Sunday, June 08, 2008

The First Mrs. McCain

As a right-wing "values" candidate, John McCain has some serious flaws, not the least of which is his marriage. An article in a British newspaper highlights the dilemma with a starkness that I have not seen so far during this political cycle. If the U.S. media take notice, it could bring some overdue attention to the presumptive Republican nominee's hypocrisy on an issue the GOP hopes to exploit at the ballot box in November.

McCain received a boisterous ovation during a recent campaign event when he affirmed his opposition to same-sex marriage based on his stated belief in the "sanctity" of the institution.

"On the issue of marriage," McCain told an audience member, I just believe, frankly, in the sanctity and unique status of marriage between man and woman. That's what I believe, and that's what I support, and that's what I will fight for."

Lost in the thunderous applause, however, was the fact that the audience member did not ask McCain for his opinion about gay marriage. Rather, she pointed out that his adherence to GOP orthodoxy on the subject is inconsistent with his personal history, that of a man who is married to a woman that he met while he was still married to his first wife. It is not surprising, then, that he ignored her comment and its implied question in favor of the standard right-wing applause line on the "sanctity" of marriage.

But does John McCain really believe that marriage, even one between "man and woman", is sacred? His personal example suggests that he does not even understand the meaning of the word.

McCain likes to illustrate his moral fibre by referring to his five years as a prisoner-of-war in Vietnam. And to demonstrate his commitment to family values, the 71-year-old former US Navy pilot pays warm tribute to his beautiful blonde wife, Cindy, with whom he has four children.

But there is another Mrs McCain who casts a ghostly shadow over the Senator’s presidential campaign. She is seldom seen and rarely written about, despite being mother to McCain’s three eldest children.

And yet, had events turned out differently, it would be she, rather than Cindy, who would be vying to be First Lady. She is McCain’s first wife, Carol, who was a famous beauty and a successful swimwear model when they married in 1965.

She was the woman McCain dreamed of during his long incarceration and torture in Vietnam’s infamous ‘Hanoi Hilton’ prison and the woman who faithfully stayed at home looking after the children and waiting anxiously for news.
With this profile of Carol McCain, the British newspaper The Daily Mail unearths details of John McCain's first marriage that illustrate the hollowness of his public image as a principled defender of traditional values.

Three years into McCain's captivity as a prisoner of war, Carol received life-threatening injuries in a car accident. By the time he came home, McCain's once-beautiful wife was five inches shorter after nearly two dozen operations, and had gained a great deal of weight. The Daily Mail quotes several of his acquaintances as saying that McCain, "appalled" by Carol's appearance, began a series of affairs almost immediately. Eventually, he met Cindy Hensley, heir to a beer distribution fortune, and married her one month after his divorce from Carol.

Ted Sampley, who fought with US Special Forces in Vietnam and is now a leading campaigner for veterans’ rights, said: ‘I have been following John McCain’s career for nearly 20 years. I know him personally. There is something wrong with this guy and let me tell you what it is – deceit.

‘When he came home and saw that Carol was not the beauty he left behind, he started running around on her almost right away. Everybody around him knew it.

‘Eventually he met Cindy and she was young and beautiful and very wealthy. At that point McCain just dumped Carol for something he thought was better.

‘This is a guy who makes such a big deal about his character. He has no character. He is a fake. If there was any character in that first marriage, it all belonged to Carol.’

One old friend of the McCains said: ‘Carol always insists she is not bitter, but I think that’s a defence mechanism. She also feels deeply in his debt because in return for her agreement to a divorce, he promised to pay for her medical care for the rest of her life.’
Except that "he" couldn't pay for anything. As the story points out, McCain was earning $25,000 per year as a naval officer. His mistress, Cindy, was wealthy. Therefore, in exchange for her husband, it was Cindy who was willing give Carol money for her medical bills. What a heartwarming story. For pure emotional impact, it is right up there with Newt Gingrich serving his wife with divorce papers as she recovered from ovarian cancer surgery.

This is the John McCain the news media present as a gruff-but-loveable old teddy bear; a noble, heroic straight-talker who just wants to do the right thing, no matter what it costs him.

And this is the John McCain for whom many supporters of Hillary Clinton say they will vote instead of Barack Obama.

So deep is the sense of grievance among a segment of Clinton's supporters - women of a certain age - that they are willing to throw this election to John McCain. That'll show 'em, they say. Next time, maybe they'll think twice before tossing a woman aside for a younger, more charismatic man.

They watched professional media types sing smitten fanboy hymns to Obama and, at the same time, spend hours dissecting Clinton's laugh and cleavage. The prospect of electing a black man clearly thrilled commentators, while the prospect of electing a woman elicited a derisive shrug. For some women, reaction to the coverage was radicalizing.

What's more, seeing Clinton losing to a younger, more charismatic man seemed to echo a primal experience of middle-aged female humiliation. "One can find it in any place of employment," Steinem tells me. "Women who were senior tellers in banks were performing the same work as junior vice presidents. They trained them as they came in at the entry level and then saw them pass upward."
This part of the Democratic primary narrative has always bothered me. The phenomenon Steinem refers to doesn't ring true as a grievance specific to women. Men can, and do, register the same complaint.

Isn't the primal, shared experience among middle-aged women related, rather, to being tossed aside in favor of younger women?

Think of the experienced news anchor in her forties or fifties who finds herself fired, or perhaps back on the street as a reporter, while a pretty 25-year-old takes her place on the desk.

Or think of the actress over 40 who can't get lead roles anymore.

Or the wife who, just as she should be enjoying the fruits of her commitment to husband, children, and home, finds herself tossed aside for a younger woman with a flat stomach and no wrinkles.

Isn't that really the shared "primal experience of middle-aged female humiliation?"

For all the wounded feelings about sexism in the media, what could Barack Obama have possibly done in defeating Hillary Clinton that would make a philandering bum like John McCain appealing in any way to Gloria Steinem, Ellen Malcolm, or Joan Walsh?

Forget for a moment about how disastrous a McCain administration would be for reproductive rights, social justice, and women's rights in the workplace. How could any woman, especially one angry about middle-aged female humiliation, cast a vote for McCain even in protest?

If John McCain really wants to make "character" an issue in this election, that is a debate Barack Obama and the Democrats should be eager to have. On this issue, as with practically every other one, the real John McCain and John McCain of popular myth could not be farther apart.

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