Cindy, 18 years younger than her husband, tried life as a political spouse when he was elected to Congress in 1982. But, unhappy in Washington, she headed back to Arizona, where she gave birth to and raised three children—Meghan, who now writes a blog about her father’s campaign; Jack, a Naval Academy midshipman; and James, a Marine who has served in Iraq.
She started a nonprofit to bring medical teams to developing countries and in 1991, after a trip to Bangladesh, returned home with two infant girls from Mother Teresa’s orphanage who needed medical care. She informed her husband that one of the babies was to be his new daughter. Bridget, whom the McCains adopted, is now 17. A friend adopted the other girl.
McCain’s philanthropic work has often been overshadowed by brushes with scandal and other difficulties. In the late 1980s, when her husband was being questioned as part of the “Keating five” investigation, Cindy couldn’t find receipts to prove the McCains had paid for flights aboard jets owned by developer Charles Keating. Distraught and suffering from a ruptured disk, she became so addicted to prescription pain pills that she began stealing drugs from her own charity. In 2004, at age 49, she had a stroke and—barely able to speak, walk, or eat—moved to San Diego to recover while friends cared for her children back home.
Recent attention has focused on her wealth; her multiple homes in Arlington, Arizona, and California (including two pricey condos by the beach in Coronado); and her salary—$6 million in 2006, according to tax records she released reluctantly last spring.
Unlike Michelle Obama, who headlines rallies and $1,000-a-ticket receptions and holds working women’s roundtable discussions, Cindy McCain has been a quieter presence on the trail.
Most people heard her voice for the first time in February when she appeared with her husband at a televised press conference to denounce a New York Times story suggesting the senator had an improper relationship with a female lobbyist. That same week, she chided Michelle Obama for saying she hadn’t been proud of her country before now. “I’m proud of my country,” Cindy McCain told an audience. It was an uncharacteristic jab from a woman who, stung by a smear campaign aimed at her and her adopted daughter when her husband ran for president in 2000, has tried to stay in the shadows and away from conflict.
It’s easy to envision McCain as a traditional First Lady—showing reporters the White House holiday decorations, wearing designer gowns as she plays hostess at state dinners—in the mold of Laura Bush.
Though McCain has called herself her husband’s best friend and closest adviser, her advice isn’t likely to involve public policy. She has said she has no intention of sitting in on Cabinet meetings, as Rosalynn Carter did, but would continue her involvement in humanitarian missions and would champion causes that have long been important to her, such as special education.
Bayless believes that as First Lady her longtime friend would be more outgoing and less reserved than she’s been on the campaign trail: “You’d see the real Cindy.”
Obama recently told Ebony magazine that her first priority in the White House would be to continue as “mom-in-chief,” making sure her girls know they’re still “the center of our universe.”
She has said there would be too many conflicts of interest for her to continue practicing law if she moves to the White House. Instead, those close to her say, she would take on issues related to women and families, such as work/family-life balance and concerns of military spouses.
Although Obama doesn’t shy away from talk of issues in her appearances, campaign officials say she’s not interested in a Hillarylike policymaking role. “She talks about policy as it relates to people’s everyday lives, from the kitchen-table perspective,” says Katie McCormick Lelyveld, her spokeswoman.
For all of their differences, Michelle Obama and Cindy McCain both suggest they’d want to be fairly typical First Ladies—hardly a surprise for two smart, cautious women who know that their every remark, gesture, even fashion accessory can become a headline.
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