In 'Stronger,' Cindy McCain Reflects On Life With — And Without — Her Late Husband John McCain
Former President Donald Trump made his dislike for then-Arizona Sen. John McCain known on the presidential campaign trail in 2015.
Trump repeatedly put down the Republican party’s 2008 presidential nominee. Trump publicly excoriated the former prisoner of war’s military record and even resisted lowering the flags at the White House when John McCain died of brain cancer in 2018.
The late senator’s wife, Cindy McCain, wrote about this conflict with Trump in her new memoir, “Stronger: Courage, Hope, and Humor in My Life with John McCain.” Cindy McCain says she decided to write about Trump’s personal attacks because it upset her, especially when John McCain was sick, but her husband laughed off the former president’s unkind behavior.
Cindy McCain endorsed family friend Joe Biden in the 2020 election, but she still identifies as a Republican and believes in ideas such as small government.
“What I didn’t want was a continuation of this horrible incivility and this lack of dignity and lack of respect and empathy and all the things that have been exhibited,” she says. “I felt our country not only deserved better but could have better.”
If John McCain was still alive today, Cindy McCain predicts he would say that Biden is “on the right track” so far. And she plans to vote for Biden if he runs for office again in 2024.
For Cindy McCain, one fond moment in her husband’s career is John McCain’s concession speech after he lost the presidency to Barack Obama. Universities around the world teach the speech to show students an example of how to lose a democratic election, she says.
Presidential elections aren’t personal, but rather about the country, she says. Candidates can only give it their all and run the best campaign possible.
“There was always a 50% chance we’d lose,” she says. “And we didn’t have any regrets at all.”
In the book, Cindy McCain writes about Sarah Palin, John McCain’s running mate in the 2008 race.
Cindy McCain describes Palin as charming and delightful but also naive about national politics, noting that John McCain could have won if not for the former Alaska governor. But John McCain took responsibility for his loss, his wife says.
Palin wasn’t invited to John McCain’s funeral, and Cindy McCain says the decision was based on who spent time taking care of and loving her husband toward the end of his life.
“In the end, [John McCain] wanted folks that he loved and that he knew loved him with him,” she says.
The book also chronicles Cindy McCain’s battle with opioid addiction. Her addiction started when a doctor prescribed her opioids to help her cope with back pain from slipped discs and surgeries, she says.
Her doctor didn’t even consider that she had a problem until her parents confronted her and she quit cold turkey, she says.
“In those days, there was this push on women to do it all. You could work. You could be a great mom. You could have this fabulous house,” she says. “It was this push to be perfect and I fell into that.”
Cindy McCain hid her addiction from her husband until that point, too. She wanted to be seen as “the perfect wife,” she says, but her husband “could not have been better” to her during her recovery.
Being the wife of a famous politician, her addiction ended up on the front page of newspapers — something she warns can harm or kill an addict.
Living in the public eye forced Cindy McCain to overcome her shyness and grow to love big events with vast crowds, she says.
“The life that we had together in politics was bar none, the most exciting thing ever,” she says. “But also for me, it was about just really learning who I was.”
Three years after her husband’s death, Cindy McCain says her close group of friends and children have helped her keep busy and cope with the loss. She misses her husband’s humor the most, along with his tendency to bring home unannounced groups of friends and fellow influential politicians.
“I loved his energy, his spirit, his honor, the way he relished and loved this country,” she says. “He was just such a great father and a great friend to me, and a great husband to me as well.”
Emiko Tamagawa produced and edited this interview for broadcast with Jill Ryan. Allison Hagan adapted it for the web.
Book Excerpt: ‘Stronger’
By Cindy McCain
My husband, John McCain, never viewed himself as larger than life—but he was. He believed in fighting for the good and never quitting, and he had more tenacity and resolve than anybody I ever met. Knowing his iron will, I shouldn’t have been surprised when he announced one day in 2017 that he planned to attend a conference on international security in Lake Como, Italy.
John had been diagnosed with brain cancer just a few weeks earlier. A team of doctors had whisked him off for emergency surgery and removed a tumor the size of an egg. They told him that he couldn’t go to the conference. Flying was too dangerous. The change in air pressure could essentially cause his brain to explode.
But this was John McCain. He was going.
Our grown-up children begged me to convince him to stay home, but I knew I couldn’t change his mind. Over more than three decades of marriage, I had learned that John would do what he thought was right and important no matter what anyone said. I also couldn’t let him go alone. So a few weeks later, I got on the private plane with him, toting various medicines and emergency numbers in my carry-on bag. I stared at him intently as we took off.
“What are you looking at?” he asked.
“I’ve never seen a brain explode,” I said. “I’m wondering how much of a mess it will be.”
“Don’t worry. I packed the dustbuster,” John said, cracking the wry smile I knew so well.
People think that the main lessons I took from John were about honor, courage, and integrity. I did learn all that. But I also loved him for his humor, for the example he set on how to laugh even when the world doesn’t seem to be going your way. He believed in staying optimistic, taking action, and never wasting time on anger. When he lost his temper—which did happen—he was quick to apologize, make amends, and move on. Like John, I can accept a lot and stay stoic when necessary. But I know there comes a time to stand up for yourself, too.
John survived the trip, head and brain intact. He made a big impact at Lake Como, so I’m glad he went. With his military background and deep understanding of world events, he had the respect of world leaders who listened to his views. He knew that sharing his perspective was particularly important, now that a new administration had taken over in America that displayed only the most naïve views of international policy. He spoke to the gathered leaders about the importance of allies, about his hope that America, despite the tone its new president had set, would stay committed in the world, rise to the challenge, and remain a beacon for the basic values of equality on which the country was built.
John’s purposeful integrity was needed more than ever, but within a few months of that conference, his cancer progressed so much that his body was weakened and his brilliant, active career was forced to wind down. We retreated to our ranch in northern Arizona, which had always been our hideaway for peace and comfort, tucked amidst twenty acres of woods and creeks. John loved watching the hawks that soared overhead. He admired their beauty and majesty, and, pointing them out to visitors, he would describe them as his special companions. We wanted to fill his last months with the gentle sounds of birds and animals and rustling leaves.
I kept visitors to a minimum—just enough so that he could see people and still feel engaged but not be exploited. A lot of press wanted to know what was going on, and I heard that one tabloid show had offered $250,000 for a photo of him. Fake hikers with telephoto lenses made their way into our neighbor’s woods. Almost every day, I heard the buzzing of camera drones flying overhead.
During his thirty-one years in the Senate, John was widely known and admired, and I had gotten used to our very public life. I had the advantage of great adventures with him—trips to foreign countries, dinners at the White House, two runs for president, and the chance to make a difference in the world. But I had also suffered the downside of a public life, including personal assaults and vicious lies about my children. I tried to keep my dignity and not lower myself to the level of the attackers. Above all else, I saw my job as the protector of my family, and that included John. In his final days, the line between public and private wasn’t hard for me to draw. I told the caretaker that this was private property. If he saw drones, he could shoot them down.
We didn’t have to resort to that, and by August we knew the end was near. John’s closest friends and longtime advisers came to be with us, and most of the McCain children arrived except our son Jack, who was serving in the U.S. Navy, stationed in Afghanistan. On a summer’s afternoon, we all had lunch and listened to the music from John’s favorite Frank Sinatra playlist. Our doctor, who was also a neighbor and friend, came into the kitchen where I was clearing up lunch dishes and said to me, “Look, we’re close.”
I had been preparing for this moment for fourteen months—but you are never really prepared to lose the person you love. I ran to John’s bedroom and, in a burst of panicked energy, I suddenly knew where John would want to spend his final moments. I turned his hospital bed around and pushed it out onto the deck. As I did, the music from John’s playlist brought up the Frank Sinatra song “My Way” and the lyrics washed over us:
I’ve lived a life that’s full
I’ve traveled each and every highway
But more, much more than this,
I did it my way
Out on the grounds in front of us, one of the hawks flew across the house, then flew back and settled on a branch not far from the bedroom. I like to think that he and John exchanged a glance. Then with the sun shining, the hawk looking on, and “I did it my way” filling the air, John drew his final breath.
Excerpted from Stronger by Cindy McCain Copyright © 2021 by Cindy McCain. Excerpted by permission of Crown Forum. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
This article was originally published on WBUR.org.
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