On Wednesday, Cindy McCain, the widow of the late Sen. John McCain, broke with her party and endorsed Democrat Joe Biden for president over the Republican incumbent Donald J. Trump.
"My husband John lived by a code: country first," McCain said. "We are Republicans, yes, but Americans foremost. There's only one candidate in this race who stands up for our values as a nation."
Announced hours before her daughter Meghan McCain, a regular on ABC's The View, was set to interview on the program another Democrat in a closely-watched race, Mark Lee of Arizona, the elder McCain's decision followed her cameo at the Democratic National Convention narrating a video about her husband and Biden's friendship.
More to the point, the endorsement is in keeping with the longstanding and famously maverick values of the McCain family.
When McCain was first elected to Congress, in 1982, Roberta Wright McCain, wife of a Navy hero, four-star Adm. John McCain Sr., and Cindy Hensley McCain, became mothers-in arms: Cindy stayed home in Phoenix determined to give her family a normal life. And Roberta, who’d lived amid the abnormal denizens of Washington much of her life, took charge during the week throughout her son’s nearly 40 years serving in the Capitol.
As a military wife all her adult life, Roberta’s job was to move at a moment’s notice and entertain, which she did with the grace of Jackie Kennedy and the wit of Dorothy Parker. She had raised John in Washington, which meant seeing her son through his raucous years at Episcopal High School, before handing him off to the Naval Academy, and then waiting as he refused early release from his five years in captivity, offered only because of her husband’s rank. That patrician, white-haired woman, tall and thin, at age 106, sitting beside a flag draped coffin in the Capitol rotunda in 2018? That was a mother burying her son.
As his family in Washington, Roberta’s main task was to ground her son, keep him from getting homesick, and make sure he got on the plane every Thursday night, often to head to the ranch at Sedona with the family where he grilled slabs of meat so massive the half dozen guests he always brought home couldn’t consume it all.
His only other foray into feeding people was on the McCain campaign bus which Roberta and Cindy boarded at their own risk, crowded with as many reporters who could fit, feasting on donuts with sprinkles at an oblong table full of notebooks waiting to be filled with stories that never ended. It’s true that the press was the two-time presidential candidate's base.
Back in Mom’s jurisdiction, John lived in a small condo with thin walls, a stove he never turned on and a big boat of a car he zoomed around Washington in with Roberta’s other son-in-the-Senate, Lindsey Graham. Roberta advanced their receptions, pre-charming those they should meet, drink in hand.
In Phoenix, Cindy was busy working at her father’s company. She would come to chair as a major stockholder, managing a growing family, and running a charity she founded, American Voluntary Medical Team, that donated medicine to third world countries (the organization closed its doors in 1995 following Cindy's admission of a problem with prescription drugs, and she went on to found the Hensley Family Foundation). Cindy jetted off to such exotic countries delivering penicillin that her eldest daughter Meghan thought Mom worked with Indiana Jones.
On one of those excursions, Cindy met a child who needed surgery for a cleft palate and who melted her heart. She and John adopted her, never imagining Bridget would be smeared during the ugly South Carolina primary of McCain’s presidential campaign that year. It goes to show our politics didn’t become vicious yesterday.
It was a military man—World War II bombardier, Jim Hensley, who came home and borrowed $10,000 to start what would become the largest beer distributorship in Arizona—who introduced his daughter, barely out of college in California, to Captain John McCain, barely out of a Tiger Cage in Hanoi, on a family vacation in Hawaii. The two went off on a date—Cindy pretending to be four years older, John four years younger—and Dad, who’d survived being shot down himself, crying “That’s my daughter you have there.”
The rest—two runs for president, six terms in the Senate, four children, hundreds of others saved by the medical miracles made possible by Cindy's foundation, and a mother at 108 still watching over all—is history.
McCain stayed true to his reputation as a maverick until the end. During the 2016 presidential race, he criticized candidate Trump, who fired back in personal terms: "He is a war hero because he was captured. I like people who weren't captured." McCain's sons, of course, John IV and James, followed him into the military. In 2017, less than a month after brain surgery for a glioblastoma, McCain again broke with his party and cast a crucial vote in the Senate that killed a Republican effort to strip the Affordable Care Act.
"I'm proud of the vote I cast tonight," he said then. "It's consistent with what we told the American people we'd try to accomplish in four straight election if they gave us a chance." Trump never forgot the betrayal, and continued to criticize the late senator after his death in 2018. The family took notice.
He will be a commander in chief that the finest fighting force in the history of the world can depend on, because he knows what it is like to send a child off to fight.
— Cindy McCain (@cindymccain) September 22, 2020
In endorsing Biden, Cindy is casting a vote that puts country over party, and she is also following her husband's proud tradition of contrarianism. She pointedly singled out the vice president's honesty and dignity in her statement, a not so subtle dig at the man in the Oval Office.
The statement had its intended effect, too, triggering yet another temper tantrum from the president: "Never a fan of John. Cindy can have Sleepy Joe!"
If her words accomplished anything today, at least they managed to irk her late husband's last great adversary, a maneuver that no doubt would have delighted McCain.
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