A Special Kind of Brave

with Cindy McCain

What does courage look like in the face of the impossible? Cindy McCain had a front row seat to history, as wife of Arizona Senator and presidential candidate John McCain.




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Cindy McCain

Cindy McCain is US Ambassador to United Nations Agencies for Food and Agriculture. She is Chairman Emeritus of the board of the McCain Institute for International Leadership. She was married to Senator John McCain for thirty-eight years. Prior to her appointment as Ambassador, she was chairman of her family business, Hensley Beverage Co. Cindy has a long history of giving a voice to the voiceless through her philanthropic and humanitarian work. Cindy and John raised four children together: Meghan, Jimmy, Jack, and Bridget. Cindy now travels extensively to raise awareness of human trafficking around the world, but her home base remains in Phoenix, Arizona.


Kate Bowler:                       It takes a whole lot of courage to live here. In this life that doesn’t always end up how we think it should. And in these bodies that break and ache and cause us prolonged insurance battles with people named Stacey. And in these relationships that more often than we’d like absolutely break our hearts. I’m Kate Bowler and this is Everything Happens. And how’s that for an intro? This is a podcast where I talk to people about beautiful, terrible truths. It’s a podcast where we don’t pretend everything will be fine or that celery juicing is sure to fix every problem you’ve ever had past or present. Which is to say, this is a podcast that speaks honestly about lives that don’t always work out and how we might live beautifully still. This season, we’re talking about formulas. What kind of formula does culture hand us to help us know how to live? The self-help industry likes to tell us that everything is figure-out-able. But sometimes that’s just not true. We’re faced with circumstances we can’t undo. Decisions we can’t remake. People we can’t get back. What wisdom do these formulas offer? And where do they fall short? Might we mine them together for something deeper, something truer that might help us along the way? And today’s formula is all about the courage it takes to live here in our stupid, beautiful lives, in all our problems and fears and hopes and dreams. I’m speaking with someone who had a front row seat to the kind of courage we expect from superheroes, the kind of courage it takes to live and die with dignity. The kind of courage she herself carries forward too. Cindy McCain is known for her extensive philanthropic and humanitarian work around the world and is, of course, also the wife of Senator John McCain, who she was married to for nearly 40 years. Together, they raised four beautiful children, now, adult human beings. She’s a leader. She’s the chairman of the board of the McCain Institute for International Leadership and the author of a beautiful book, Stronger Courage, Hope and Humor in My Life with John McCain. And I am hoping she can give me the recipe for courage because holy crap, she has a lot of it. Cindy, it’s such a joy to be talking with you today.

Cindy McCain:                 Thank you, I’m so pleased to be here. Thank you for having me.

Kate:                         I write weird history books in my real job, I guess, and one of the history books I wrote that no one truly no one will ever read was this book called The Preacher’s Wife, and I went around interviewing mega-church religious leaders spouses and the leaders of pretty significantly large organizations where women may or may not have formal authority. And honestly, it was such a lesson to me on two people jobs. I think there are very few professions left which are still two for one deals. And even in such an unusual situation of where they don’t just elect one person, you elect another by extension and all of the indirect power and knowledge and memory that must come along with that. So all that to say is it comes out so beautifully in your book that it must have felt like you were not only writing your story but but also writing the story of the two of you together.

Cindy:                       Yes, very much so. A lot of the times it was one in the same as, you know, like you say, it’s a twofer with your elected office it’s a twofor.

Kate:                        This might feel like overkill for our American audience, but for those lovely Canadian or international souls who may be listening right now, your husband was a really remarkable person, a military man and a statesman who wasn’t afraid to cross party lines and someone who knew suffering very intimately if you don’t mind starting there as a young man. He was a naval aviator who was sent to Vietnam.

Cindy:                           Well, at this time that he was this naval aviator that went on off to the Vietnam War, we were not married, obviously, and I did not know him. He went off to war, was doing his duty, you know, he was a professional navy man. He went to the Naval Academy, as did his father and his grandfather and as our son did. He went on from there, became a pilot, wound up flying off aircraft carriers, the Gulf of Tonkin, various positions on the coast of Vietnam, and he was shot down one day. He wound up, as he said, he intercepted a surface air missile with his own airplane, it just took the wing off the aircraft, and when he ejected, he wound up landing in the center of Hanoi, in a lake in the center of Hanoi and just finished bombing that area. So he would say the locals were not very happy about it. And so it was that he said it was a five minute ride from the lake.

Kate:                                Oh my gosh.

Cindy :                              He was badly wounded. He was badly injured when he ejected and then the first Vietnamese wounded him a little more because they were mad at, you know, they were obviously upset with him and they bayonetted him. And they- his arm was broken, his leg was broken and it was a lot of things. And then he would wind up being a prisoner of war for five and a half years. So yes, it was, as he described it, it was the kind of experience, you know, obviously no one ever wants to experience that, but he said in the long run, it made him a better person and more more of a person that understood humanity a little better. He comes from a long line and came from a long line of warriors and did his duty and when he got home, he was very surprised to see what it had become in the country in terms of the antiwar movement and all the things that we saw that you and I saw during the time, during that time or I did, you’re too young, but that we saw and he didn’t experience because he was not. And he also said what bothered him is not just that, but he missed the mini skirt phase. So he was kinda bummed.

Kate:                        That’s so funny. My mom was didn’t have a lot of money, and so her grandma knitted her a mini skirt, but the problem was by the time she was done from school, the miniskirt was somewhere around her ankles and decided maybe to put that fad aside. What do you think he meant by that his time as a prisoner of war gave him a maybe like a clearer window into humanity?

Cindy:                      Well, he admitted publicly that at the time of his shoot down, he was a wild pilot and he was married, but he’s still been a crazy navy pilot, someone that lived life to the fullest, to put it mildly. And when he came home, obviously it tempered him for many reasons. I mean, just the sheer ability to withstand it tempered him. But it also made him take a look inside himself and and a look in what he wanted for his future as well. He’s the person that initiated the normalization of Vietnam. And then along with obviously at that time, President Clinton and then John Kerry was the other man. They normalized relations. John had every right to say, No, I don’t want to be a part of this. These people, you know, they tortured me. I don’t want to be part of this. And he didn’t. And so it was that kind of, in my opinion, that kind of stamina and courage and an integrity that made him. And that’s who he was.

Kate:                             Mm-Hmm. It sounds too like by the time that you met and married, that he had been really changed by his experience and had a tremendous sense of responsibility. Some people, and it is like a category like service, really is like as thick as blood. That like service is a big, heavy word.

Cindy:                          He lived the Code of Conduct Duty, Honor, Country. That’s how he lived. And he led his life that way. And he’s the he wasn’t perfect. He made plenty of mistakes and he also, you know, he was notorious for his temper. But it was never, never something that was personal. It was always about the issue and always about whatever was going on on the floor, whatever it may be. But that’s who he was and he was a remarkable person. He gave me a front row seat to history, something I never thought I would ever be a part of. And now you know my introduction to him was getting elected to Congress. And then here we go.

Kate:                            So you both settled in your home state of Arizona, and it sounds like you tried to maintain as much of a normal life as possible for your kids by sort of living two lives at one time in which you’re living the the wife of a campaigner and a fundraiser and a supporter and also being a mom who’s trying very hard to shelter her kids from all that comes from the spotlight.

Cindy:                          We felt it was very important as we started having children that they be raised in the most normal fashion possible because our life was anything but normal at that point. And so we made the decision that I would move back home and put the kids in school here and raise them as Arizonans. And that’s what we did, and it was the best decision we ever made. It was harder on John because he, you know, he had to come home every week and he had to make that cross-country trek every weekend. But he never missed, he was- that was that was who he was as a father. And and we talked to the kids. Obviously, they knew what he was doing, but we portrayed it to them as a deployment.

Kate :                                 Just lots of spinning plates. Some of them- some of them with daggers you’re life ah!

Cindy:                              There were weekends when he would show up on a Thursday or Friday and and I was hanging from the ceiling, you know, circling around me or something. And then he’d walk in the door and they automatically they would just like someone flip the switch. These four little angels walked out. I didn’t know you kids, you were the wild children a few minutes ago then watch them behave for their dad.

Kate:                                You’re so honest too about the pressures of the surrealness of the world that you’re living in. Yeah. You know, there’s beautiful and lovely things that come with opportunity and like a big life, but there’s also tremendous pressure and you’re very frank about your own medical emergencies and and then how that led to what many people experience, which is a routine surgery becomes routine prescriptions, which becomes something else.

Cindy:                              Addiction. Right. That’s absolutely what happened to me. And it was combined with, you know, I had a serious back issue, which is where the surgery was. I did become addicted to prescription opioids and I was too afraid to tell my husband, you know, I wanted to be the perfect wife. I did the very best I could to be just that, you know, be everything to everybody. And what I discovered is number one, I was down a rabbit hole with this, I was in serious trouble. And number two, No one’s perfect. Everyone makes mistakes. And that was a good lesson for me to learn in all this. It was terrible. Yeah, right. And I also realized that John didn’t think anything less of me. He stood right by my side. Once I admitted to him what was going on, he couldn’t have been better for me. You know, you always as a woman, I know women out there can can relate to this. You know you. You are all many times, all things to all people. Yeah. And I learned how to say no from that. I learned how to take care of myself a little more and make sure that I was cared for because I could very well care for four children if I wasn’t cared for. Thank God my parents came to me and my parents saw me almost every day. So they they realized something was wrong with me and confronted me, and it was something they could have done they saved my life.

Kate:                             Yeah, I’m not sure how to put this as a question, because it’s like a series of statements. You have seem to have this response to fear where you run directly at it, which is haha where you’re like oh that looks really scary I’m just going to start sprinting really toward that. I mean, there’s so many incredible examples of that. You’re like, Oh, I, I’m interested in cars, but it’s probably really scary to you. And now I’m a racecar driver. You know, you’re just, Oh, I’m afraid of heights. I find flying on planes, very nerve wracking. I will become a pilot. It’s really it’s it’s not a normal response, but it’s one that I love. And I wondered, given that that’s like you have like a big engine to do that and a very intense sense of probably like agency and capacity that must have been a very strange thing to also be someone struggling with addiction in which you’re you’re in an experience that no longer feels like it’s in your control.

Cindy:                                 Right. You describe it perfectly. And with that said, what happened to me should never happen to anybody. And by this, I mean, when I became public about it and started talking about it, and sought help for it. The press skewered me. And the worst thing you can do to someone who is struggling with addiction is to shame them. We’re trying, you know, we’re trying to seek help. We’re trying to get out. And so what they did to me is they almost drove me underground.

Kate:                                    I imagine as a parent, it would create a little bit more, I don’t know, does it create a little bit more grace, like a little more space between this is what I meant to do, and this is the the hole I fell into?

Cindy:                                  Yeah, it is. And and how dangerous it is, you know you- I sunk into that hole before I ever knew what happened. Yeah. And that’s what addiction does to you it swallows you before you know what happens.

Kate :                                    This is just strictly for my own personal betterment, I have not nearly experienced the kind of public exposure and public scrutiny that you have learned to deal with and face and have as like a regular part of your life. That’s a special kind of bravery. I wonder if you have any advice about that, as you know. You know, we know that we’re more fragile now than we might have realized before. And yet we don’t always have the ability to, like, turn off the ability to care about what other people are thinking and saying. Do you have any strategies that you use because you seem like you figured it out?

Cindy:                              I realize that a lot of this was not so targeted at me, I was the target, but it wasn’t me that they were targeting, it was it was they were targeting my husband. And once I understood that and understood that what they say didn’t matter does not matter to me. And I quit reading a lot of it. I quit listening to a lot of it. And I think age too comes along, it’s like, really, you know, that’s all you got, kind of thing.

Kate:                                Kind of hoping that’s what my forties are going to be about. I’m just really hoping my 40s will be the window into caring less about, because once you’ve mentally decided it doesn’t matter, I just wanted to, like, filter down a little bit

Cindy :                         Oh I hear, you know, my husband used to say, don’t pay any attention to it, don’t pay any attention to it. I said, well they’re not talking about me, they’re talking nasty about you and it bothers me.

Kate:                             Do you think it’s harder for the partner because they have the ability to act in that scenario? And you, I mean, just the the passivity and then also to know everything just to know.

Cindy :                           Yeah, I mean you’d be, for me, it was I couldn’t say anything. They would say the meanest, nastiest things about him. And I, you know, I could have said something and then I would look like some crazy woman, you know, so you can’t say anything. You have to be very discreet in how you exhibit the fact you really want to kick the dog because, you know, and kick the tv set. But you have to be careful. You know, you totally can. And that also gives them credence and gives them, you know, some kind of some kind of acceptance and all this and I’m not going to do that. So it just again, it comes with age, and I hate to say that to you.

Kate:                       No I want it! I want to have it! Let’s go!

Cindy:                     Mellowing comes with age.

Kate:                       Oh my gosh. I’m not mellowing. I can just tell my engine is getting scarier, but in a fun way. Yeah.

Kate:                       Even as a Canadian, when I when I saw your husband run for president, I, you know, I saw him on Saturday Night Live and I have to say I was blown away by his performance. You married a really a really funny man.

Cindy:                    He’s a funny guy. Humor was a large part of our life. You know, I don’t know if you know this. I know you saw the stuff that was during 2008, the 2008 race that was just a smidgen of it. In 2000, he actually hosted Saturday Night Live.

Kate:                       Yes, I did see that! Yes!

Cindy:                     He was hysterical. He really was. You know, you’ve got to have humor in life. And if you can’t laugh at yourself and laugh and laugh, then what’s the point? And he was he was always one. And he he relived that in that when they were in prison, you know, he and his buddies were in prison together. Humor was really what got a lot of them through it. We always thought that after politics, he would have had it had a late night show or something.

Kate:                         That’s so funny.

Cindy:                          He’d always, John would always threaten Meghan of course this is a, you know, a middle school pre-teen girl and threatened her “I’m going to pick you up one day and I’m going to I’m going to be riding in the Wienermobile” and she’d “Oh, dad, you can’t do that. Oh, dad, that would be awful.” And God, one day he showed up in the Wienermobile at school.

Kate :                    It’s like an Oscar Mayer sponsored.

Cindy:                    Oscar Mayer Wienermobile. Yes. And she got a kick out of it, I have to say. And the kids were all amazed you know this huge weinermobile was there. John had been at an event, I guess, and this thing was parked in the parking lot and he talked the guy into coming with him to school so he could pick up Meghan.

Kate:                         So I do think it’s true that the absurdity. I have a real commitment to the world’s largest like world’s largest chest of drawers, world’s largest Ukrainian sausage I saw recently. Like I do find sometimes that the worse things get, the more you need something truly ridiculous and wonderful to break up the monotony.

Cindy:                      Yes, you do. And John really taught the kids that the use of humor and the kindness and the levity that comes from it can be great, great healers as well. And so, yeah, that’s that’s really where that message was going with the kids. And plus, it was just fun.

Kate:                       It does let people tell the truth in a wonderful way.

Cindy:                     In the 2008 race, the press corps that traveled with us, and there are a lot of them, went and had T-shirts made up with all the names of all the jokes that he was telling and there so they were named there were like 30 of them, and they all showed up one day, the entire press corps showed up wearing these t shirts.

Kate:                       Gosh that is so funny.

Cindy:                      Yes, it is. I know. He was really, really funny.

Kate:                        What a strange thing to be known and not known at the same time, then for you.

Cindy:                     It, you know that the 08 race, which was one year when we won the nomination, obviously, and and were the contender on the Republican side. It was an interesting time. It was on the cusp of social media. Twitter was there, but no one paid attention to it very much. Facebook, I think it was just opening up so that all of us could use it, not just college kids. It was, it was it, it was a unique time. It was the last race run at a presidential level without the use of social media.

Kate :                      How would your role have changed between that run and the next one as the nominee’s partner?

Cindy:                     Well, it becomes much more intense, much more there’s much more scrutiny. You know, the first race in 2000, we ran a great race. We won some great primaries, but in the end, we knew we probably weren’t going to get the nomination. And but in 08, when we knew we were going to get it, it was. It becomes a different ballgame, the press become a little rougher, you know the amount of people traveling with you is much larger. The, you know, the motorcade when you receive Secret Service protection, the motorcade is by, you know, 40 cars long, that kind of thing. So the whole intensity of it is much different. As John said, there’s no heavy lifting. It was a front row seat to a part of our government that I never thought I’d ever see, nor not to see but be in the middle of it. And so we look back on it at least, John did too, look back on it with great fond memories because it was, you know, even though we lost, it was still a great race. We ran a good race.

Kate:                           Yeah, well, that’s lovely that it just baked in in a nice, you know, because there’s the there’s the story at the time, the one that you’re living. And then there’s the one in retrospect when your husband was diagnosed with a very aggressive form of of brain cancer. I always forget how to pronounce it, it’s glioblastoma. Yeah, he had a very steep decline. And when he passed, you were all together. That must have been a very devastating season. There’s there’s something to be said about grieving a spouse, but you really had to do it on a world stage.

Cindy :                          You never want to see anyone and that happen to anybody, as you know, you never want to yourself or anybody else. But when he received the diagnosis that it was terminal, he was, he was just surreal in many ways, he he understood it. He is the one immediately said I led a good life, I have no complaints. And then, you know, so it for all of us watching this and observing it and trying to be strong for him. He actually was strong for us, and that’s how that was to the very end with him. Mm-Hmm. But you know, it’s it’s a it’s a dreadful disease. Any cancer is bad. It’s a dreadful disease because it steals your mind and it steals your, you know, your inability to be a full functioning person. And that’s what this vibrant man who was, had been- could run anybody on the Senate floor, you know, all of a sudden you couldn’t do that. It was hard to watch.

Kate:                       Yeah, of course. Yeah.

Cindy :                      The great lessons we teach each other and learn from each other is we’re all brought in to one one theme that John McCain taught us not only he taught us how to live, to live a good life, to live an honest life to to do the things that you know, to be right. Sometimes the right decisions are the hardest decisions to make. But he also taught us how to die. And he did it with great dignity, and he calmed us. I mean, you know, it was I mean, we had our moments, we had our days where things were very difficult. But he really is the one that that chose the time and the place he was going to die, to be honest with you. I mean, he was he was at the place he loved, he was surrounded by family and friends, on the on the deck of our of our cabin, you know, outside.

Kate:                          I have a very vivid memory of the day of his service at the National Cathedral, because my two lovely friends, Julie and Amanda, were scheduled to be married that day, but but they bumped the ceremony a couple of hours, which is totally fine. But when they bumped it, your precious family did the unforgettable. You donated all the flowers to Julie and Amanda’s wedding and they had this, it was such a gorgeous gesture of of love and service and generosity, so I just wanted to say thanks.

Cindy:                       Well, thank you. I couldn’t think of a better way to do it.

Kate:                           My son was a ring – he was supposed to be a ring bearer but he thought he was a ring bear and it was a very, very aggressive performance. But we were, we’re all thinking, a great deal of your of your family and very touched by the profound outpouring.

Cindy:                           It was a real outpouring from the world. I have to say, you know, I’ve I’ve been in various countries since then, obviously, and and almost every country to a tee said we declared a national holiday that day so we could watch. So we could watch it. So yeah, it was, I mean, it’s very touching to hear those kinds of stories and and witness the outpouring. It was it was something else. He was I think he would have been shocked. A little surprised.

Kate:                                A lot of people have strong opinions, maybe about what to what, what they wish people would have done for them in their time of grief after the loss of someone they love and I wondered what were the best things that people did for you to show up for you?

Cindy :                              Oh, I can, there’s several things, but one thing in particular. And she’s a good friend of mine and it was so thoughtful and I was so surprised by it and this this is going to sound really strange, but we were beginning to start the series of things and we have things here in Arizona. And then we went on to the cathedral and then onto to the Naval Academy. And my friend gave me handkerchiefs. I mean, I have wads of Kleenex coming out of my elbows, you know? But she and that simple gesture of remembering that. And I don’t know why, but it touched me so profoundly and I was grateful for her for her kindness. I think also, the best thing that I can say is that grief is very personal and there’s no right way to do it, there’s no wrong way to do it. And so I appreciated the friends of mine that didn’t push me on on grief and you need to cry more or you need to you… All the things that you hear. And so the people that did not write me and tell me I was doing it wrong and the people that were kind enough to give me my space were the ones that I really remember because I mean, there were a lot of people that really wanted to remind me I was doing it wrong.

Kate:                           So helpful. Thanks, everyone, and I’m so glad it was their loss.

Cindy :                         I thought so, too.

Kate:                          I wonder, too, if there was just a desire to have it be as personal as it is in which like, thank you, I know he is a public figure, but also, also, he belongs to me.

Cindy:                         You know, that began prior to his death. I wanted him to feel still involved and I wanted him to be to have people around him because that was the kind of person he was. So I made sure that he always had friends around, but they were close friends who weren’t just acquaintances and very close friends and very- because we didn’t want anybody talking about what they were seeing or posting anything online, that kind of stuff. And so what I wound up doing and which is rather strange, but it was the right thing to do, is I was consoling them. They would leave devastated after having seen him and and I wound up consoling them. And that was it was a reversal I hadn’t planned on, but something that I that I realized was important you for them to see that I was strong as well because I picked up right after John passed and we had this funeral, I picked almost right back up and and went back to work. I started I was on the road, I was traveling, I was doing all humnitarian stuff. So when Covid hit, of course we all came to a screeching halt. And what that did for me is it finally, finally, I grieved. I had to look to listen to myself and kind of, you know, and that was a good thing. It was very hard for me.

Kate:                          I wonder sometimes if our bodies just know that we’re not. We just don’t have quite enough space or bandwidth to grieve until there’s

Cindy:                       until there’s time.

Kate:                                You know, as someone who has been strong for so long for someone who has kept that record and held the weight of all those memories, I’m grateful for the chance we had to talk to each other for the way that your determined to live alongside the things that you can’t always change. It’s something I think about all the time and I’m so grateful for the way that you’re so present and kind and big hearted. I feel lucky for doing this with you today.

Cindy:                            Thank you. I appreciate you having me on. I really do.

Kate :                              When something terrible happens, a lot of people like to tell you that you are so brave when reality is we don’t often have a choice. We aren’t choosing to be brave. We’re just living one step, one choice, one breath at a time. That conversation with Cindy reminds me that sometimes courage looks like unbelievable feats of surviving plane crashes and enduring years of torture. Or sometimes that means committing yourself to a lifetime of service. Sometimes it looks like trying to forgive those who’ve wronged you or have integrity in difficult circumstances. And sometimes it looks like raising resilient kids or facing unwarranted criticism or tackling addiction head on. And sometimes it looks like bearing witness for the ones you love to the very end. So here’s to all of us the courageous, who live and love and lose and continue forward. Here’s a blessing for the brave. Blessed, are you brave one. You, who perform big, courageous acts of service, the firefighters and police officers and military and activists and doctors and nurses and paramedics. You, who move toward fear and danger for the rest of us to feel a little more safe. Blessed, are you brave one. You, who do small acts of great love. The memory keepers who remember for those who can’t and the parents belong to keep our kids small and safe. Or you who teach for far less than your worth. Or pastor, even when the cranky member complains about the music again. You who hold people’s hand all the way to the edge and give handkerchiefs to people who need them. Your great love moves you closer toward people’s great need. Blessed, are you brave one. You who are grieving, even if you feel like you are doing it all wrong, you who have received the bad news, you who are sitting in the shards of a life that has come undone in your fear and your shaky hope. Brave looks like that, too sometimes. You who live still, brave and scared at the same time.

Kate Bowler:                     Our work on the Everything Happens podcast and with the Everything Happens initiative is made possible because of our partners and generous donors Lilly Endowment, the Duke Endowment, Duke Divinity School and faith and leadership and online learning resource. And a huge thank you to my team who makes this work not only possible, but fun. Jessica Ritchie, Harriet Putman, Keith Weston, Gwen Hegginbotham, Katie Mangum, AJ Walton, Katherine Smith, Mary Jo Clancy, JJ Dickinson and Jeb and Sammi. And if you’d like to be a human with me, come find me online at KateCBowler. I also have a weekly email that might be the right dose of love and courage you need. Sign up at KateBowler.com/newsletter. This is Everything Happens with me, Kate Bowler.

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