Cindy McCain, STRONGER

Cindy McCain, STRONGER

“I have a voice at this moment in time. I have a voice that I can use for good. I intend to keep using it as long as I can.” Cindy McCain joins Zibby to discuss some of the things she reveals in her new memoir, such as why she tried to keep her opioid addiction hidden from everyone, what it was like to adopt her daughter Bridget and watch their relationship become politicized, and how her home life with her late husband, Senator John McCain, and their children was no different from that of anyone else.


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Cindy. Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books” to discuss your memoir, Stronger: Courage, Hope, and Humor in My Life with John McCain.

Cindy McCain: Thank you for having me. I really appreciate it. I really do.

Zibby: This was such a great book. Your life has been so interesting. I love hearing all about not just your relationship with such a public figure, but your life. Your life has been so interesting, your parenting, your adoption, your struggles. I’m so glad you wrote this book, basically.

Cindy: Thank you. It was very cathartic for me to write it. I’m glad I did. The bulk of the writing took place during COVID, during the lockdown. For me, it was a good thing. I also hadn’t really had time to grieve. I went straight back to work after my husband died and didn’t really take any time for myself. Of course, pandemic put everything to a screeching halt. It was a very good thing for me to do.

Zibby: I know this is jumping around a little, but I was so interested in the Bangladeshi orphanage story, your adoption, and then how the campaign sort of, oh, my gosh, used your daughter. As a mother of four, my heart was hurting reading this whole section. Tell me a little bit about this story, and for people listening, what that was like.

Cindy: Our daughter was a baby that I actually discovered in an orphanage in Dhaka, Bangladesh, she and another baby. My daughter had a very severe cleft palate. The other little girl had a heart condition. I realized that I could bring them home. I could get the medical care in Arizona. I proceeded to do all of that. The nuns were very helpful. They helped get passports and bribe all kinds of people to have it happen in a timely fashion. What happened was we were getting ready, literally, to leave for the airport, and we got a call from the health ministry that said that I needed to go down and appear in front of the health ministry officials before I left the country. I went down to this — it’s a big room with a long table. There are all of these men sitting at the table. They were all speaking in Hindi. I couldn’t understand anything they were saying. Of course, being the absolute airport neurotic that I am, I kept looking at my watch. We’re running late, all this kind of stuff. Finally, I asked what was going on. They still kept speaking Hindi. Finally, a gentleman started speaking English. He said, “We can provide the healthcare for these babies. We can do this here in Bangladesh.”

I was so frustrated that I slammed my hand on the table that I was sitting behind. I slammed my fist down. Excuse my language, but I said, “Then goddamn it, do it. Why haven’t you done it?” Of course, that shut everybody up. They started stamping things really fast to get the crazy lady out of there, I guess. They were two little girls who were not going to get the healthcare. It just simply was not going to happen for them. The nuns knew that at Mother Teresa’s orphanage. They facilitated in every way, me being able to get these two girls out. It was really on the flight home that I realized that our daughter Bridget, that she was going home with me. She had picked me as her mommy. I literally walked off the airplane in Phoenix, Arizona, with a child, a new daughter, and introduced her to my husband who didn’t even know I was doing that. Talk about a test of a marriage. He was so lovely about it, knew exactly what was going to happen. He just was such a great person that day. He really showed a side of himself that I hadn’t seen. We’ve been happy ever since. She will turn thirty in July.

Zibby: Wow, that’s amazing. Now I feel terrible. My husband came home with fish for my kids. I was like, “We didn’t even talk about this. What are you doing?” I’m not as good a spouse, clearly.

Cindy: It was the kind of thing, too, that — my husband, he knew me well enough to know that I wasn’t going to turn my back on a baby. It was fate. God had a hand in it. I’m quite certain. She’s been with us forever. You brought up the discussion about her being pulled into the campaign. That was a tragic time, actually. She was too young to know what was going on. This is the 2000 presidential race. Our opponent used her in a series of flyers and ads that said, “Did you know that John McCain has a black daughter?” This took place in South Carolina. “Did you know he has a black daughter?” Of course, the intimation there was that somehow this was wrong and then the fact that she was black was even worse. It was a terrible part of the campaign. It wasn’t until about four or five years later that she googled herself and she discovered all this. She came into my bedroom after she did it, crying. She said, “Mommy, Mommy, why does President Bush hate me? Why doesn’t he like me?” I did my very best to try to explain to her, it’s politics, etc. She’s never gotten over it. She thought it was because she was black. All those things have rolled into this. She struggled with this for quite a while. Words have consequences. I like to remind anybody that’s campaigning or anybody anywhere, really, that families are off limits. You can’t do this. Unfortunately, we learned a hard lesson that day.

Zibby: I feel like your book is full of lessons. At the end of every chapter, you just sprinkle in — they’re not in bold. There’s no pull quotes or anything. I’ll keep reading, I’ll be like, huh, okay, look at that. This is like having my mom sit me down and say, this is what’s important in life. I kept being like, okay, thank you. Thank you for that.

Cindy: I’m glad. That is kind of the purpose in me writing this. I have had a lot of experiences. I’ve made a lot of mistakes, which is really what I wanted to — I have learned from them. That’s really what I wanted to share in all this. Even in the most tragic of times, you can do it. You can make it through it. It sometimes hurts an awful lot, though. In my own case, it was definitely the case. I’m a better parent for every experience I had that was bad. It made me a better parent. That’s really the gift in all of this, was that.

Zibby: I hadn’t known about your opioid addiction. I thought it was so wonderful how you wrote about that and were so open. So many people are struggling with that now in particular. I’m sure having you as a role model for how to — even the fact that you hid it and you didn’t want your husband to know and it was your parents who helped you through, oh, my gosh. I hate to say, it’s so cliché, it’s so brave of you to put this in, but it was great to go on the journey with you while you got through it.

Cindy: Thank you. It’s the kind of thing, obviously, I would never want to relive that. I’m still to this day so embarrassed that the whole thing happened. I understand, also — this is what I try to tell a lot of people that I talk to, especially in the media, is that the worst thing you can do to an addict is to shame them because they’re trying to get out. We’re trying to get help. We’re trying all these things. To be whacked down by the media, which is what they did to me, very harshly too — in my case, I had a great support system, but not everyone has a great support system. That could actually kill somebody, by just shaming them in such a way that you feel like you can’t face the world. I blame none of this on anybody. This was totally my fault and my doing. I have reminded everyone, don’t do this. Don’t pick on anyone that’s got — it’s a disease. It’s not a choice. It’s a disease. I hope through the years I’ve made an impact on some of these types. I don’t know if they listen to me or not.

Zibby: I hope so.

Cindy: I hope so too.

Zibby: Being a military wife, mother, being so enmeshed in this culture of valor and courage and everything, you wrote so interestingly, and I don’t want to necessarily get into all the politics of it, but just how it felt to be not respected in the past administration for the most fundamental virtuosic thing you can do for your country. Tell me a little more about that.

Cindy: In our family, service is the key. It’s a core element. Those are the things we taught our kids. As you said, we have two sons that have both — one is still serving. One has since gotten out. To me, and what we always taught them, is that that’s the purest form of a gift, is to serve your country. Troops, not just mine, but troops being shamed and called names because they were serving, it was beyond pale, in my opinion. Losers and suckers, no, not at all. Not at all. It was said about our troops. I took great offense at that, not so much for my own sons, although that was part of it, but for every other family member out there who has sat by and worried and wondered whether or not your child was going to make it out alive. Many didn’t. They’re not losers and suckers at all. They’re heroes. I would take offense from anybody that said that. When it comes from the commander-in-chief, it was really terrible. It was really, really awful.

Zibby: I thought it was so classy, the way you wrote about it and how you explained that you weren’t willing to talk about it at that point, but here’s how you felt. It was very well-done, that whole thing, for sure.

Cindy: Thank you.

Zibby: Even the way you related to — just a little more on the military. Your mother-in-law, you said how — Roberta, right?

Cindy: Roberta, right.

Zibby: How you didn’t even know how she could have gone five years waiting for her son to get back. How do you get through that as a mother?

Cindy: She talked about it a little bit. She wasn’t very open about it because obviously, it was a tragic time for them. Knowing her the way I did and knowing the family the way I do, their inner core strength is something to behold. I believe that John gained a lot of that courage and that element of strength from his mother. She was really something else. She was a tower of strength. She was also one of the most beautiful women I’d even seen and represented not just the family, but the country in such a way from years gone by, obviously, because her husband was in many, many years ago. Just the way that she served as well by his side and helped him through, I learned so much from her. I was so intimidated when I first met her because I thought, oh, my god, what have I done? Where I am? I don’t know what I’m doing. She couldn’t have been more gracious to me in kind of maneuvering the dicey walkway of Washington, DC, and the military as well. I approached her some weeks after I’d had the incident that occurred in the book that I talked about. You’re seated by your husband’s rank. It was ridiculous. I said, “I feel really bad. I understand they don’t want to have anything to do with me. What should I do?” She goes, “Honey, that’s their problem. You just get up and do what you’re going to do.” It was so matter of fact. She was perfect. She was such a great inspiration to me. I loved her so much.

Zibby: Aw, that’s wonderful. The way that the other women treated you, it’s like watching one of those Mean Girls, my daughter’s teen movies. I couldn’t believe it, the scene with Nancy Reagan at the luncheon and all these little moments that you talked about. I’m so sorry that the red carpet was not rolled out.

Cindy: No, I wouldn’t have expected that. I’ll tell you what it was, what it did to me. It was a great learning tool, especially the Nancy Reagan incident at the White House. For me, it was, you always remember to be kind. There’s no reason to be unkind to anybody. You shouldn’t do that. That just reminded me how important it was to be nice and be thoughtful to people, for me, especially the younger ones. I enjoyed taking our younger wives, and now husbands, but wives under my wing from Arizona and making sure that everyone was happy and they were doing okay in Washington and those kinds of things because I didn’t have that. I really wish I had.

Zibby: What is it like at this stage when you’ve led such a public life and you have this memoir coming out? Do you ever just get tired? Do you want to just run to the gym or something and not have people recognize you? What is it like now?

Cindy: I’m used to it now. I’m very used to it. I’m more recognized now than I have been in some years past. What I like to remind myself is what John used to say to me. “Look, there’s no heavy lifting in this job. One day, no one’s going to know your name.” He’s right. I have a voice at this moment in time. I have a voice that I can use for good. I am using it. I intend to keep using it as long as I can and just enjoy every — I’ve had a front-row seat to history. I’ve never in my wildest dreams thought I would’ve been in the position that I was to be able to see and learn so much. For me, it was a great opportunity. It was also something that, obviously, it shaped my life completely. I’m happy for it. I’m happy for all the experiences I had. Even the bad ones I’m happy for.

Zibby: Tell me a little about the things you’re most passionate now in terms of your philanthropy and helping others.

Cindy: I’ve been working on the issue of human trafficking for years now. This is still a big portion of what I do. I’m the chairman of the board of the McCain Institute right now. We are involved in things like international leadership and then, of course, human rights, human dignity, human trafficking being a part of it. The first two years were set in the wave of making sure that people understood what human trafficking was and the ability to just recognize it. Now we’re in the stage where we’re actually activists. We’re on the ground and helping to not just stop it, but help people get the kind of justice that they deserve, these women and children especially. It’s been a journey with this. I love doing it. It’s needed. It’s not stopping. As much as I’d like to think we’ve had that kind of effect, we haven’t yet. It’s the area of the work that I do that’s most important to me.

Zibby: That’s wonderful. Give me some parenting advice here. I just have to ask. I have a lot of kids. You’ve obviously grown kids who have a strong sense of duty and all of this. What did you do right? You talked a lot about how you had all these times to yourself when John was in DC and you were in Arizona. You kind of had the week to yourself. What do you think you did that worked really well?

Cindy: What I tell young mothers especially is that the most important thing is consistency. Good or bad, consistency, in my opinion, is the biggest marker in raising children. You’re going to make mistakes. We all do. There was a time in my life when I had three teenagers at once and a fourth one really fast behind and really thought I was going to lose my mind. That was the time that I actually — I’m not kidding. I did this. My family has a beer company that has a lot of trucks. We have GPS locators on them. I even put locators on all my kids’ cars because there was so many of them. I needed to know where they were and what was going on. Not that I didn’t trust them, but I was terrified of kidnapping. I didn’t tell them until much later, years later, that I put GPS markers on their car.

Zibby: You’re telling them right now.

Cindy: Then I could watch them on a screen. I could see where the cars were and stuff. Consistency and a good friend of mine taught me about not sweating the little things. I used to be a real nut for making sure the house was perfect. My house had to be perfect. With kids, it just isn’t the way. She said, “Just relax about your house. That’ll get done. The most important thing are these little minds that you have in front of you that you need to keep encouraging and keep enlightening.” It was the best advice I was ever given from anybody, is not to sweat the little things.

Zibby: Does that apply to the marriage as well? How about the keys to a long-lasting marriage? I’m just dipping into all your sources here.

Cindy: In our case, we started out — we never lived together. We just didn’t do those things in those days. I married a man that I knew, of course, but I didn’t know him that well. There’s a big adjustment period in all of that, as you can imagine. For me, the most important part of our relationship, aside from the fact that we were deeply in love with each other, was the fact that we were great partners. We were partners in everything we did. At no time did John ever not have — if I needed to talk to him or get the kids — somebody did something that needed their father’s attention, he was always there. He was home every weekend. We treated his work in Washington like a deployment. That’s how we talked about it. It was a deployment. He would be home. He’s serving his country. It was the easiest way for me to make them understand that what he was doing was important but that he loved them too. It’s a balance, like anything. You balance.

I think the hardest thing — . John came home one weekend. It was during the Clinton-Lewinsky thing. The news was full of all this stuff. I literally was in the kitchen cooking. I realized that there’s this discussion going on on a television set — my kids are sitting in the kitchen — about the oral sex and all these things. In those days, you didn’t say those words, but now you do. I thought, oh, my god, how do I explain this? I got to turn the TV off. You couldn’t watch television. You couldn’t do anything. John comes home. They were not very old. The sassy one says at the dinner table to my husband, “What’s oral sex?” John, without missing a beat, looks over at him and says, “It’s when you talk about sex,” and left it at that. They were too young to know the real stuff. Like everyone, our family was no different than anybody else’s. We had our ruckus moments. We had our tragic moments. We had our fun times too. I love our dinner table conversations. We encouraged political debate. You had to be civil at our table, but we encouraged all the gamuts. Indeed, it was fun. We had a lot of fun.

Zibby: Now that you’ve gone through the book-writing process, how did you find that experience? What advice would you give to someone who’s thinking about writing a book?

Cindy: For me, it was really fun. It was fun to put things together. There are some elements, obviously, that are hard work on it. The audio portion of it here was particularly challenging for me to do the audiobook. It’s fun. It’s a really fun experience. I would do it again. I don’t know what I would write about at this moment. There’s some interest in me doing a travel book on some of the experiences that I’ve seen and the weird places I’ve been. I’ve been to some really weird places. That may be in the works.

Zibby: Excellent. I do have something called Moms Don’t Have Time to Travel. If you ever want to write an essay about your traveling experiences, I have a place for it.

Cindy: Oh, good. It’s interesting you say that. When spring break would come and the longer holidays would come, I had no problem pulling my kids out a day early to travel. John and I both felt that travel was one of the best educators. We were always going someplace, overseas, be it local, whatever it was. There was always a portion of that that was educational. I think I had as much fun as the kids did planning it and doing it. I encourage people to travel with their kids. It’s fun.

Zibby: Yes. My mom always used to say, “You know Zibby, if you travel with the kids, it’s a trip. It’s not a vacation.” I’m like, okay.

Cindy: She’s right. Your mother’s right, so long as you’re organized. You have to be organized.

Zibby: She lives in Phoenix too, actually. She lives in Scottsdale.

Cindy: Wonderful. Good.

Zibby: Cindy, thank you so much. Thank you for chatting. Thanks for sharing your story. This was so much fun. I can’t wait to read about your travel journeys.

Cindy: I appreciate you having me on. Good luck with your four children. I know I’m not telling you anything you don’t know, but the hardest job you’ll ever do is be a mother and the best job you’ll ever do is be a mother. Now I sound like my mother. It’s gone in a blink. It really is.

Zibby: I know. I’m trying to hold on.

Cindy: I know. Thank you so much.

Zibby: And hold onto my sanity. Thanks so much. Take care. Buh-bye.

Cindy: Thanks. Bye.

Cindy McCain, STRONGER

STRONGER by Cindy McCain

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