Stealing a reporter’s heart, striking fear in handlers’

It’s over between Roberta and me. At least for now.

What with her constant travels, her series of handlers and the 3,000-mile separation (she’s in D.C., I’m in L.A.), it just wasn’t working.

I concede, with only a tinge of embarrassment, that I’ve been captivated by that world traveler, grandmother, freeway speedster and potential First Mother of the United States, Roberta McCain.

But after months waiting in vain for a formal interview, I’m beginning to believe that her son’s presidential campaign really isn’t interested in getting Roberta McCain and me together for, as the man likes to call it, a little “straight talk.”


“They’ve got me muzzled,” Mrs. McCain, 96, said when I phoned the other day. She added with a chuckle: “Now don’t you print that. . . . I really don’t like to be interviewed.”

Democracy will not collapse for want of another Roberta McCain profile. But it makes me a little sad that the presidential season apparently will feature only rare media outings for Mrs. McCain, a charming and feisty woman who enjoys life more than many people a quarter her age.

The McCain camp insists that Mrs. McCain will face the public and the press again. But her low profile of late seems at least partly designed to prevent the kind of distractions she created during the primaries.

In one television interview, she razzed fellow Republicans for tepid support of her son. (“I think, holding their nose, they are going to have to take him.”) In another she blamed the Mormons for the scandal that tarnished the 2002 Salt Lake City Winter Olympics.

So she’s not always on the money. But the woman is older than John Paul Stevens, the Supreme Court justice. She’s as garrulous as, well, John McCain. Wouldn’t it be nice if we lived in a world where Roberta could just be Roberta?

Then she could tell those stories. Like the one about how, as a 20-year-old USC student, she eloped to Tijuana with a Navy ensign, John Sidney McCain Jr., who went on to become an admiral.

There would be time to replay her world travels, when Roberta and identical twin Rowena, a pair of striking debutantes, hobnobbed with luminaries like Madame Chiang Kai-shek and oilman J. Paul Getty (as Maureen Orth recounted in the New York Times last year).

As an admiral’s wife, Mrs. McCain could embassy-hop around the world, but the twins also enjoyed eating and sleeping on the cheap across Europe, the Middle East and beyond.

In France three years ago, when she was told that she was too old to rent a car, she simply bought one to drive around the countryside.

John McCain tells that story often on the campaign trail, a gleam of pride in his eyes. He also likes to regale reporters on the subject of his mother’s numerous speeding tickets -- one in Arizona some time back reportedly for clocking 112.

Hoping I could add a gem to this collection of tales, I did not accept rejection easily. The senator’s campaign staffers told me a few times that they would get back to me about an interview. But responses were slow or vague. (“She’s not doing a lot of print stuff now,” I heard on one occasion, followed by: “Maybe later in the summer.”)

Early in April, I went straight to the source.

Mrs. McCain picked up the phone on the first ring. Once I told her what I was after, she hesitated. “Well, hon, they never said so, but I just don’t think they’re crazy about me talking to anybody,” she said.

I told her that I remembered meeting her and Rowena as they swept through New York for the 2004 Republican National Convention.

“Oh, gosh, wasn’t that a lot of fun? I loved it,” she sighed. I reminded her that the Republicans would convene in the Twin Cities this year. She laughed: “Well, maybe you and I ought to just stay home.”

“Here I am talking again,” she stopped herself. “I’m just not going to talk. I’m not going to get into trouble.”

But I could tell that she was rolling, just like her “Johnny.” I mentioned that some thought her son, at 71, was too old to be president.

“I don’t think that has anything to do with it,” Mrs. McCain responded firmly. “My father was taking care of his business in his 90s and walking five miles a day until the day he died.

“I don’t think there is any question that he has the experience and the wisdom and the accomplishments. That’s something. I don’t think the others can compare, do you?”

I told Mrs. McCain that I still hoped I could come visit her sometime. It was spring, so I asked about Washington’s storied cherry trees.

“Oh my, it just couldn’t get any more beautiful than it is right now,” she said. “Everything is in bloom. It’s just fabulous.” But she had a tax return to complete. Time to go. “All right, hon,” she signed off. “If I don’t see you back here, well, have a good time.”

So it went. I called Mrs. McCain every few weeks. Normal channels weren’t producing an interview. And she didn’t seem to mind.

She would usually begin by saying she couldn’t really talk. Then, overcome by impeccable manners and a native loquaciousness, she’d get going despite herself.

I started to notice that I made all the calls on Thursdays.

I came to look forward to Thursdays with Roberta. Once she picked up the phone “fixin’ to get pretty” with a trip to the hairdresser. Still, she took a few minutes to chat.

Another time, when I asked about possible running mates, she seemed to be recalling a “be nice” lecture. “I think every one of these people, Democrat and Republican, are wonderful people,” she said. “Don’t you?”

Last month, I pushed a little too far when I asked about her son’s reportedly explosive temper.

“They can say that, but it doesn’t make it true. Absolutely not. Absolutely not,” Mrs. McCain declared. “And even if I did know something derogatory about my son, I just wouldn’t tell it. Would you say something like that about your son or brother?”

No, I conceded, I wouldn’t. That made me feel pretty small -- the occasional curse of pushy reporters.

Last week, I told Mrs. McCain that I would leave her alone for a while -- but that I still hoped for that interview someday.

She told me she would prefer it if I didn’t say a word about our little talks. But I told her I wanted to tell readers that they were missing out on some pretty fine stories.

“All right,” she said. “I trust you.”

Mrs. McCain told me she was sure we had a lot in common, both of us being so interested in politics. She said she loved getting up every morning and living in Washington, “such an interesting town.”

“When this whole thing is over, I will tell you some of my views,” Mrs. McCain offered. “We’ll get together.”

I told her I would like that.

“You could come over here and have some tea,” she said. “Yes, come over and put that pencil away. Then we could really talk.”