During a stirring week of memorial services for the late Sen. John McCain, the images that gripped the nation were those of his widow, Cindy McCain, a figure of grace and grief, as she accompanied her husband’s flag-draped casket from each stop in Arizona to Washington and Annapolis.
Throughout her husband’s long and illustrious political career, Cindy McCain did not often seek the spotlight. She showed no interest in the Washington life of a political spouse, raising her children in her native state of Arizona while McCain flew home on weekends. In the moments she chose to enter the public arena – mainly through humanitarian work and social activism – she carved out a political profile distinct from her more conservative husband.
But this past week the spotlight fell on her, sparking voters’ curiosity about her future plans and whether Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey would be willing to inflame the right wing of the Arizona Republican Party by appointing her to fill her husband’s seat.
That question seemed unavoidable as Cindy McCain headed the procession each day of the last week, dressed in black with strands of pearls around her neck and a handkerchief in her hand. She provided the most poignant image on the first day when she laid her cheek on her husband’s coffin in the Arizona State Capitol. She brought viewers to tears with her rare break in composure when she wept on her son Jack’s shoulder as Renee Fleming sang “Danny Boy” at the Washington National Cathedral.
“There have been many times in American history – it’s replete with them – where a wife finishes a term as a way to honor the deceased. And John McCain has brought a lot of glory on the state of Arizona,” said historian Douglas Brinkley, a CNN contributor. “In this case, the Republican Party would be lucky to have Cindy McCain, a strong woman’s voice representing her husband’s Arizona on the policy issues.”
Though there would be fierce opposition to Cindy McCain within the conservative wing of the state’s Republican Party, Brinkley noted the admiration that has grown for her in recent days. If the Republican Party of Arizona were less bitterly divided, those sentiments might have prevailed over Ducey’s political concerns.
“After the lovefest of the last week toward McCain and how Arizonians have been so proud that they claim him as a native, I think the temperature has changed,” Brinkley said. “I think Cindy McCain would be accepted by the people. The rub is that Ducey is going to do what’s best for Ducey, instead of properly honoring McCain.”
As always, Ducey faces the complex crosswinds of Arizona politics – holding his base within the hard-right, anti-immigration wing of the Republican Party, while acknowledging the state’s shifting demographics and Arizona’s burgeoning Latino electorate.
Ducey has been weighing a long and comprehensive list of replacements – including Cindy McCain, two former Arizona congressmen, and former Arizona Sen. Jon Kyl – but has closely guarded his thought process. The Governor and his advisers refused to discuss the appointment either before McCain’s death or over the last week during the memorials commemorating his life.
The Trump wing of the Republican Party is so strident in Arizona – and the rift between President Donald Trump and John McCain so deep – that the prospect of Ducey appointing Cindy McCain to fill her husband’s seat became a flashpoint in his primary campaign.
His opponent Ken Bennett, a former Arizona secretary of state, tweeted in May that he promised that he would not appoint Cindy McCain to US Senate if elected Governor.
Ducey called Bennett’s tweets “indecent, embarrassing and revealing” in an interview with KTAR News 92.3. The Arizona Republican Party Chairman Jonathan W. Lines tweeted back that the remark had disqualified Bennett from leading the state.
Rep. Martha McSally, a Republican candidate running for retiring Arizona Sen. Jeff Flake’s seat, distanced herself from McCain in spite of their friendship and similar biographies as fighter pilots. That angered some members of McCain’s family and friends. In the end, McSally easily dispatched her two anti-McCain opponents, state senator Kelli Ward and former Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio in last week’s primary. McSally will face Democratic Rep. Kyrsten Sinema in November in one of the most closely watched Senate races in the country.
In addition to Kyl, who has been helping Trump’s Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh prepare for this week’s confirmation hearings, the Arizona Governor is considering former Reps. John Shadegg and Matt Salmon, a lobbyist for Arizona State University, as well as McCain’s former Chief of Staff Grant Woods.
Ducey has ruled out appointing himself.
Forging her own path
Whether Cindy McCain would want to fill her husband’s seat remains something of a mystery, particularly within the toxic environment of the Arizona Republican Party.
She experienced the cruel edge of politics during the 2000 presidential campaign, when opponents spread false rumors about her family during the South Carolina primary, including that McCain had fathered an illegitimate child out of wedlock. (In fact, she and her husband had adopted their daughter Bridget from an orphanage in Bangladesh after Cindy brought her back to the US for medical treatment).
In that bruising 2000 campaign, Cindy McCain once again faced scrutiny of a difficult chapter in her life in around the early-1990s when she had struggled with an addiction to painkillers after back surgery (She spoke openly about it after she was confronted by the Drug Enforcement Administration and confessed she had taken pills from her own non-profit).
Bearing those political scars, Cindy McCain often seemed a reluctant player in her husband’s traveling road show during McCain’s second presidential run in 2008.
“You can see the toe marks in the sand where I was brought on board,” she told the Arizona Republic in 2007 of her husband’s decision to run for president a second time. Ultimately, she told the newspaper “I couldn’t say no.”
The senator’s wife, whose fortune was estimated at that time to be around $100 million, grew into her public role, steadily becoming more confident in doing events on her own.
Cindy McCain drew perhaps the most attention with her sharp retort to Michelle Obama’s February 2008 remark that for the first time in her life she was “really proud of my country.”
“I have, and always will be, proud of my country,” Cindy McCain told reporters shortly after Michelle Obama’s remark.
She has, at times, taken a more moderate stance on social issues than her husband. In 2010, she surprised the political world by advocating in support of gay marriage. During the battle over the constitutionality of California’s ban on gay marriage, she appeared in an ad protesting the ban with silver duct tape over her mouth.
Over time, she carved out a prominent role in efforts to stop human trafficking and help women who are victims in the United States and throughout the world. She has also sought to raise awareness about the violence against women and girls in places like Congo, which she first visited in 1994 during the Rwandan genocide.
“We are going to lose a generation of women and children in Congo unless we do something now,” she said while speaking at a Congo witness panel in 2011. “I’m only a humanitarian relief worker, that’s the only thing I’ve ever done, it’s the only thing I know with regards to this region, but I also know what’s right and we can’t leave behind these women and children.”
She previously served on the board of Operation Smile, traveling extensively for the non-profit that provides free surgeries for children with cleft palates or other facial deformities. She worked for years as a board member of HALO Trust, traveling to countries like Mozambique, Cambodia and Somaliland to help remove land mines.
The one-time special education teacher also has experience in the business world, serving as chairman of Hensley Beverage Company, her family’s company (which is one of nation’s biggest Anheuser-Busch distributors).
Her friends often note her less-known daring streak – her longtime love of race cars, for example (she took drift racing lessons with her son Jack when they traveled to Japan). She surprised her husband early in their marriage by learning how to fly and getting a pilot’s license to ferry him around Arizona during his campaigns.
The McCain marriage
Since his diagnosis with brain cancer in July 2017, McCain’s friends say that Cindy rarely left her husband’s side, ensuring that he got 24-hour-a-day care that allowed him to stay at his beloved cabin overlooking a creek between Sedona and Cottonwood, Arizona.
Cindy McCain appeared for him at public events when he was too ill to attend, or often just accompanied him for support. In her eulogy, Meghan McCain described her father’s love for her mother as “the most fierce and lasting of them all.”
“There is no one who understood John McCain better than Cindy,” said South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham, who asked the late senator’s wife to sit in her husband’s chair beside him in the Senate chamber this week before she left the US Capitol. “Cindy McCain believed in John’s agenda for America more than anyone.”
She was an integral part of all of McCain’s campaigns from the earliest days of his first campaign in 1982, going to door to door with him six days a week as he earned the nickname the “white tornado.”
“John will tell you, he constantly said, ‘I couldn’t do it without her,’ and he was amazed at how tough she was,” Graham said in an interview Sunday. “She has created in her own right, a terrific pathway forward for the McCain family. Soft power; understanding that America is at her best when we are helping the women who are exploited the most throughout the world.”
Cindy McCain met the late Senator in 1979, while he was still married to Carol, his wife of 14 years. As former Vice President Joe Biden recalled this past week, McCain could not stop looking at Cindy and was nudged by Biden’s wife Jill to cross the room and talk to her.
Meghan McCain noted in her eulogy that her father recited the poem “The Cremation of Sam McGee” on his first date with her mother.
“My father knew if she would sit through that, appreciate the dark humor that had seen him through so many years of imprisonment, she might sit through a lifetime with him as well, and she did,” Meghan McCain said.
The couple was married in 1980, shortly after McCain’s divorce from Carol. McCain retired from the Navy the following year after he failed his flight physical, a result of his injuries as a prisoner-of-war in North Vietnam.
They moved to Arizona in 1981 where McCain met many political and community leaders while working for Cindy’s father, Jim Hensley, as a vice president of public relations at Hensley’s Anheuser-Busch distributorship.
McCain got his first chance to run for Congress that year when word leaked out that longtime Congressman John Rhodes would announce his retirement. In the day or two before the official announcement, Cindy found and signed a contract on a house in the district, McCain wrote in one of his memoirs “Worth the Fighting For.”
He acknowledged the severe strain that his political career and frequent absences would later put on their marriage. He also noted how angry he would become when his critics suggested that he married Cindy McCain “because of her Arizona residency and her wealth and connections there.”
“I married Cindy because I fell in love with her,” he wrote in “Worth the Fighting For.”
“I moved to Arizona because it was her home.”