ON SATURDAY, MAY 17, 1980, Cindy Lou Hensley married Navy Captain John McCain at the First United Methodist Church on Central Avenue in Phoenix, not far from the bride’s childhood home. After the ceremony, the wedding entourage headed nearly three miles east to the Arizona Biltmore resort, a sprawling gray oasis designed by a Frank Lloyd Wright protégé in the 1920s. Guests fêted the couple in the resort’s Aztec Room, an elegant, twelve-sided banquet hall with a vaulted, gold-leaf ceiling. The 25-year-old bride seemed impervious to the desert heat. She had flawless skin and wore a long-sleeved gown with a veil that extended to the floor.
The only crack in the day’s elegant veneer came from the groom. A photograph of the couple, taken against the backdrop of First United’s distinctive silver cross and stained-glass wall, shows him stuffed awkwardly into a black tuxedo, which rides high up front and hangs low in the rear. His nearly white hair slopes haphazardly off to the side, and his skin is splotchy and red.
A celebrated aviator and POW, McCain was then the Navy’s chief lobbyist to the U.S. Senate. Two of his groomsmen were friends he’d acquired on the job--the young Maine Senator Bill Cohen and Senator Gary Hart of Colorado. It was the type of rarefied company that would normally have turned heads at a provincial wedding. But, over the course of the day, it gradually dawned on Cohen that the bride’s family was the main attraction. Cindy’s father, Jim, was one of the most successful businessmen in the state--the owner of its largest Anheuser-Busch distributorship. The wedding of his daughter was a bona fide social event. “The Hensley family was very prominent,” Cohen recently told me. “Having Gary and I there--it may have impressed a few people, but it didn’t make an impact. . . . We were walk-ons.”
There was, as it happens, one small incident that hinted at this dynamic. At the climax of the wedding ceremony, with everyone looking on, the pastor prepared to present the new couple: “I now pronounce you Mr. and Mrs. . . .”--at which point there was an awkward pause. “He stopped, he obviously didn’t remember,” recalls David Frazer, who was then Jim Hensley’s corporate lawyer. Finally, mercifully, someone from the wedding party interjected: “John McCain.”
As Cindy McCain faithfully shadows her husband in his quest for the presidency, it’s hard to imagine that she was once the senior member of their partnership. Looking back, McCain’s steady march from admiral’s son to war hero to White House contender seems almost preordained--certainly unrelated to the brittle blond cipher at his side. Cindy brings to mind the political wives of yore--a perpetually demure and deferential presence. All the more so in an age of Elizabeth Edwards and Michelle Obama.
But the reality behind this political creation myth is far more complex. McCain was a relative nobody when he married Cindy Hensley--a middle-aged divorcé working a mid-level job in a far-off bureaucracy. It was the Hensleys who would breathe life into his prospects and provide a springboard for his ascent. Their ambitions burned every bit as brightly as his did. Except that, unlike McCain, they’d long since hidden their motives from public view.
Cindy Hensley was raised to think of herself as a member of the Phoenix elect. Her father Jim was the Phoenix area’s exclusive distributor of Anheuser-Busch products like Budweiser, and, while she was in elementary school, he moved the family into a cavernous ranch-style house on Central Avenue. It had an enormous circular driveway and a fiberglass Clydesdale out front. Cindy’s bedroom boasted a plush circular bed.
Cindy’s mother, Marguerite “Smitty” Hensley, was a stern disciplinarian, but Jim showered his daughter with gifts. Jim and Cindy shared an interest in high-performance cars, and Jim would often take the family to the Indianapolis 500. In high school, Cindy drove a pink Jeep with a license plate that read MS BUD.
The University of Southern California was a conservative place in those days, and Cindy fit in seamlessly upon arriving there. During her freshman year, she joined Kappa Alpha Theta, a kind of finishing school for aspiring matrons. The sorority didn’t allow alcohol in its house or men above the first floor unannounced. The “Theta Ladies,” as they were known, even applied these rules to their fathers. If a proud papa showed up to help move his daughter in, he’d have to yell “man on the floor” before walking upstairs.
Cindy was an education major and took her studies seriously, perhaps only slightly less seriously than she took her consumption habits. “She loved to go shopping. If she would buy one thing, she would buy five,” says one friend. Around the Theta House, Cindy was regarded as dutiful and good-natured, if somewhat withdrawn. “She was more on the reserved side,” says Betsy McKibbin, who knew Cindy from their pledge class. “She was never one of these outgoing, gregarious people.” Another classmate sighs: “As much time as I spent in her room--or she in my room--watching TV, talking about boys, I never felt close to her.”
The Hensleys remained an active presence in their daughter’s life well into adulthood. Jim and Smitty would materialize several times a year to treat Cindy and some classmates to dinner. “They were always just very generous with Cindy’s friends,” says Brad McCroskey, who dated (and later married) one of Cindy’s sorority sisters. Sometimes the Hensleys would spirit Cindy and a girlfriend out of town for the weekend--to the annual USC–Notre Dame game or on a short holiday. One year, Cindy’s parents threw her a lavish birthday party at the Beverly Wilshire in Beverly Hills. Many of her sorority sisters attended, as did a healthy contingent of family friends. The Hensleys bedded down in the presidential suite.
Romantic affairs were not outside the Hensleys’ purview. Cindy was, in fact, in regular contact with her parents about prospective love interests. Early in college, a date had tried to hold her hand and kiss her, steps she wasn’t yet keen on taking. After making arrangements for another outing, she had second thoughts and enlisted her father to bail her out. Jim told her to inform the young man she had a family engagement.
By the following year, Cindy had developed a serious relationship with a classmate named Kerry McCluggage. McCluggage was a catch by any conventional measure: smart, ambitious, strikingly handsome. He would ascend to the presidency of his fraternity, win admission to Harvard Business School, and head Universal’s television studios in his thirties. But McCluggage came up short on the one metric he couldn’t control: his pedigree. He was the rare USC student putting himself through school. Friends of Cindy say the Hensleys were concerned about his family’s financial situation and asked their daughter to end the relationship.
Cindy was by all accounts taken with McCluggage. They had dated steadily for over three years and at one point were even “pinned.” (That is, Cindy wore McCluggage’s fraternity pin as a symbol of their commitment.) But Cindy appeared to accept her parents’ judgment. For all their wealth, the Hensleys were still striving to secure their place in Phoenix society. The source of their fortune was liquor, after all--not the most genteel business under any circumstances, especially so in Jim Hensley’s case.
Cindy dutifully internalized her family’s priorities. One night, she and two roommates were sitting in the Theta House flipping through an issue of Cosmo. They stumbled onto one of the magazine’s trademark quizzes and, on a lark, decided to take it. The quiz claimed it could divine why a woman would get married. According to the results, the first roommate would marry for love. The second for money. And Cindy? “Cindy,” recalls Nani Bush, one of the roommates, “would marry for prestige.”
In 1975, during Cindy Hensley’s junior year of college, John McCain took command of a squadron in Jacksonville, Florida, called VA-174, which trained pilots to fly A-7 jets. McCain was a well-known figure in the area even before he’d issued his first order. His wife, Carol, had been active in the POW movement during his nearly six-year captivity in Vietnam. “We all knew about John McCain,” recalls Carl Smith, a friend and fellow Navy officer who worked on the base. “He had a certain celebrity status.”
One upshot of this status was that McCain was soon in demand as a speaker at community events. Some of the local elders--retired military types, business leaders, Republican activists--began encouraging him to run for Congress. Before long, the Democratic establishment was treating him like a bona fide opponent. While speaking at his own son’s high school graduation, McCain looked up and recognized a couple of Democratic operatives. He jokingly welcomed them to the ceremony.
McCain briefly toyed with a congressional run in Jacksonville, but the sheer impracticality of the idea overwhelmed him. As a lifelong Navy man, he’d never lived in any place long enough to put down roots. Worse, he had zero political experience and little personal wealth--significant liabilities under the best conditions; debilitating in a Democratic town like Jacksonville. In any case, McCain’s superiors had deemed his tenure at VA-174 a success--the base had won a Meritorious Unit Citation after years of maintenance problems and accidents--and asked him to help run the Navy’s Senate liaison office. McCain was intrigued by the idea of working on Capitol Hill, where he arrived in 1977. “At the time, he was still very focused on making the Navy his career,” says Smith. “But the seed had been planted.”
Under McCain, the liaison office enjoyed one of its few truly influential periods. In one well-chronicled episode, McCain and a deputy worked behind the scenes to save an aircraft carrier whose funding Jimmy Carter opposed. The source of McCain’s influence was his charisma and personal magnetism. He quickly befriended Senate elder statesmen like John Tower, the senior Republican on the Armed Services Committee, along with a younger cohort of senators like Hart and Cohen.
Over time, McCain began to think of a political career as not just a possibility but as something akin to his destiny. He’d survived a near-fatal accident in flight school, a fire aboard an aircraft carrier early in Vietnam, then his lengthy POW captivity. He had a hard time believing he’d been spared death so he could push papers around a drab office. As McCain’s son Doug reflected to The New York Times in 2000, his father “sensed that life held something bigger for him.” Cohen recalls that, several months into their friendship, McCain was talking seriously about running for Congress. “He told me he was thinking of this. I said ‘Well, that’s a good idea. You’re a natural politician. You like people. You’re funny. Light-hearted. Substantive. It’s a great combination. And you’ve got quite a story to tell.’ ”
But the old problems remained. McCain had no home base, no roots, and little cash to speak of. He knew next to nothing about running a political campaign. His personal life was more hindrance than help. His wife Carol had been a model in her youth. She was tall and elegant when he shipped off to war. The woman he came back to had put on weight and lost several inches to multiple operations following a car crash. In McCain’s mind, they’d grown apart since his repatriation, but he still felt a duty to support her and their three kids. If McCain was going to fulfill his destiny, he’d have to start over.
In 1943, a bomber pilot named Jim Hensley was looking for his own fresh start. Hensley had been shot down near the North Sea in his B-17 and was convalescing in West Virginia. The 23-year-old veteran’s prospects seemed grim: He’d been born in 1920 to a hard-up family in the South, where he lived until his alcoholic father relocated to Arizona. Hensley had worked as a low-level paper salesman after high school in Phoenix. He had a wife, Mary Jeanne, to support and a newborn daughter, Kathleen, who, according to family lore, took her first breaths as he was bailing from his plane and contemplating his last.
While recovering, Hensley met a young woman named Marguerite Smith--Smitty, he called her. The two hit it off so brilliantly they would soon marry, though Hensley wouldn’t inform Mary Jeanne until shortly before the wedding. Around the same time, the family story goes, Hensley’s brother Gene showed up in West Virginia with a fancy sports car. It was the fruit of his work for an Arizona liquor baron named Kemper Marley, and Gene wanted his brother to have it. He also wanted Jim to join him at Marley’s operation, which Jim did upon returning to Arizona with Smitty.
If Hensley’s fortunes improved dramatically after World War II, so did those of his hometown. Phoenix had been a military hub during the conflict, and veterans suddenly flocked to it, full of romantic notions of reinvention. But, even as the city rapidly expanded (by 1960, the population reached 400,000, up from about 60,000 two decades earlier), it never quite outgrew its frontier mentality. As the journalist Michael Wendland observed, a diner could walk into a fancy restaurant on Saturday night and still see men wearing gun holsters on their belts.
Organized crime was a relatively benign presence in Arizona in those days. Not just because Phoenix attracted such an enlightened breed of gangster, though that was part of it, but because there was more than enough action for every wise guy around. The state’s commercial class had settled on a tentative understanding, according to local historian Dave Wagner: Crime bosses ran the gambling, prostitution, and liquor industries but freely interacted with more reputable merchants. The most prominent Phoenix underworld figure of the era, a gangster named Gus Greenbaum, mixed with a collection of prominent businessmen at the local Jewish country club.
Greenbaum was friends with Bugsy Siegel and had ties to Al Capone. Among other enterprises, he owned a bookie wire service, which he deputized Kemper Marley to run in the late ’40s. Born to an old Arizona ranching clan in 1906, Marley would expand the family holdings into real estate and bottling. After the repeal of Prohibition, he jumped headlong into the liquor business with two wholesale outlets, United Sales Company in Phoenix and United Distributors in Tucson. But the government heavily regulated the price and quantity of liquor Marley could sell, prompting him to embrace the black market. This put Jim, who managed United Distributors, and Gene, who held the same position at United Sales, in regular contact with unsavory characters.
On March 10, 1948, the two brothers and an associate went on trial in Federal District Court in Phoenix. Prosecutors accused the defendants of conspiring to conceal the details of their transactions by falsifying federal forms some 1,284 times between 1945 and 1947. They believed the Hensleys were selling larger-than-permissible amounts at higher-than-permissible prices--in a word, bootlegging.
The feds demonstrated that the Hensleys went to elaborate, if sometimes crude, lengths to hide their illicit sales. A former United Distributors office manager named J.F. Ratliff testified that he noticed dozens of cases of whiskey missing when he showed up for work one morning. “I thought we had been robbed,” Ratliff told the court, until he found a pile of phony invoices on his desk in Jim Hensley’s handwriting.
The jury found Jim guilty of seven counts of making false entries, and Gene of 23 counts. It also convicted both men of the conspiracy charge. The court sentenced Gene to one year in federal prison and Jim to six months and fined both men $2,000. (An appeals court eventually suspended Jim’s sentence and sent Gene to a prison camp but affirmed the convictions.)
Hensley continued working for Marley’s liquor interests for several years after his conviction--long enough, in fact, to earn another indictment in 1953. (The court dismissed his portion of the case.) The previous year, he and Gene had bought a racetrack in Ruidoso, New Mexico, along with a Phoenix gambler named Teak Baldwin. Baldwin was a known criminal, and the New Mexico authorities were concerned enough about his possible involvement to investigate. By 1955, the investigation had triggered a statewide scandal. Fortunately for Jim, he’d sold his stake in the track a few months earlier. It was, perhaps not coincidentally, less than a year after the birth of his second daughter, Cindy.
According to the official founding myth, Jim launched his own beer distributorship, Hensley & Company, in 1955, with the help of a $10,000 loan. (Unaccounted for is how a cash-strapped ex-convict would have secured the exclusive right to distribute Budweiser in Phoenix.) The distributorship became Hensley’s first step in a long march to respectability. He spent inhuman hours on the warehouse floor, personally getting to know his foremen and stock boys. He mixed endlessly with local retailers and doled out Budweiser paraphernalia with missionary zeal. When strangers asked him what he did for a living, Jim would say, with a mix of pride and understatement, that he was just “a salesman.”
One day in 1955, a notorious shake-down artist named Willie Bioff died in a grisly car bombing. The crime would launch Phoenix into a 20-year period of brutal violence, which eventually implicated Hensley’s old associate Marley. But Hensley spent the intervening years running in the opposite direction. David Frazer, Hensley’s former lawyer, knew Marley by way of another client. By the time Frazer began working with Hensley & Company in the ’70s, Hensley was mostly keeping his distance from his former boss. “To my knowledge, they had no friendship at the time I was involved,” Frazer told me. “I doubt very much that they kept in touch. I know there was no business relationship.”
Hensley--slowly, gradually--even began raising his profile in the community. In the 1970s, for example, he helped a doctor friend named John Ginn set up a local hospital. And, yet, Hensley could never quite break into the Phoenix establishment. Once a month, a group of local businessmen and community leaders would meet for lunch and talk shop--they called themselves the Phoenix 40. By the late ’70s, most of the Phoenix 40 would have heard of Hensley, even respected him. But they didn’t know him personally or socialize with him.
Instead, the Hensleys entrusted their social ambitions to Cindy, who rarely let them down. She won the title of Junior Rodeo Queen in Arizona at age 14. Her senior yearbook identifies her as “best-dressed.”
Whether it was status anxiety or other demons, Jim Hensley sometimes seemed like a haunted man. His son-in-law Stan Portalski had been trained as a counselor. Every now and then, Jim would phone him late at night after a few drinks. “He’d want to talk for an hour or whatever,” Portalski says. “He was a lonely guy.”
In April of 1979 , John McCain stopped over in Honolulu, Hawaii with a congressional delegation en route to China. It was a prominent group, several senators included, and the commander-in-chief of U.S. forces in the Pacific threw a reception in its honor. While there, McCain, who was then 42, spotted a 24-year-old Cindy Hensley across the room. The Hensleys were on vacation in Hawaii, and Jim had made the guest list. As the now-familiar story goes, McCain darted over to Cindy the second he laid eyes on her.
McCain has written that he “monopolized” his future wife for the entire evening, “taking care to prevent anyone else from intruding on our conversation.” It’s an account echoed by Pete Lakeland, then a McCain buddy and Senate Foreign Relations Committee staffer. Lakeland says he’d shown up with McCain only to be abandoned the second he turned his back. Roughly an hour later, after several futile attempts at eye contact, Lakeland walked over and asked McCain if he was leaving. “Oh, Peter, I want you to meet Cindy Hensley. We’re going to go out to dinner. You wouldn’t want to go with us, would you?’ ” McCain said. Lakeland took the hint.
McCain was still married at this point and living with Carol in Alexandria, Virginia, but he has said that the two were estranged. The new couple spent the next several months in regular contact. Cindy was teaching special education at a high school just outside Phoenix, and McCain would frequently visit. According to a former colleague at the school, she once arranged to have him lecture the students and faculty about his Vietnam experience. Other weekends, Cindy would visit McCain in Washington, where the relationship became well-known among friends. The two would marry in May, only a month after McCain finalized his divorce.
As smitten as McCain may have been, Cindy was even more so. “She wrote to me all the time about him,” says Nani Bush, who was in Cindy’s wedding. “She liked the fact that he was an older man, a father figure. I remember that.” McCain not only provided a stand-in for her sometimes distant father but also met with his approval. Jim Hensley loved the idea that his son-in-law was a war hero and fellow pilot. It flattered him to know that the descendant of a line of famous admirals was now part of the family.
The couple spent their first several months of married life living in Alexandria, but it was clear they’d be moving to Arizona when McCain’s assignment ended. “John probably could have gone [to Florida], run there as well,” says Cohen. “But, once he got married, it resolved itself. He’s got family ties that go pretty deep in Arizona.” Lakeland favors a more romantic interpretation: To McCain, Florida symbolized the past. It was the life he associated with his captivity in Vietnam, and which he was eager to leave behind. “He went off to Arizona for a fresh start in life,” Lakeland says.
John and Cindy McCain moved to Phoenix in early 1981. Outside his new family, Captain McCain could count the number of Arizonans he knew on one hand and still have enough fingers left for a salute. But, while in Washington, McCain had prevailed upon a political consultant named Jay Smith to take up his cause. Smith’s plan for getting McCain known was to leverage the Hensleys’ contacts into meetings with as many prominent Arizonans as possible. “His pitch was: ‘Hi, I’m John McCain. I’m new to the state, but I live here now. My wife is Cindy Hensley. I’d like the opportunity to come by and meet you,’ ” Smith says. Oftentimes Cindy would set up the meetings herself. The hope was that these people would open still more doors, until McCain commanded a formidable network of local muckety-mucks.
To kick the process off, Jim Hensley threw his son-in-law a welcome party and installed him as his vice president of public relations. McCain would later concede he “fit the bill” of the “upwardly mobile boss’s son-in-law, who obviously lacks the experience and training typically required for the job he holds.” He spent the next several months turning up at meetings of local business and civic organizations, many of which he would address as he had in Jacksonville years earlier.
The following January, John Rhodes, the iconic Phoenix representative, decided to retire. The looming primary would determine his successor in such a heavily Republican district, and it attracted two veteran pols in a matter of weeks. But it was McCain who arguably moved the quickest. Within minutes of the announcement, Cindy had found a modest two-story house in a subdivision called The Lakes. The house was in Tempe, just east of Phoenix, and officially made McCain a resident of Rhodes’s district.
McCain continued to court influential patrons--people like Charles Keating, the savings-and-loan tycoon (who would one day embroil him in scandal) and Darrow “Duke” Tully, the powerful publisher of The Arizona Republic. One lesser-known, but equally important, eminence was a wealthy car dealer named Lou Grubb. Back in the early ’60s, Grubb had launched a series of commercials in which he would relate vignettes about his wife and kids and generally opine on the important things in life. By the 1970s, he was such a reassuring presence amid all the dizzying change that a group of Republican bigwigs--including Barry Goldwater--drafted him to run for governor. (Grubb politely declined.)
“We had a visit in my office at my dealership one day,” Grubb recently told me. “John was dressed in his Navy whites. He had his father-in-law with him.” Grubb was unfamiliar with McCain, but he knew Jim Hensley by reputation and was pleased by his presence. At the end of the meeting, Grubb was sufficiently impressed that he allowed McCain to name him as a supporter. “It was important,” says McCain’s campaign manager, Jerry Brooks. “I kind of remember going to editorial boards. . . . And we would always mention that Lou Grubb was with us.”
Cindy continued to contribute. Every Monday, Brooks held a meeting to discuss tactics with his top brass: Where should the candidate spend his time? What neighborhoods should the volunteers walk? Sometimes McCain made it, sometimes not. But Cindy almost always showed. When there was something she felt Hensley & Company could assist with, she’d pipe up and instruct Brooks to “call Delgado”--that is, Bob Delgado, one of her father’s lieutenants.
The effort could be all-consuming, and Cindy’s involvement was sometimes excessive. “Once in a while, I’d have something laid out that week and she didn’t want to do it, we’d have to talk about it for a while,” Brooks allows. For example, Cindy would complain that the campaign had spent too much time walking one district and suggest another. “I’d say, ‘Cindy, we’ll have to talk to Jay [Smith] about that,’ ” Brooks recalls, which usually did the trick.
Of course, Cindy had every right to weigh in. Although Jim Hensley rarely splurged on himself, shopping for socks at Sears and frequenting a local restaurant chain called Black Angus, he could be exceptionally generous with family. Now that he had a son-in-law on the brink of political office, he was not one to skimp. All told, McCain raised about $313,000 for the primary campaign, according to his biographer Robert Timberg. About $170,000 of that came from personal loans. The same year, the couple reportedly received more than $750,000 from Hensley-controlled ventures. (McCain’s Navy pension contributed an additional $31,000 to the household’s finances.)
McCain amplified this financial advantage with plain old initiative. Mark Killian, who was then running for the legislature in an overlapping district, says the candidate spent several hours a day, six days a week, just knocking on doors. (He would have done it a seventh if not for the area’s large Mormon population.) When McCain returned to his campaign headquarters each night, he’d personally dictate a letter to every voter he’d met, highlighting whatever issue had come up.
But, work ethic aside, the campaign was fundamentally about pairing the McCain narrative with the Hensley apparatus. It took a distinct turn after McCain aired his first TV ad (see video below). Actually, to call the production an “ad” doesn’t do it justice. It was more like a mini-documentary, stretching some two minutes in length. The first half builds chronologically to McCain’s POW experience. We see footage of McCain descending haltingly from an Air Force transport plane after touching down in the United States. “I certainly don’t recommend the treatment,” he says over the video. “But, at the same time, I’ve certainly become a better and enriched person for having had the experience in a myriad of ways.” The ad closes with McCain driving along a desert highway, reflecting on his adopted home. “I can tell you, if you go for six years without being able to see the sunset or the sunrise, like I did, you can truly appreciate the beauty of what we have.” Jim Mack, one of McCain’s opponents, thought it was hands down the best commercial he’d seen. “Mine were just photographs, they weren’t active moving pictures,” he told me.
On primary night, the principals privately awaited the results in an RV parked behind McCain headquarters. Among those in attendance was Duke Tully, The Arizona Republic publisher. Tully had taken such a shine to the Navy man that, a few weeks earlier, he’d prevailed on the paper’s editorial board to endorse him despite a longstanding policy of neutrality in primaries.
Midway through the evening, the steady flow of results abruptly ended owing to a to a glitch in the counting. This led to an hour or so of forced smiles and nervous joke-telling. But, once the march of data resumed, McCain took an insurmountable lead. He would win the primary and become a representative-in-waiting. The photograph in the Republic shows McCain looking relieved and a little shell-shocked. Cindy is smiling broadly and pressing McCain’s daughter’s face to her own, an embrace of pure joy.
TNR Exclusive: McCain's 1982 Campaign Ad
A few months later, Jim Hensley traveled to Washington for his son-in-law’s swearing in and for the reception that followed. Pete Lakeland remembers feeling buoyant as he worked his way through the receiving line. He first congratulated McCain, then turned to Cindy and her father. “Sir, you don’t know how lucky you are that John could walk faster than I could, or you might have ended up with me as a son-in-law,” Lakeland said. Cindy shrieked with delight. But Jim couldn’t appreciate the joke. He just stared skeptically at McCain’s nebbishy former colleague.
Back in February of the previous year, as McCain was formulating his plans to run for office, he and Cindy sat down for dinner at the Biltmore with Bill Shover, Tully’s right-hand man at the Republic, and his wife. McCain expounded on his political ambitions for the better part of an hour. Toward the end of the discussion, Shover noticed that Cindy hadn’t uttered a word. “Cindy, don’t you have something you want to say?” Shover asked. This elicited a few incomprehensible grunts, at which point McCain stepped in. “Cindy had oral surgery today, and she’s in a lot of pain. She can’t talk because she had her jaws wired.” Shover was aghast. “My God, why didn’t you wait till she got better?” he asked. “Because I wanted to get to know you,” McCain said. Cindy just looked on silently.
In retrospect, the dinner stands out a subtle omen. After that first pivotal race, McCain’s star would rise faster than he or Jim Hensley could have expected. But Cindy seemed to lose her voice. She almost instantly found Washington oppressive and moved back to Arizona one year into McCain’s first term. Once there, she built a largely separate life--her own support network, her own form of service (charities that clear land mines and repair cleft palates for children). And, of course, there is her well-documented addiction to prescription painkillers in the early ’90s. According to those reports, it was her parents who finally noticed something amiss. McCain has said he was oblivious. (The McCain campaign did not respond to multiple interview requests.)
These days, the Cindy who accompanies her husband on the stump is still largely mute. Profiles describe her as deeply ambivalent about McCain’s run for president, and she gives the impression of dutiful--rather than enthusiastic--participation. With the exception of her poorly received jab at Michelle Obama’s patriotism, she’s hardly registered in the political conversation.
One evening in early August, I met Cindy’s half-sister Kathleen Portalski at her home in a middle-class neighborhood of Phoenix. Kathy is an attractive older woman with sad green eyes and long blond hair, which she was wearing in a ponytail. Her husband, Stan, answered the door and led me into a cluttered living room. A Budweiser clock flanked the doorway.
Before Jim died in 2000, he’d repeatedly indicated that Kathy and the family would be taken care of. But, when the time finally came to sort out his will, the Portalskis ended up with a mere $10,000. Still, Kathy herself seemed less angry than hurt. What she seemed to want most of all, even at 65, was a dad.
Kathy’s lasting impression of Jim was his emotional distance: Her earliest memories of her father involve the two of them at a bar. “He didn’t know how to talk to little girls,” she told me. As a child, she looked forward to shopping for school clothes with her father every year. But, by adolescence, he simply outfitted her with a charge card--one of the first in Phoenix--and sent her off on her own. At several points in the conversation, she looked at no one in particular, slowly shook her head from side to side, and said, “It was very disappointing to have a father like that.”
Kathy explained that she had always been more expressive than her sister. The difference was largely a function of Smitty, who tended to Cindy’s manners and instilled an ethos of stiff-upper-lip-ness. Kathy recalls sitting with Cindy in the Hensley living room after their grandmother’s funeral in the 1970s, at which point she began to cry. Cindy was barely an adult, but was offended by the outburst. “Oh, pull yourself together,” she chided her sister repeatedly.
As Kathy talked, it became clear that Cindy’s childhood had instilled a particular lesson: If she put on a perpetually good face, she’d eventually be rewarded. And, for a while, it looked like that bargain had held. John McCain seemed to be a reward ten times over. By marrying him, Cindy was pleasing one father and getting another. Except it didn’t quite work out that way.
Years later, at Jim Hensley’s funeral, friends and family members would see John McCain choke up while reciting a Robert Louis Stevenson poem in honor of his father-in-law. “Here he lies where he longed to be; / Home is the sailor, home from sea, / And the hunter home from the hill.” In her own remarks, Cindy poignantly recalled how her father had sent her to school and to Europe and pronounced him her friend. But she shed no tears, at least not for public consumption. As with so many times in the past, she’d somehow managed to pull herself together.
Noam Scheiber is a senior editor of The New Republic.
This article originally ran in the September 10, 2008, issue of the magazine.