Cindy McCain is sitting by the creek that runs through the McCains' ranch, under a sycamore tree that is equipped with a ceiling fan. The spread near Sedona, Ariz., has served as the family retreat for nearly a quarter-century, and right now, there's a lot to retreat from.
"Look," she says with a deep breath. "I understand what's at stake here and what I have to do. I've opened my life up. I'm not saying it's without frustration. I mean, I'm only human. I do the best I can. But there've been times I'd like to not answer." For the past 48 hours, stories have been breaking in great shuddering waves; one profile explores her beloved father's criminal record (he was a bootlegger before he was a fantastically successful beer distributor), which followed multiple accounts of her half sister's resentment of her and a furor over her husband's inability to account for how many houses they own. All this comes as she prepares to step out center stage in Minneapolis and help her husband woo the female voters who so far aren't on his team. "I'll show them what I'm about and hope for the best," she says with a serene, almost placid smile. "I believe in the good spirit of people, that they want to see the best in you and don't believe everything they read."
To watch her in her tailored suits, her hell on heels, you almost hear the assumptions snap into place. Google her name plus trophy wife, and you'll get something like 18,000 hits. Anyone tracking new lows in misogyny this year, who hated the treatment of Hillary and Michelle, should note that Cindy gets her share too, from sneers about Republican Barbie to the vicious dismissal of her as a product of a taxidermist.
So I understand how careful she is now, why her answers come out with all the edges sanded down. I ask her about her life and her role and what she hopes people take away from getting to know her better. "I'd like them to see the kind of relationship that my husband and I have," she says. "What I hope you'll hear from me is our commitment to continue putting our country first in every way." And it's hard to miss that the campaign's new slogan is embedded in her answer.
It's all the more striking when, practically midsentence, her tone and temperature totally change. We have seen Cindy McCain much more than we've heard her until now, and she has always benefited from the element of surprise. It's when she discusses her travels and work overseas that she sounds 20 years younger, eager and unscripted—a hint that, as First Lady, she would use the spotlight to advance her cause. Until very recently, she could just head off and do her thing, have a life far away from Washington intrigue: no cameras, no questions, with missions to Nicaragua, Kuwait, Vietnam, Afghanistan. This past Easter, she was touring minefields in Kosovo; she was in Rwanda in July and was about to fly to Georgia to meet with soldiers wounded in the Russian invasion and monitor refugee relief efforts. McCain adviser Nicolle Wallace previews the partnership the campaign will roll out in Minneapolis: "She's on the phone with the World Food Program; he's on the phone with [Georgian President Mikheil] Saakashvili," she says. "It was a great picture of what they'll be like in the White House."
Cindy started messing with people's expectations long before she had so much as glanced in the direction of John McCain or public life. The junior Rodeo Queen with the gold Mercedes graduated from USC (University of Spoiled Children, her husband likes to call it) with a master's in special education and proceeded to teach children with Down syndrome and other disabilities in one of Phoenix's poorer schools. When she met a dashing war hero at a cocktail party in Hawaii, she was 24 but said she was three years older; he said he was four years younger. The McCains learned the truth of their 17-year age difference only when they applied for their marriage license, and they were wed just over a month after his divorce was final.
Her adventures overseas began early in their marriage. They were on vacation with another couple in 1984 in Truk Lagoon, Micronesia, when their friend had a minor accident that required stitches at the local hospital. Cindy and John, meanwhile, got a tour of the facility. "I couldn't believe what I saw," Cindy says. "I was looking at rats in the OR. I was looking at raw sewage everywhere. There were no beds. There was an X-ray machine with no film. There was no power half the time. I was so astounded by it that when I left, I said to the hospital director, 'Let me see what I can dig up at home. I have some friends in the medical industry.' I started sending supplies to this little hospital, and it really kind of grew from there." She founded her own charity, American Voluntary Medical Team, in 1988.
After a string of miscarriages, the couple went on to have three children, and the experience of becoming a mother, Cindy says, propelled her deeper into her relief work. In 1991, when she was touring Mother Teresa's orphanage in Dhaka, Bangladesh, she met an infant with a cleft palate so severe, the nuns weren't able to feed her properly, and they feared she couldn't be saved. Cindy decided to take the baby home with her to get treatment and concluded during the long flight that the child would be joining their family. She informed her husband only when she landed.
This is a bit easier, of course, when you are the multimillionaire daughter of one of the nation's largest Anheuser-Busch distributors. But she had her trials too: there was a series of spinal surgeries for a ruptured disk, which occurred just as her husband was fighting off charges that he had misused his influence on behalf of a contributor in the Keating Five scandal. Eventually, she later admitted, she was taking as many as 15 pain pills a day, including drugs she'd stolen from her charity. She wrestled with addiction for several years; it was her parents, not her husband, who saw that she had a problem, and she quit cold turkey. When a federal probe into her charity's missing drugs meant the whole thing would become public, she finally told her husband.
I wondered whether she had kept her secret from him out of shame or pride or the determination to make sure everything went smoothly when he came home on the weekends. "No," she says. She's had to talk about this over the years, but she looks away, clearly wishing she could skip it this time. "It was about my mistaken understanding of my relationship with my husband. He is my best friend. And I didn't go to him, and I didn't talk to him when I should have. I thought I didn't need to bother him; he was very busy. That was the wrong thing to assume or do."