of "family" recipes posted on the campaign's Web site have become the subject of intense attention on the Internet and cable TV (it turned out that an intern lifted some of the recipes from the Food Network). The talk shows spent hours last week teasing up a feud between her and Michelle Obama, after Cindy chided Michelle for saying, months ago, that she is proud of her country "for the first time" in her life. "I have always been proud of my country," Cindy responded, repeating comments she'd made when Michelle first made the remark.

All the attention has yet to leave an impression on many voters. Despite decades alongside one of the country's most visible politicians, the new NEWSWEEK Poll shows that 48 percent of registered voters still don't know enough to have an opinion about her. Many know her only as the blonde standing alongside her gregarious husband, lips fixed in a practiced smile, ice-blue eyes serene and adoring, but inscrutable.

Recently, Cindy has set out to show the country that she is no vacant "Stepford wife." She has started doing more press interviews and can be surprisingly candid about her personal life and her feelings. Still, she clearly finds the confessional mode of American politics distasteful, and does not feel the need to overshare. "It's more about … feeling comfortable … and not feeling compelled to do things that I wouldn't normally do," she says.

John McCain has made a virtue—and a career—of his unwillingness to go along, an independent streak his wife shares. If he doesn't want to be reined in by convention, neither does she. After nearly 30 years together but apart, she has her own sense of mission, one that does not necessarily require a husband in the White House.

That doesn't mean she doesn't want it—particularly for him. Cindy is McCain's "best friend, best adviser and closest confidant," she says. As First Lady, she would not sit in on cabinet meetings. But the White House would give her a platform to advance causes, like special education, that are important to her. "My biggest goal is to hopefully inspire more people to get involved in their communities, to focus on, as my husband has said, causes greater than themselves."

For Cindy, the move to Washington would not be easy. Her family is deeply rooted in Arizona, and she hates to be away from Phoenix for more than a few days at a stretch. Her father, Jim Hensley, was one of the most prominent men in the state. A World War II bombardier, he was shot down over the English Channel. After the war, he and his wife, Marguerite, borrowed $10,000 to start a liquor business. Through the years, it grew to become one of the largest Anheuser-Busch distributorships in the country.

An only child, Cindy Lou Hensley got all the attention her father would have lavished on a son. He took her on treks in the Arizona wilderness, camping for days in the canyons along the Mexican border. At 14, she was crowned Junior Rodeo Queen of Arizona. In her senior yearbook photo, Cindy is pictured wearing a tailored dress suit alongside her classmates in sandals and hippie bell bottoms.

In 1972, Cindy left home for the University of Southern California. Her husband likes to say USC stands for "University of Spoiled Children," and Cindy looked the part. A cheerleader and sorority girl, she drove around campus in a gold Mercedes. But she took her studies seriously. Her father wanted her to enter the family business. Instead, she earned a master's degree in special education and returned home to teach kids with Down syndrome and other disabilities in a poor Phoenix neighborhood. "She took us all by surprise," recalls O. K. Fulton, then the school's principal. "She didn't have to work. Her dad had lots of money, but she went beyond what the job called for."

In the spring of 1979, Cindy joined her parents on a trip to Hawaii. At a Navy cocktail party, a cocky captain came up and introduced himself. John McCain was the Navy's chief liaison to the Senate in Washington. He was 41, but told her he was 37. Cindy was 24, but told him she was 27. By both accounts, it was love at first sight—though for McCain, it was far more complicated. He was a married father of three. His relationship with his first wife, Carol Shepp, was coming apart, and the two were separating, though he didn't divulge any of that to Cindy that first night.

"I monopolized her attention the entire time," McCain writes in "Worth the Fighting For." Afterward, he persuaded her to join him for drinks at the Royal Hawaiian Hotel. At first, Cindy had no idea that her date was a celebrated war hero who'd endured years of torture in a Vietnamese prison. Her parents had to tell her his story. In his book, McCain writes, "they were more welcoming of my attentions to their daughter than I had a right to expect. I doubt I could match their graciousness should I find one of my daughters attracted to someone who reminded me of me."

Over the next few months, John and Cindy traveled between Washington and Arizona to see each other. On one of Cindy's visits to the capital, McCain proposed over drinks. They had known each other less than a year, but Cindy accepted immediately.

First, McCain had to deal with his current marriage. He had met Shepp, a former fashion model, before he went to Vietnam. He had adopted her two sons from an earlier marriage and together they'd had a daughter, Sidney. In 1969, while McCain was a POW, Shepp was nearly killed in a car accident. The wreck left her with permanent injuries. When he returned home in 1973, the two tried to make the marriage work, but they had little in common after six years apart. McCain has said he is responsible for the breakup. In February 1980, he filed for divorce. Little more than a month after the divorce was final, Cindy and John married in a glitzy ceremony at the Arizona Biltmore.

Shepp no longer discusses the marriage, but has said she doesn't blame McCain. She has told reporters she thinks of him as a friend and supports him for president. The marriage soured because of "John turning 40 and wanting to be 25 again," she told McCain's biographer Robert Timberg. Others who know them say McCain pursued Cindy as a way of putting his war years behind him. "I think John very much saw her as reclaiming the life he had lost," Albert (Pete) Lakeland, a former congressional staffer who was with McCain when he met Cindy, told Timberg.

McCain adopted Arizona as his new home and soon began thinking of a fresh career. He had doubts he would ever be an admiral like his father and grandfather. Instead, he resolved to return to Washington as a congressman from Arizona. McCain worried he would be branded a carpetbagger, but his war story was compelling and the Hensley name got him access to money and connections. In January 1982, a congressional seat came open near Mesa, just outside Phoenix. Cindy bought the couple a house in the district so they could establish themselves as residents. McCain lent his campaign $169,000, money that came from Cindy's trust fund. (It was the last time Cindy would tap into her accounts to fund her husband's races, in part because of tighter ethics rules.)

When McCain was sworn in to Congress in 1983, Cindy quit her teaching job and joined him in Washington. Just 28, she was younger than some of her husband's own congressional-staff members. (She was also just a few years senior to McCain's kids from his first marriage—five years older than Doug, who is currently a pilot for American Airlines; eight years older than Andrew, who is a vice president of the Hensley Co., and 12 years older than Sidney, a music industry exec who lives in Canada.)

Cindy struggled to be taken seriously in the capital. She went out for drinks with staff and tried to make friends with other congressional spouses, without much success. For the first time in her life, she was an outsider. She knew what people were saying behind her back. Some of her husband's own staff privately called her a trophy wife; his political opponents carped that he'd married her only for money.

Lonely and homesick for Arizona, Cindy sought comfort in starting a family. She had always wanted a lot of kids, but she suffered several miscarriages in their first years of marriage. The first time, she frantically tried to reach McCain on the House floor. He got the message in time to take her to the hospital. The two were apart the second and third time she miscarried. "Look, it was hard, but I can only view it as God's plan," she says. "I was never bitter about it, but I think he felt guilty." When Cindy found out she was pregnant again in early 1984, her doctors ordered her to stay off her feet and not travel. That was all the excuse she needed to leave Washington and move back to Arizona for good. Since then, she has seen her husband mostly on weekends, and travels to the capital only once or twice a year.

In October 1984, just a few days before Election Day, Cindy gave birth to her first child, Meghan (a former NEWSWEEK intern, she is now a Columbia grad who writes a political blog). As McCain moved up in Washington—he took over Barry Goldwater's Senate seat in 1986—Cindy focused on family. She moved into the home she had grown up in, and her parents moved across the street to help her with the kids. That year, she gave birth to John Sidney IV, the naval cadet; James, a Marine who recently returned from duty in Iraq, was born in 1988.

She was happy to be back home, but with McCain in Washington full time she confessed to friends she felt alone. "She was under a lot of stress," says Cindy's friend Sharon Harper. "He tried to be home every weekend, but when he wasn't, they must have talked 20 times a day." Cindy recalls how relieved she sometimes was when her husband would come through the door. "I will tell you that there were times when he would come home on Friday, and I'd had a long week with the little ones running around and I would say, 'Welcome home, I'm going out'," she says.

In 1984 Cindy was on a scuba-diving trip in Micronesia when a friend was injured and had to be taken to the hospital. She was sickened by the filthy conditions in the ER: "There were cats in the operating room and rats everywhere," she says. When she returned home, she began collecting medical supplies and sending them to the hospital. "Finally, the hospital called and said, really what we need is a good orthopedic surgeon," she says. "So I called some friends and we planned a trip … I don't know what made me do it."

She named her charity the American Voluntary Medical Team. In 1991, she camped in the Kuwait desert five days after the end of the gulf war to take medical supplies to refugees. That same year, she visited Mother Teresa's orphanage in Dhaka, Bangladesh, where she saw 160 newborn girls who had been abandoned. The nuns handed her a small baby with a cleft palate so severe that the infant couldn't be fed. Another baby, also just a few weeks old, had a heart defect. Worried they would die without medical attention, Cindy applied for visas to take the girls back to the United States. But the country's minister of Health refused to sign the papers. "We can do surgery on this child," an official told her. Frustrated, Cindy slammed her fist on the table. "Then do it! What are you waiting for?" The official, stunned, simply signed the papers. "I don't know where I got the nerve," Cindy told Harper's Bazaar.

When she arrived in Phoenix, she carried the baby with the cleft palate off the plane. Her husband met her at the airport. He looked at the baby. "Where is she going?" he asked her. "To our house," she replied. They adopted the little girl and named her Bridget. Family friends adopted the other little girl.

Last week in Vietnam, Cindy relived that time as she talked to a young Vietnamese mother at a hospital in tiny Nha Trang. The woman clutched a tiny newborn with a severe cleft palate. Ditching her handlers, she went over to talk with her. "Where's the interpreter?" Cindy demanded. In tears, the woman told Cindy that she had been denied a consultation by the Operation Smile workers because they feared her baby was too sick to be helped. "I had a baby just like yours," Cindy slowly told her, allowing the interpreter to translate. She played with the baby's tiny fingers, recalling that her own daughter had been written off as unsavable. She joined the mother in the observation room and listened as cardiologists told them they feared the baby might go into cardiac arrest if they were to operate. As the mother cried, Cindy told her that she knew exactly how she felt and patted her back. "That baby deserved a shot," she said, "just like Bridget did." In the end, the doctors decided to perform the surgery.

As she nursed baby Bridget back to health, Cindy was suffering problems of her own. In 1989, she lifted young Jimmy and ruptured a disc in her back, an injury that took several surgeries to fix. As she recovered in the hospital, an orderly set a newspaper down on her bed. "Guess your husband's not so great after all," she said sarcastically. On the front page was a story questioning whether McCain and four other members of Congress had inappropriately intervened to save a failed savings and loan owned by developer Charles Keating—a Hensley family friend. Cindy and her father had invested nearly $400,000 in a strip mall Keating owned. He had been a major contributor to McCain's campaigns and John and Cindy had vacationed at Keating's home in the Bahamas nearly 10 times, often flying down on one of Keating's private jets. McCain insisted he had paid for the use of the jet, but Cindy, in charge of the family's records, couldn't find the receipts. Ultimately, McCain received a mild rebuke for "poor judgment." But Cindy, convinced she had embarrassed her husband, was distraught. Under stress and still in pain after surgery, she began taking more of the pain pills doctors had prescribed. Soon she was addicted, taking up to 20 Percocets and Vicodins a day.

Initially, her doctors simply refilled her prescriptions. But as her appetite for pills increased, she began stealing drugs from her own nonprofit, asking doctors who worked for the group to obtain the pills for her trips overseas. She worked hard to conceal her habit. If anyone saw her downing a pill, she said it was a vitamin. Her husband, away in Washington most of the time, suspected nothing.

Her mother was the first to notice something was wrong. Cindy looked terrible and had lost weight. "What's the matter with you?" she asked Cindy one night in 1992. Cindy confessed, and says she quit the pills cold turkey that day. But she didn't tell John. "I was scared," she told NEWSWEEK. "I didn't want to disappoint him." The secret didn't keep. A little more than a year later, an employee who had been fired from Cindy's nonprofit went to the Drug Enforcement Administration and reported that pills had gone missing. When the DEA called Cindy to ask questions, she broke down and confessed. But first, she called McCain from her lawyer's office to tell him the news. The senator rushed home. "I should have known that it was happening," he told NBC News later. "Maybe I was wrapped up too much in Washington and my ambitions to pay as much attention as I should have." Cindy paid restitution, did community service and attended counseling sessions.

The McCains knew the story would get out. They chose to tell what happened to a handpicked group of reporters they thought would be fair. The Arizona Republic wasn't included, and the day after the story broke, the paper ran an ugly editorial cartoon depicting Cindy as a junkie shaking down babies for pills. Cindy retreated further from public life and stayed away from reporters.

In 1998, John raised the possibility of a run for president. He had recruited advisers and lined up prospective donors; they all said he should give it a shot. But his wife was sickened by the thought of their lives' being picked apart even more. "No," she told him firmly. "No, no, no." McCain pleaded his case. "I told her that when I'm about to retire, that I don't want to look back and say, 'I really wish I had tried it'," McCain told NEWSWEEK in 2000.

Since returning to Arizona full time, Cindy had been largely absent from his political life. When McCain was campaigning for the Senate, his wife occasionally joined him, but she didn't like fund-raisers or speaking before crowds. And she especially wanted no part in the political combat he so obviously relished. She worried that if he ran for president, she would have to embrace all those things. More than anything, she didn't like the idea of leaving her kids at home alone while she campaigned.

But as she joined her husband on the Straight Talk Express in the fall of 1999, she found she enjoyed life on the trail. "For most of the 20 years we've been married, he's been in Washington all week while I'm in Arizona with the kids," she told The New York Times. "I've never spent this much time with my husband."

Soon, the woman who once shunned attention was traveling on her own, dropping in on diners to talk one-on-one with voters. But her newfound love of politics didn't last. McCain lost the South Carolina primary after a vicious dirty-tricks campaign, in which his opponents smeared Cindy as a drug addict and spread rumors that Bridget was really McCain's illegitimate child. Cindy cried in full view of reporters. When her husband dropped out of the race, Cindy retreated once again to Arizona, furious. She now admits it took her a long time to get over it, much longer than her husband. "It was my daughter," she says. "I think any mother would agree with me. You can go after me, but stay away from my children."

Cindy decided not to tell Bridget about what had happened in South Carolina until she was old enough to understand. But not long ago, the 16-year-old discovered it on her own when she Googled her name. She asked her mother why President Bush hated her. "I did the best I could to say it wasn't President Bush," Cindy says. "But what she doesn't understand is … how could people say things like that." Cindy has admitted that she has what she calls a "grudge list" of people she believes have maligned her husband or her family. The senator, she says, is much quicker to forgive. "I guess I have a longer memory," she says, flashing a wicked smile.

It was conventional wisdom that McCain would run again in 2008. Once more, he knew his first opponent would be his wife. "She had very clear misgivings about it, very clear," McCain told reporters earlier this year. One of her concerns: her health. In 2004, Cindy was at lunch with friends in Phoenix when she began to have trouble speaking. As she tried to get up, she found that her arm and leg were numb. "I literally couldn't talk," she told NEWSWEEK. "I thought, 'Oh my God, people are going to think I'm drunk and it's only 11 o'clock in the morning'." A friend's husband rushed her to the emergency room.

Cindy had suffered a stroke, caused in part because she had stopped taking her blood-pressure medication. She thought she would be able to regulate her condition with diet and exercise. In bed, barely able to speak, she fretted about who would take care of her kids. Her friend Sharon Harper told her she should leave town and focus on recovering. That summer, Cindy moved to San Diego, and rented a condo on Coronado Island. Friends looked after her sons and young Bridget. She spent months working with a therapist to regain her mobility and speech. "It was the best thing I ever did," Cindy recalled. "I couldn't eat anything, basically. And I couldn't walk … Each day I would get up and walk to the door of the building. And the next day I would try to walk across the way … By the end of the summer, I was making it up and down the beach."

Cindy was also worried her sons would become political props in the race. Her younger son, Jimmy, surprised his parents by joining the Marine Corps two years ago at the age of 17. They had expected he would follow the family tradition of going to Annapolis, where his older brother was already enrolled. Cindy made no attempts to conceal her worries about her sons' going into combat. Friends say it was one of the reasons she gave her husband her blessing to run for the White House a second time, despite her misgivings. "She simply didn't trust that anyone else would know how to deal with the complexities of what to do about the war," Harper says.

Friends have noticed that Cindy closely follows her husband's statements about Iraq. On the bus, she often listens intently when McCain discusses the subject with his staff. In public, Cindy alternates between a rhinestone USMC pin and a Navy pin. Yet she and her husband made a decision early on not to talk about their sons' service on the trail—partly out of fear that Jimmy could be put in danger.

When Jimmy was in Iraq during the primary season, Cindy, like every mother whose son is at war, lived to hear his voice. She kept her BlackBerry in her hands at all times so she wouldn't miss his call. When she went onstage, she would hand the phone to a campaign aide who would stand with it in her line of sight. "She slept with that BlackBerry in her hand," says Harper. Earlier this year Cindy approached the senator backstage at a campaign event. She was on the brink of tears. "He called," she told McCain. "I missed it." It was a rare moment of emotion for a woman who had vowed that, this time around, she would keep her tears in check whenever callous reporters were near.

Last fall, Cindy joined the wives of other presidential candidates, including Michelle Obama and Elizabeth Edwards, at a forum about life as a prospective First Lady. Asked where they drew the line on matters of privacy, Edwards said she expected her life to be an open book. But Cindy disagreed. Looking back at the 2000 campaign, she said, "I found myself much more open and much more willing to expose or to—whatever—kind of lay it on the line." But this time, she said, "I have now, myself, learned to say no … I love going out and being part of the process, but for me, there comes a time when you just have to stop because otherwise I can't protect my children or my home life."

Cindy has struggled to keep elements of her life private during this campaign—sometimes in ways that have not helped her husband. After McCain became the presumed nominee, Cindy refused to release her tax records, citing the privacy of her kids. The decision generated bad headlines for a candidate who talks about accessibility and transparency. She finally relented late last month, worried the issue was becoming a serious liability. (Her return showed that she made more than $6 million as chair of Hensley in 2006. The campaign has said she got an extension for her 2007 return and will release it when it's filed.)

Also, Cindy has been somewhat wary of the press—worried, as she was back in 2000, that she could make a verbal misstep that will cost her husband. She had grown comfortable with many of the regular reporters on the McCain campaign beat earlier this year, but withdrew after The New York Times published a story questioning a relationship that her husband had with a female Washington lobbyist. (McCain said he had done nothing wrong and that the relationship was professional and appropriate. Cindy said she trusted him and called him "a man of great character.") Last week, accompanied by a few reporters from America and a crush of local Vietnamese media, Cindy repeatedly apologized to volunteers for Operation Smile while touring a hospital in Nha Trang. "I'm so sorry," she said, as boom mikes waved overhead. "I don't want to be a distraction."

Occasionally, Cindy has allowed some of the walls to come down. She's clearly more comfortable when her kids are near. Her daughter Meghan regularly publishes candid pictures of her mom on her blog—including photos of Cindy in the giant fuzzy slippers she wears in hotel rooms on the road, and dressed in pink polka-dot pajamas before bed. In Vietnam, Meghan teased her mother for committing a major fashion faux pas: wearing her hair in a scrunchy. "A scrunchy, Mom? Really?" Meghan said. "What?" Cindy said. "I'm not cool?"

Cindy, who couldn't get out of Washington fast enough two decades ago, now gamely—if not quite persuasively—says she would be happy to move back. Like most First Ladies, she would see more of her husband. She certainly knows how badly he wants to win, and, as she says, that makes her want it, too. Yet there is an unmistakable note of reticence: the uncertainty of a woman who has seen enough of the dark side of politics to know that she hasn't yet seen it all. "Hopefully," she says, "it will be a good experience."