Kaila White Arizona Republic
Published 1:54 p.m. UTC Aug 26, 2018
U.S. Sen. John McCain had a long and storied public political career, but he was also a father to seven children who is fiercely protective of his family’s privacy.
On Friday, it was his family who announced that Arizona’s senior senator would discontinue medical treatment for glioblastoma, a deadly form of brain cancer.
McCain died Saturday at age 81.
“Our family is immensely grateful for the support and kindness of all his caregivers over the last year, and for the continuing outpouring of concern and affection,” the statement read in part.
McCain’s children, all adults now, are from two marriages. More than three decades span between the oldest and the youngest.
Throughout his political career, interviews with the McCains have characterized John as the silly one with his kids.
“The more he teases you, the more he loves you,” Cindy told People magazine in 2008.
In multiple interviews, he has emphasized his family’s independence and privacy.
“I think he’d prefer the family kind of stayed private,” McCain’s oldest child, Doug McCain, told the New York Times in 2007. “I just think he is a big believer in individuals doing their own thing.”
John McCain’s first marriage, in Florida
In 1965, while McCain was still in the U.S. Navy, he married model Carol Shepp in Philadelphia. He adopted her two school-age sons from a previous marriage, Doug and Andrew, and in 1966 they had a daughter, Sidney.
Just a year later, as the McCains were building their new family in Florida, he was pulled away, sent as a bomber pilot on an aircraft carrier to fight in the Vietnam War.
He was shot down over Vietnam on Oct. 26, 1967, captured and kept away from his life, his country and his family for almost six years.
When he returned in 1973, his daughter didn’t remember him.
“I remember my dad just squeezing me and not wanting to let me go,” Sidney told the New York Times in 2007. “It was very overwhelming at the time.”
McCain stepped back into his role as a father by fostering both discipline and independence.
“We didn’t have a problem knowing who was in charge. If you wanted to deviate from expected policy and he said no, he never felt an obligation to give you a reason,” Andrew told the Times.
“I kind of figured out pretty quick in high school if you make good grades and play sports and were willing to follow a few basic rules you can pretty much do what you want,” Doug said.
Despite their efforts, John and Carol’s marriage suffered and they eventually separated.
“I was responsible for the break-up of my first marriage, due to my immature and very bad behavior,” McCain later told Larry King during a 2002 interview.
“She is wonderful — Carol McCain is a wonderful person, and we are really good friends. And we have three wonderful children.”
A second chapter in Arizona
In 1979, while he was attending a military reception in Hawaii, John met a glamorous former cheerleader, Cindy Hensley.
Hensley was an heiress to a Phoenix beer distributorship and 17 years younger than John, though neither knew it at the time.
“Schmaltzy as it sounds, it was love at first sight, and so we started dating,” McCain told King.
Less than a year after John and Cindy met, he sought to divorce Carol. A month after their marriage was dissolved, he married Cindy in Phoenix in 1980. None of his children attended the wedding.
“It was very, very difficult,” his son Andrew told the New York Times in 2007.
John was elected to the House of Representatives in 1982 and won his bid to become a U.S. senator in 1986.
During that time, Cindy and John started a family of their own with the birth of their daughter Meghan in 1984 and, shortly after, sons John Sidney McCain IV, known as Jack, and James, who goes by Jimmy.
In many interviews, Cindy has described a 1991 humanitarian trip to Bangladesh, where nuns asked her to help a newborn orphan with a cleft palate. Without asking John, she brought the girl home to Phoenix. They adopted her as their final child, Bridget.
Even though he would be away in Washington D.C., during the week, the couple decided to raise their children in Cindy’s childhood home in central Phoenix, anchoring their family in Arizona.
“We wanted them to have a well-rounded life, and we gave them that out West,” Cindy told People.
John and Cindy make disciplined parents
John has often credited Cindy with raising their children while his career kept him away.
“My mother was the one doing the heavy lifting of child rearing,” Jack told The Arizona Republic in January.
She was the enforcer, ensuring that the kids watched TV only on weekends and received allowances if their “chore chart” was completed, according to a 2008 People magazine profile.
“If the kids wanted a big-ticket item, they had to come to me and defend why they needed it,” Cindy told People.
“She was very much a mother — she always relished that designation,” Cindy’s friend and a former county supervisor and secretary of state Betsey Bayless told the New Yorker in 2008. “She was always driving her carpool, up and down Central Avenue. She really maintained the home fire.”
Jack said that although his dad was away, John McCain was still a constant presence in the home, ensuring the kids were focused on school.
“I always knew, even from a very young age, the level of effort that he was going to to make it home almost every weekend,” Jack said.
Growing up in Arizona was a gift their father gave them, Jack said.
“By the time I was 14, I was able to put a backpack on and go hike into the Arizona wilderness for a couple of days at a time and have no problem,” he said.
“He was having us live very much the same way he lived himself. So, fierce self-reliance, fierce independence, the appreciation for nature, an appreciation for the poetry life.”
A premium on privacy
McCain told the New York Times in 2007 that his desire to deflect attention from his family was “intentional.”
“I just feel it’s inappropriate for us to mention our children. I don’t want people to feel that, it’s just, I’d like them to have their own lives. I wouldn’t want to seem like I’m trying to gain some kind of advantage. I just feel that it’s a private thing,” he said.
In that sense, the family has been burned before. In 2000, when Bridget was 9, she was the victim of a smear campaign against her father, who was then fighting George W. Bush for the presidential nomination.
After McCain won the New Hampshire primary, people in South Carolina received phone calls asking, ”Would you be more or less likely to vote for John McCain if you knew he had fathered an illegitimate black child?”
Shortly after losing the election, McCain said, “We tried to ignore it and I think we shielded her from it.
“A lot of phone calls were made by people who said we should be very ashamed about her, about the color of her skin. Thousands and thousands of calls from people to voters saying, ‘You know, the McCains have a black baby.’ I believe that there is a special place in hell for people like those,” he said in 2000, according to dadmag.com.
Success for the McCain children
Among the seven McCain children are a number of success stories.
His oldest child, Doug McCain, was a Navy pilot and now lives in Virginia Beach. He is a longtime captain for American Airlines, according to a 2017 column from the Virginian-Pilot.
Last year, Andrew McCain was named president of Hensley Beverage Co., the beer distributor to which Cindy McCain is an heiress.
Sidney McCain was a former music industry executive and is now the promotions director of a Milwaukee radio station, according to Milwaukee magazine.
The two sides of the McCain brood eventually melded. Jack remembered a rafting trip with Sidney and Andrew when he was in high school. Doug was there when Jack graduated from pilot school, and gifted Jack his own set of wings.
Meghan has long acted as something of the unofficial spokeswoman for the McCains, ever since she started the blog “McCain Blogette” in 2007 to document her dad’s presidential run.
Since then, she has written books and made a career as a conservative columnist and political commentator. In September, she became a co-host of the ABC daytime talk show “The View.”
Meghan seems to be the most similar to her father: In a 2010 New York Times profile, Cindy called Meghan ”John McCain in a dress.”
“We’re both very strong-willed and ambitious, and I think we have a similar sense of humor,” Meghan told the Times. “I think we both live our lives kind of fearlessly and without apologizing.”
In the People magazine story from when McCain was running for president, Meghan described her younger brother Jimmy as “the peacemaker” and Jack as ”the clown.”
Jimmy and Jack followed in their father’s and grandfather’s footsteps, with Jack joining the U.S. Naval Academy and Jimmy the U.S. Marines.
“There was always an unspoken expectation,” Jack said. “I was never forced to join. But there was always sort of this, ‘Well, first-born sons of the McCain family are named John and first-born sons of the McCain family go to the Naval Academy and join the Navy.’ “
Much to his family’s surprise, Jimmy enlisted at the age of 17. During a luau the McCains hosted before Jimmy’s deployment to Iraq, John hugged him and cried in “a mixture of pride and concern,” Jimmy told People in 2008.
“My brother ended up going the quicker route and going the significantly more dangerous route and I think it took quite a few years for my mom to really come to grips with it,” Jack said.
President Barack Obama spoke at Jack’s graduation from the Naval Academy in 2009, and John McCain himself spoke at a 2011 ceremony where Jack received “wings of gold” for completing helicopter training.
Bridget started college at Arizona State University in Tempe in 2010 and, according to Jack, had an interest in special education, but it is not clear if she graduated or is still enrolled.
While the family is now spread apart, they still make an effort to get together.
“Because we are all gone so frequently, every time we get the whole family together, it’s this huge ordeal,” Jack said. “It’s a huge outpouring of happiness and excitement.”
Now, the family gets together for weddings and holidays, especially its favorite, the Fourth of July. John always makes his signature back ribs with a garlic and lemon pepper dry rub.
“We will mostly congregate around the grill and it will be the whole family,” Jack said. “Now that we’re old enough, we’ll all have a drink, and just catch up on what seems endless miles of space in between us.”
Rocked by dad’s cancer diagnosis
In July 2017, John shocked the nation when he revealed that, at 80 years old, he had been diagnosed with brain cancer.
The cancer, glioblastoma, was discovered during cranial surgery to remove a blood clot above his left eye. It is a typically malignant and aggressive cancer, with a median survival rate of 14.6 months.
“We as a family will face the next hurdle together,” Cindy posted that day. “One thing I do know is he is the toughest person I know. He is my hero and I love him with all my heart.”
Meghan echoed her mother’s words in a post of her own that day.
“He is a warrior at dusk, one of the greatest Americans of our age, and the worthy heir to his father’s and grandfather’s name. But to me, he is something more. He is my strength, my example, my refuge, my confidant, my teacher, my rock, my hero — my dad.”
Always coming back to family
For at least 30 years, the McCains have spent weekends at their property in Cornville, Arizona, near Sedona.
They call it “the cabin.” It’s where the family goes to hike, play outdoors and reconnect.
“He’ll probably be mad at me for admitting this: He loves birdwatching,” Jack said of his father. “There are a couple of endangered hawks that have built nests there. It’s almost a family joke that when we first get there we have to see how the hawks are doing.”
When he’s there, John can be found walking the property to check on the cottonwood and fruit trees or firing up the grill.
“It is the one place in the world he truly relaxes,” Jack said.
It has been the site of many family dinners with John and his guests.
“I thought the guests were just these men who hung out at our cabin,” Meghan told People. “Then I got older and realized it was Bob Woodward and Henry Kissinger.”
A few weeks after John revealed his diagnosis, he hiked nearby Oak Creek Canyon with Meghan and Jimmy.
In November 2017, the cabin was the site of Meghan’s wedding.
Shortly after John was diagnosed with cancer, Meghan and her fiancé, conservative commentator Ben Domenech, decided to organize their wedding swiftly.
“This brought into focus how important it was for Meghan to have her dad see her get married, and to have that happen while he was still fully there and fully able to participate. This was something that she needed,” Domenech told People magazine.
Another source of joy has been Jack’s baby son, John Sidney McCain V, who goes by the nickname Mac.
“Every time he’s with Mac, he lights up in a way that I had never seen before in my whole life,” Jack said of his father. “I had never seen him truly giddy until he saw my son.”
When he’s at the cabin, John “never is without a book in his hand,” Jack said, and is more sentimental than people may know, especially about poetry.
One of John’s favorites has always been “Requiem” by Robert Louis Stevenson, Jack said, which John read at his own father’s funeral.
“Under the wide and starry sky,
Dig the grave and let me lie.
Glad did I live and gladly die,
And I laid me down with a will.
This be the verse you grave for me:
Here he lies where he longed to be;
Home is the sailor, home from sea,
And the hunter home from the hill.”
John McCain’s American Story
Chapter 1: John McCain a study in contradictionChapter 2: John McCain was destined for the Naval AcademyChapter 3: John McCain was ‘a very determined guy’ as a POWChapter 4: John McCain’s political ambition emerged after POW returnChapter 5: John McCain’s political career began after Arizona moveChapter 6: Ever-ambitious, John McCain rises to the SenateChapter 7: John McCain ‘in a hell of a mess’ with Keating FiveChapter 8: After Keating Five, John McCain faced new scandalChapter 9: John McCain becomes the ‘maverick’Chapter 10: ’Ugly’ politics in John McCain’s 2000 presidential runChapter 11: John McCain was frequent foe of Bush in early yearsChapter 12: John McCain goes establishment for 2nd White House runChapter 13: John McCain had rough start to 2008 presidential raceChapter 14: John McCain clinches 2008 GOP presidential nominationChapter 15: John McCain takes on Obama for president in 2008Chapter 16: John McCain fails in second bid for presidentChapter 17: ’Complete the danged fence,’ John McCain proclaimsChapter 18: John McCain wins 6th term, reclaims ‘maverick’ label
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