Another life away from the campaign

Chicago Tribune

An icy wind whips by as Cindy McCain tramps across hillsides still slick from snow on the Albanian border, wearing well-worn hiking boots and carrying her Prada purse. She’s looking out at minefields and visiting schools where children must thread their way around leftover munitions.

One headmaster told her he had uncovered a cluster bomb when he went out to plant a tree. At another school, the principal said work on a new sports field was halted when workers found more than a dozen unexploded bombs.

McCain’s trip to Kosovo last month with Halo Trust, an international group that removes land mines from post-conflict countries, was a little more comfortable than her typical overseas trips. She has camped out in rural Angola, and was once left stranded when an overbearing African minister of education commandeered her charter plane. She has seen a boy get blown up by a mine in Kuwait.

Those images are a studied contrast to the stylish, perfectly coiffed 53-year-old McCain seen on the presidential campaign trail. She’s a constant presence with her husband, John McCain, the presumptive Republican nominee. She likes to say, “I’ll be brief,” and she is -- preferring to cede the spotlight quickly.


The portrait of Cindy McCain is a complex one. While her husband is talking daily about the situation in Iraq, she’s worrying about her sons in the military, making sure her adopted Bangladeshi daughter is doing her homework in Phoenix and trying to stay healthy four years after a stroke.

Then there is her philanthropic work in some of the world’s most miserable reaches. On her to-do list: a visit to Darfur to try to aid the refugees and bring attention to the genocide and rapes.

“It’s not about being a cowboy,” she said during a series of interviews over the course of her four-day trip to Kosovo. “It’s just these types of things don’t necessarily happen in Phoenix, Ariz., and you have to go where it is.”

In between, she’s helping her husband make a second run at the White House.

The Arizona senator first approached his wife in mid-2006 about another presidential bid. She ignored it, half hoping the idea would go away. But after opening presents that Christmas, the McCains held a family meeting.

That session included Meghan, 23, a blogger on the campaign; Jack, 21, a junior at the U.S. Naval Academy; Jimmy, 19, an enlisted Marine who has served in Iraq; and Bridget, 16, the McCains’ adopted daughter.

The children peppered their father with questions. Bridget wanted to know what he would do in the face of personal attacks. In 2000, Cindy McCain’s past had become campaign fodder: There were stories about her onetime addiction to Percocet and Vicodin following two back operations. She also recalled attacks that depicted her husband as being mentally unstable as a result of his time as a prisoner of war.

“It still affects me,” she said. “John says, ‘Oh, don’t let it bother you.’ . . . Well, I’m not as tough as he is, and things like that do bother me.”

In addition, Cindy McCain was working to regain her health after suffering a stroke in 2004. She was focused on eating well, exercising and reducing stress -- things not usually compatible with a campaign. But with two sons in the military and a nation at war, Cindy McCain said, “It was not only something he wanted to do badly, but we needed him for the country.”

One of the hardest things Cindy McCain has had to do on the trail, she said, is not talk about Jimmy and not fall apart, potentially upsetting the parents of soldiers who are serving or have been killed. “I’m a crier, I’ll admit it. I just had to button up,” she said.

McCain believes in her sons’ military service, but declines to say whether she had doubts about the war, saying she “leaves those decisions” to her husband and “the men and women who know it better and understand it better.”

Despite her reluctance to comment about policy, she got riled up in Wisconsin when she saw video of Michelle Obama, the wife of Democratic candidate Barack Obama, saying that “for the first time in my adult lifetime, I am really proud of my country.” Taking the stage to introduce her husband, McCain caught the media’s attention when she said with more bite than usual:

“I am proud of my country. I don’t know about you, if you heard those words earlier, I am very proud of my country.”

She said later: “It just spilled out of my mouth, and then I got back on the bus and I thought . . . ‘Oh, I should never have opened my mouth.’ ”

More typically after introducing her husband, McCain stands to the side, her eyes often trained onto some sort of middle distance. She admits she’s often thinking about other things.

Though she is shy and reserved compared with her loquacious spouse, campaign advisors say McCain is an avid participant in strategy sessions, speaking up when she disagrees. When the campaign was hemorrhaging money last summer, she expressed her concerns to her husband. John McCain soon parted ways with his campaign manager and his longtime strategist, a decision she said was his alone.

Cindy Hensley McCain grew up in Phoenix, the daughter of James Hensley, a businessman who cornered the market on Budweiser in Maricopa County. When her father died in 2000 and left the business to her, Hensley & Co. had become the third largest Anheuser-Busch beer distributor in the country.

In high school, Cindy was named rodeo queen. She was a cheerleader at USC. She met John McCain 29 years ago during a trip to Hawaii with her parents. Eighteen years her senior, he was separated from his wife and was the father of three.

“I couldn’t imagine he would be remotely interested in me because I was so young,” Cindy McCain said. A year later they married; she was working as a special education teacher.

It was on a scuba diving vacation in Truk Lagoon in Micronesia that McCain got the bug to help people outside of her students. A friend was cut in an accident and had to go to the small island hospital. The McCains were given a tour while they waited.

“They opened the door to the OR, where the supplies were, and there were two cats and a whole bunch of rats climbing out of the sterile supplies,” McCain recalled. “They had no X-ray machine . . . no beds. To me, it was devastating because it was a U.S. trust territory.”

She went home and arranged for medical supplies and a hyperbaric chamber to be sent back.

Later, the hospital contacted her and said it needed an orthopedist to treat island children. She put together a medical team and returned to Truk, and that’s how her relief missions began.

She also created a family trust and began looking for causes to help. “My dad left me the opportunity to do that, and I feel very lucky,” said McCain, now chairman of the board of Hensley & Co. “I didn’t do this. My dad did this.”

According to IRS reports, the McCains give about $200,000 a year to their children’s schools and to causes that include research on AIDS, heart disease, Parkinson’s disease and Down syndrome.

In addition to Halo, McCain sits on the boards of Operation Smile, which arranges for plastic surgeons to fix cleft palates and other birth defects in children, and CARE, which fights global poverty and works to empower poor women. All three programs get money from the McCain family trust.

“I do what I can, and I’m intent on doing it,” she said.