Who Is John McCain?

It is little remembered today that the political career of John Sidney McCain III, a career now thoroughly laundered in mythology, began with the help of several fortuities. In 1973 he returned from his five and a half years of captivity in North Vietnam to Washington, or technically Arlington, Virginia, which had been his childhood home for more years than any other single place as he followed his father, a celebrated four-star admiral, on the elder McCain’s naval assignments. He was one of 591 prisoners of war repatriated early that year as a result of Operation Homecoming, and was selected by the editors of US News & World Report as the one returning POW who would be given a thirteen-page spread in the magazine to describe his ordeal (having a famous father never hurts), which brought him the same kind of attention and acclaim that had earlier, for different purposes, been showered upon the young Hillary Diane Rodham and the young John Forbes Kerry.

John McCain
John McCain; drawing by John Springs

By 1977 he held the post of naval liaison to Congress, his father’s old position, and shortly thereafter attained the rank of captain. It was on Capitol Hill that he met and befriended important senators—Gary Hart of Colorado, William Cohen of Maine, and most of all John Tower of Texas, the buddy to whom he was closest during a period of his life that included its share of carousing and irreparably strained his marriage to his first wife, Carol. When asked to explain the dissolution of their marriage in the late 1970s, she said, “I attribute it more to John turning forty and wanting to be twenty-five again than I do to anything else.”

But here was the first piece of luck, for his split from Carol enabled him to romance Cindy Hensley, an Arizonan seventeen years his junior whom he had met while vacationing in Honolulu in 1979 (he was separated) and with whom he was in love, he has written, by the end of their first evening together.

They married in May 1980, and from this union tumbled other fortuities. That she lived in Arizona meant that McCain would be moving to a state—with which he’d had even less association than Hillary Clinton had had with New York in 1999—whose growing population would gain it an extra congressional seat after the 1980 census, a circumstance on which his eye was keenly fixed. Her background—her father, Jim, ran the country’s largest Anheuser-Busch distributorship—meant he would have the money and connections to launch the political career he had been coveting since he started meeting those famous pols. McCain hardly knew a soul in Arizona, but already he was telling friends in 1981 that he would swoop into the new seat in 1982 and then succeed Barry Goldwater in the Senate when Goldwater retired.

Then, one piece of bad luck: the new district would be cut in Tucson, not Phoenix.…


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