The First Mrs. McCain

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When you run for president, it all comes out

After her first series of life-saving operations, Carol was told she may never walk again, but when doctors said they would try to get word to McCain about her injuries, she refused, insisting: ‘He’s got enough problems, I don’t want to tell him.’

H. Ross Perot, a billionaire Texas businessman, future presidential candidate and advocate of prisoners of war, paid for her medical care.

When McCain – his hair turned prematurely white and his body reduced to little more than a skeleton – was released in March 1973, he told reporters he was overjoyed to see Carol again.

But friends say privately he was ‘appalled’ by the change in her appearance. At first, though, he was kind, assuring her: ‘I don’t look so good myself. It’s fine.’

He bought her a bungalow near the sea in Florida and another former PoW helped him to build a railing so she could pull herself over the dunes to the water.

‘I thought, of course, we would live happily ever after,’ says Carol. But as a war hero, McCain was moving in ever-more elevated circles.

Through Ross Perot, he met Ronald Reagan, then Governor of California. A sympathetic Nancy Reagan took Carol under her wing.

But already the McCains’ marriage had begun to fray. ‘John started carousing and running around with women,’ said Robert Timberg.

McCain has acknowledged that he had girlfriends during this time, without going into details. Some friends blame his dissatisfaction with Carol, but others give some credence to her theory of a mid-life crisis.

He was also fiercely ambitious, but it was clear he would never become an admiral like his illustrious father and grandfather and his thoughts were turning to politics.

In 1979 – while still married to Carol – he met Cindy at a cocktail party in Hawaii. Over the next six months he pursued her, flying around the country to see her. Then he began to push to end his marriage.

Carol and her children were devastated. ‘It was a complete surprise,’ says Nancy Reynolds, a former Reagan aide.

‘They never displayed any difficulties between themselves. I know the Reagans were quite shocked because they loved and respected both Carol and John.’

Another friend added: ‘Carol didn’t fight him. She felt her infirmity made her an impediment to him. She justified his actions because of all he had gone through. She used to say, “He just wants to make up for lost time.”’

I guess that's where the pattern of Sen. McCain waving around his imprisonment in Vietnam as a trump card started.