Cindy McCain: rodeo queen to first lady?

Both privilege and challenge have marked her life, and now Mrs. McCain could follow her husband to the White House.

Mary Knox Merrill / Staff
Cindy McCain, wife of Republican Presidential nominee, Sen. John McCain, speaks during the first day of the Republican National Convention at the Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul, MN

The Corvette pace car at the Pocono 500 roars to a stop at Victory Lane, the door opens, and out steps a petite blonde in white, fitted jeans, grinning like a Cheshire cat.

“How fast were you going?” shouts a reporter above the din of the crowd.

“I’m not going to tell you; I don’t want my husband to know,” she says, laughing.

Meet Cindy McCain – philanthropist, self-described gear-head, and potential first lady.

The heiress and now chairman of the third largest Anheuser-Busch beer distributorship in the country, she is also the wife of presidential contender Sen. John McCain (R) of Arizona and mother of four of his seven children.

Almost without exception, those who know her well say she is poised and polite – maybe a bit aloof in public, hesitant to make a mistake.
But friends call her down-to-earth and fun, with a deep sense of compassion and a moral fiber strengthened by overcoming an addiction to painkillers and a serious illness that could have changed her life.

She is fully engaged on the campaign trail now but dislikes politics and the press. She gives interviews sparingly. She’s far more comfortable working with refugees in far-flung lands, she says, than hobnobbing with opinionmakers in Washington.

In 2000, after supporters of rival George W. Bush spread rumors in South Carolina that her adopted daughter from Bangladesh was in fact her husband’s illegitimate African-American love child, she’d had enough. Mrs. McCain vowed, “I’m never having anything to do ever again with politics,” according to a close friend. And she told her husband, “You’re on your own, John McCain.”

But friends say she “healed” from that just as she has from medical difficulties, tapping the same reservoir of grit and determination that helped her overcome addiction. Beneath that very polished veneer they see a strong, determined risk-taker.

“She is a lovely, complex, and very deep person with a rich character,” says Sharon Harper, a close friend from Phoenix. “In one regard she’s very refined and may seem a little shy: She’s very polite, respectful, and gracious, but that’s coupled with a great strength, character, persistence, and deep beliefs and compassion.”

Cindy McCain was raised in Phoenix when it was still a relatively small city with wide avenues lined by towering palm trees. Even though she has two half-sisters, she had little contact with them, and she thinks of herself as an only child. She has also called her parents “her best friends.”

Her father, James Hensley, had been a bombardier in World War II who was shot down over the English Channel and awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross. After his discharge, he went back to Phoenix and got involved in the liquor business with a man widely reputed to have ties to the Mafia.

Her father’s legal problems

In 1948, Mr. Hensley and his brother were convicted of falsifying liquor records to conceal the illegal distribution of whiskey. Hensley served a six-month suspended sentence, and his brother spent a year in federal prison.

In 1955 Hensley founded Hensley & Co. which eventually became one of the largest beer distributors in the country. He also became a major contributor to charities in the Phoenix area.

Cindy’s mother was from Tennessee, a woman who valued impeccable manners, according to friends. Her name was Marguerite, but people called her “Smitty.” She met Jim Hensley in West Virginia when he was recovering from wounds suffered in the war. Both were married to other people at the time, and both had children.

She was fiercely protective of her second daughter Cindy.

They lived in a brick house shaded by orange trees on Central Avenue, one of the city’s main avenues. Even so, the area was still zoned for agricultural use and there were stables in the backyard.

Rodeo queen and cheerleader

Cindy Hensley rode horses, and, at 14, she was voted Junior Rodeo Queen of Arizona. At Central High School, down the street from home, she became a cheerleader. At the University of Southern California, she joined a sorority and earned a bachelor’s in education and a master’s degree in special education.

When she returned home to Phoenix she surprised friends and family by deciding to teach disabled children rather than join the family business. But to Cindy, the decision was in perfect keeping with her upbringing.

“It’s something that my parents taught me, the core values,” she said in a brief interview with the Monitor this summer. “We are very fortunate in the United States, and my family was very fortunate. They taught me from a very young age that you give back – that’s a part of what makes you a whole person.”

In 1979, 25-year-old teacher Cindy Hensley went to Hawaii on vacation with her parents. At a military reception there, she met Cmdr. John McCain - a war hero, former POW, and the US Navy’s liaison to the Senate. He was 42 at the time and married. He has recounted that he was smitten with the young blond heiress then and there.

In an interview with Jay Leno earlier this year, Cindy tells how she had a rather different reaction to him. “He kind of chased me around ... an hors d’oeuvres table,” she said. “I was trying to get something to eat, and I thought, ‘You know, this guy is kind of weird.’”

By the end of the evening he was “in love,” he wrote in his book “Worth the Fighting For.” Within a year, he divorced his wife of 14 years. A month after the divorce became final, John and Cindy were married.

It was only when they were applying for their marriage license that they found out each had been fibbing about their age. “I had made myself four years older and he made himself four years younger,” she told Mr. Leno. “We started our marriage on a tissue of lies, what can I say?”

Soon after they were married, John McCain resigned from the Navy.

The newly-weds then started their life in Phoenix, where John joined Hensley & Co. as a public relations executive. In 1982, he ran successfully for Congress with help from a $169,000 loan from Cindy’s trust.

When John first went to Congress in 1983, Cindy joined him in Alexandria, Va. But she reportedly was uncomfortable in the Washington social scene, in part, because other congressional wives snubbed her as a younger, trophy wife. She also experienced several miscarriages.

In early 1984, she moved back to Arizona. She had decided that was where she wanted to raise her family. Within the year, Cindy gave birth to her first child, Meghan. Jack followed in 1986, and Jimmy was born in 1988.

During that time, Cindy was for all practical purposes a single mother. Her husband came home on weekends. Her parents, who lived across the street, helped out. She also had several full-time housekeepers and regular baby sitters, according to people who worked for her at the time. But as she admitted to Harper’s Bazaar, it was also difficult.

“By Thursday I’d have a pity party, and John would walk in, see me hanging off the ceiling, and calm things down,” she told the women’s magazine in April 2007.

“Did I get angry? Sure, I’m only human, but always at the situation, not him,” she said.

In the midst of her building a family, John announced in 1986 that he wanted to run for the US Senate.

To Cindy, a loyal political spouse, that meant more than a few white-knuckled flights over rugged Arizona territory on the campaign trail.
She hated airplanes, especially small ones. So she decided to go to ground school. Emboldened by that, she got her pilot’s license and bought a plane with which she chauffeured her husband around the state during the campaign.

During those years, she also decided to start a charity. Inspired by a visit to a dirty, poorly equipped hospital in Micronesia a few years earlier, Cindy founded the American Voluntary Medical Team (AMVT). Its mission was to bring qualified medical personnel to war-torn and disaster-struck countries around the world. From 1988 to 1994, AMVT carried out 55 missions to Kuwait, India, El Salvador, Vietnam, and other countries.

A life-changing trip, a new daughter

On a trip to Bangladesh in 1991, she met two infants at an orphanage that had been started by Mother Teresa that doctors said were in need of medical care. With proper medical care, she was told, both could be cured.

Cindy brought them both back to the United States. She and her husband adopted one of the girls – now their daughter, Bridget. A staff member of McCain’s adopted the other girl.

It was also during this time that Cindy developed an addiction to the painkillers Percocet and Vicodin. Initially, they were prescribed to deal with back pain, but she soon ended up taking between 15 and 20 pills a day. To support her habit she stole painkillers from AMVT and had the charity’s doctors write prescriptions in other people’s names. Her behavior was erratic, according to people who worked with her at the time.

“She was very much of a loner, even though she was busy all the time,” says a former employee, who asked that his name not be used because of former legal dealings with the McCain family. “She had these sudden, unexplainable mood swings.”

Her parents noticed, too. Eventually they confronted her. She has said that that was enough to shock her into treatment and never taking a pill again. But about the same time, an AMVT employee became concerned that she was stealing from the charity and tipped off the federal Drug Enforcement Agency.

Acknowledging a drug problem

Two years later, just before a local paper published an account of the episode, she went public with the story on her own. Betsey Bayless, a close friend and former Arizona secretary of state, says she was surprised to see Cindy at a Republican women’s luncheon the very day it was in the newspapers.

“The fact that she was there, I thought, ‘My God, this is very good for her to be out and to face this,’ ” says Ms. Bayless. “I just went over and I said, ‘We’re with you, Cindy,’ and I hugged her. And all of these Republican women were so nice to her.”

In a plea agreement with federal prosecutors, Cindy agreed to shut down AMVT, pay the government for the cost of its investigation, begin treatment, and join Narcotics Anonymous.

She now speaks openly about that time in her life.

“It is a problem, a national problem particularly for women, so I try to talk about it as much as possible because I don’t want anyone to end up in the shoes I did,” she told Jay Leno on “The Tonight Show” earlier this year.

In the years that followed, Cindy turned inward, focusing primarily on her family. She and her father also started the Hensley Family Foundation, a children’s charity. Friends say she could regularly be seen carpooling loads of kids around the neighborhood.

But in 2000, she was again thrust into the public spotlight when her husband decided to run for president.

Friends say she was at best reluctant. It was inevitable that the problem she’d had with prescription drugs, plus the Keating Five scandal that had embroiled her husband in 1989, would come up again.

But in 2000 Cindy decided that if her husband wanted to run for president, she’d support him. And she wasn’t shy about getting support herself.

Before the New Hampshire primary, she and a group of friends went to New Hampshire and took over the “Straight Talk Express” – the campaign bus stocked with John’s favorite foods: Cheetos, Oreo cookies, and Krispy Kreme donuts.

They traveled around the state visiting diners, restaurants, and local political events. “She would talk in a really low-key, comfortable way with all of these people,” says Bayless, who joined her on the trip.

“It was really heartwarming to see how polished and comfortable she’d become at speaking,” she says. Then came the South Carolina primary and the attacks on her adopted daughter, Bridget. Cindy decided to swear off politics for life.

During the early 2000s, she again turned her attention to international humanitarian work. She began traveling around the world on missions with Operation Smile, which provides surgery for children with cleft palates. She also got involved with Halo Trust, which specializes in land mine removal, and CARE International.

Even this summer with the campaign in full swing, she’s traveled to Vietnam and Rwanda. People who work with her say she’s just a “member of the team.”

“Once she hits the ground on one of our missions she is no longer a senator’s wife; she’s just one of the guys,” says Bill McGee, founder of Operation Smile. “She’s there from 5:30 or 6 in the morning till 10 o’clock at night – working hard, nurturing families, listening to people, helping to expedite things.”

Rather than standing in the glare of the political spotlight, she says, she’s most comfortable doing that kind of work.

“There’s a difference between being on stage and being with people ... and I prefer to be with people,” she told the Monitor this summer.

People who’ve worked with McCain over the years say that discomfort with being in the public eye is a product of a deeper insecurity that has prompted her to embellish her history.

Over the past year, prominent news organizations relying on the McCain campaign website and previously reported quotes from Cindy McCain have reported that Mother Teresa “convinced” or “implored” her to bring her adopted daughter home from Bangladesh in 1991.
Now the campaign admits that she did not meet Mother Teresa then. It also acknowledges that contrary to prior repeated statements by McCain that she was an “only child,” she actually has two half-sisters.

Another personal challenge

In 2004, McCain was confronted with another medical challenge: what doctors diagnosed as a stroke.

During four months of intensive physical therapy, she began to regain her facilities. But she was still fragile. It was then that her son, knowing how much she loved race cars, suggested she learn how to drive one. He gave her a gift of lessons, and they built a race car together. She has raced in amateur events.

On the campaign trail today, she’s regularly at her husband’s side – introducing him, giving him a good-luck kiss or a poke in the back when his humor strays. She appears almost as comfortable as she does on the racetrack or on a mission in the developing world.

She says if she were to become first lady, she’d like to continue her humanitarian work. But she says she still has a hard time fathoming the possibility.

“It’s too much to think about,” she told CNN earlier this summer.

“I would be so honored to do that,” she said. “But yeah, I guess I would be the first one to have [auto] racing as a hobby.”

of stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.