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McCain's mother

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"Johnny, I'll wash your mouth out"

February 21, 2000
Web posted at: 4:11 p.m. EST (2111 GMT)

John McCain can't stop talking to the press. He didn't get that from his mother. "I am so shy and so nervous that I couldn't tell you anything," 88-year-old Roberta McCain told TIME last week. "I can't think on my feet. I would have a heart attack or jump out this five-story window. I'm worried that whatever I would tell you would be true."

Soon it becomes clear that while John McCain has written a best-selling book about his father, he may have chosen to write about the less interesting parent. While the man she still calls Johnny was taking his campaign bus through South Carolina, his mother was on another one of her three-month jaunts around the world, which she often takes with her twin sister Rowena. Her latest trip took her to India, the Netherlands, Singapore, New Zealand, Tasmania and Australia, among other places. And she doesn't take the touring coach. As might be expected of the mother of a fighter pilot, she straps herself into a fire-engine-red BMW. She logged 7,200 miles on her latest road trip, which is why she has run through three other cars over the years. At the end of each adventure, she leaves her roadster somewhere in Europe so it will be ready for the next time. "I'm like a little turtle," she says from her Washington home. "I just bring a little pair of boots, a raincoat, an umbrella and my binoculars and set out."

The travel has kept her from getting too involved in her son's presidential campaign, which suits her just fine. "I haven't kept up with anything," she says. "In a way, I'm sorry I'm home. I don't want unpleasantness with anybody." Instead she prefers to indulge her voracious interest in art and architecture. Traveling as a young mother with her two sons and a daughter, McCain tried to impart her love of art by taking her family on trips to Winterthur and the Hermitage. It didn't rub off on the Senator. "You have to really love churches," he says.

The daughter of a Los Angeles oilman, she signed on for Navy life at an early age. After two unsuccessful attempts at eloping--"The car broke down the first time, and I got cold feet the other"--the debutante succeeded in stealing away to Tijuana to marry a young Navy ensign who had been barred from her house for the previous year. Just 19, she brought her college textbooks on her honeymoon. The San Francisco Examiner ran a headline at the time that read society coed elopes with navy officer: roberta wright defies family. For his part, her husband Jack McCain was punished for being absent without leave.

Her 48 years of marriage were consumed by her husband's naval career, yet McCain looks back at her time as a service wife with delight, though the pay was dismal and her husband was gone for long stretches. When he was home, Jack was a tireless workaholic. "You know you're proud of your husband," she says. "If you chose the Navy, you do what it requires. A lot of wives didn't like that, and thankfully they left."

On Oct. 26, 1967, she and her husband were getting dressed for a party at the Iranian embassy when they learned their son had been shot down. For a day they thought he was dead; then they waited 5 1/2 years for his release. "My husband chose his profession, and so did Johnny," she says of the ordeal. "People work on high bridges. When an accident happens, you can't bellyache. You chose the profession."

When McCain read an excerpt from a book about her son's time in captivity, she called him, not to empathize but to berate him. In one particularly brutal scene, he heaved bouquets of expletives at his captors. "Johnny, I'm going to come over there and wash your mouth out with soap," she told him. "But Ma Ma, these were bad people," he said. She didn't budge.

"I don't care," she said. "Besides, what will people say?" Years later she is no less yielding. "He better never speak like that again, or I'll smack him bald-headed. Of course, he almost already is."

So we know where the candidate got his sly sense of humor. "I became my mother's son," McCain writes in his book. He has her soft side too. "That poor soul," she says of her son. "I do think he's an awful lot like me--too emotional." The mother in him was on display the night of the New Hampshire primary when he kept pacing the room, repeating to himself, "Don't get emotional. Don't get emotional."

And there's another way she's like him: she knows just how to manipulate the press. "If I don't like what you write, I'm gonna get you fired," she says and laughs. "And then I'm going to sue TIME."


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Cover Date: February 28, 2000

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