Noam Scheiber: How Cindy Hensley invented John McCain

Roundup: Media's Take

On Saturday, May 17, 1980, Cindy Lou Hensley married Navy Captain John McCain at the First United Methodist Church on Central Avenue in Phoenix, not far from the bride's childhood home. After the ceremony, the wedding entourage headed nearly three miles east to the Arizona Biltmore resort, a sprawling gray oasis designed by a Frank Lloyd Wright protégé in the 1920s. Guests fêted the couple in the resort's Aztec Room, an elegant, twelve-sided banquet hall with a vaulted, gold-leaf ceiling. The 25-year-old bride seemed impervious to the desert heat. She had flawless skin and wore a long-sleeved gown with a veil that extended to the floor.

The only crack in the day's elegant veneer came from the groom. A photograph of the couple, taken against the backdrop of First United's distinctive silver cross and stained-glass wall, shows him stuffed awkwardly into a black tuxedo, which rides high up front and hangs low in the rear. His nearly white hair slopes haphazardly off to the side, and his skin is splotchy and red.

A celebrated aviator and POW, McCain was then the Navy's chief lobbyist to the U.S. Senate. Two of his groomsmen were friends he'd acquired on the job--the young Maine Senator Bill Cohen and Senator Gary Hart of Colorado. It was the type of rarefied company that would normally have turned heads at a provincial wedding. But, over the course of the day, it gradually dawned on Cohen that the bride's family was the main attraction. Cindy's father, Jim, was one of the most successful businessmen in the state--the owner of its largest Anheuser-Busch distributorship. The wedding of his daughter was a bona fide social event. "The Hensley family was very prominent," Cohen recently told me. "Having Gary and I there--it may have impressed a few people, but it didn't make an impact. . . . We were walk-ons."

There was, as it happens, one small incident that hinted at this dynamic. At the climax of the wedding ceremony, with everyone looking on, the pastor prepared to present the new couple: "I now pronounce you Mr. and Mrs. . . ."--at which point there was an awkward pause. "He stopped, he obviously didn't remember," recalls David Frazer, who was then Jim Hensley's corporate lawyer. Finally, mercifully, someone from the wedding party interjected: "John McCain."

As Cindy McCain faithfully shadows her husband in his quest for the presidency, it's hard to imagine that she was once the senior member of their partnership. Looking back, McCain's steady march from admiral's son to war hero to White House contender seems almost preordained--certainly unrelated to the brittle blond cipher at his side. Cindy brings to mind the political wives of yore--a perpetually demure and deferential presence. All the more so in an age of Elizabeth Edwards and Michelle Obama....
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