01.19.09

Cindy Speaks

In a conversation with her daughter (and blogger) Meghan, Cindy McCain opens up about subjects she couldn’t discuss before: anger at The New York Times, wardrobe malfunctions, and Obama’s inauguration.

While we were on the campaign trail, a lot was said about my mom, Cindy McCain. The media called her a Stepford wife and a Barbie doll. But because my dad was the Republican presidential nominee, she had to be careful about responding to the things being written about her. Today, all that has changed. I blogged during my dad’s campaign (sometimes to the consternation of his staff), and witnessed my mom’s interactions with the public and press firsthand. Now, as she heads to Washington for the inauguration, she opens up to me about that infamous New York Times profile (and the other media battles), being portrayed as a Stepford wife, and how her skin has thickened since the run in 2000.

We want President-elect Obama to succeed because it's what is best for the country. But for me it is a very bittersweet moment.

What is the best part about not being first lady?

Well, I guess the best part would be that I can drive my own car and I am back to my normal everyday life. I can make choices and I have the ability to spend as much time as I want with all of you, which is most important to me. I am back to doing what I love—being a mom, taking care of my family, taking care of needs that are met, and with a family that is our size, that can get complicated.

I mean, you must be relieved in some sense not to have all the people around anymore.

Yes, and although the Secret Service were amazing, dedicated people, it is nice to be able to go out if I want to go out and not plan it ahead of time. Just everything about that, I am enjoying being spontaneous right now.

We had long discussions during the campaign about both of us feeling like D.C. outsiders. Why do you think we both felt that way? Do you think it’s because our family lives in Arizona and you elected to live here instead of D.C.?

First of all, the obvious answer is yes because we have not lived in Washington, D.C., and I personally have always thought that it was a good thing. Remember, I am not being critical of those who chose to live and work in Washington, D.C. However, for us, I grew up a Westerner and I was most comfortable in the West and therefore raised you in the West. Your father and I decided early on to raise you all outside the Beltway so you would not grow up being affected, thinking you were important because your father is a senator. I also think that in some cases the way we were approached because we are not from D.C. seemed threatening to a lot of people. Because we were seen as outside the Beltway, in some cases both of us ended up being misunderstood by the press.

What was the hardest day on the campaign trail?

Election night I stood there looking down the line at everyone as your father was making his concession speech and I looked at all of you realizing there we were doing probably the hardest thing ever—watching your dad concede something he had wanted for a long time, and all of you were all so dignified. I've never been more proud of my family than that evening.

Another hard day was the day The New York Times published their profile on me. I had never spoken with the reporter who wrote the article. She contacted the kids that went to high school with my youngest daughter over the Internet, and as a parent, that was scary. I think it was so hard because I had to look at all of you and say we were doing the right thing by running again, and yet it was incredibly difficult, it was incredibly heart-wrenching.

What was the highest point?

The highest point for me was winning South Carolina. Because it had been such a rocky ride before in 2000, for me, in my head, you had to set a point where you get to in, the point I had to get to was South Carolina because of what had happened to your sister before. Not that we wanted vindication—it was just what was important to me.

I know I cringed at some articles written about you where you were accused of being a Stepford wife or a Barbie doll. Why do you think the media didn't take the time to dig deeper into your personality and instead put you in a box?

Well, I think, without sounding bitter—and I'm not bitter—I do believe there was a media bias. I do believe that the media had a specific agenda and with that said, the American people cast their vote. But I do believe that there is a voyeuristic media: Everyone is a reporter now because everyone has a camera on their phone, the face of reporting in general has changed. There is very little difference now between journalism and gossip.

I truly feel that unless the media goes back to unbiased reporting they are going to do a disservice to the youth of this country. The future of this country lies in the youth and we have to be good stewards of information and truth. There is so much more to it than just one article and people telling lies, it affects much more than that. It is interesting that it got to the point where The New York Times profile of me is being used as an example of the bias in reporting in journalism classes, at your alma mater, Columbia's journalism school, I believe.

Are there any outfits you wish you wouldn't have worn on the trail?

[Laughs] Yeah, I think the one I wore the night I spoke at the convention. It somehow was ill-fitting, we had to actually cut the inside of the sleeves. The sleeves were too tight and literally I was sitting there and my arms went to sleep. Clothes-wise, I am sure there were some outfits I look back and wish I hadn't worn that day, but for the most part I felt like they were a good representation of me. People overanalyzed my choice of clothing. Number one, they had to be comfortable and easy to pack. There was more to it than just vanity. It was a little bit funny to listen to the commentary of the clothing because I didn't think about it.

Did I ever embarrass you?

No, you did not. I was, and am, still very proud of you.

Come on, I know you were less than thrilled with the profile of me in GQ!

You didn't embarrass me with the GQ article but it was a good lesson for you to learn, and I could have strangled that reporter, but I had to let you learn that lesson. I did cringe sometimes when reporters abused your friendship with them. You were genuinely friendly and respectful of them and I was worried they were using you.

What was the hardest part about the experience, both physically and emotionally?

I couldn't respond the way I would want to on different things. When I wanted to respond to negative press, I would have to pretend it wasn't bothering me. When the article came out about your brother and where he was, that was very, very difficult. Extremely irresponsible. Not being able to respond is the hard part. Physically, the pace was grueling. When I am stressed I don't eat very much and I lost a lot of weight. People would talk about me being a skinny old woman and I resented people talking about me that way. The kind of lifestyle at the time, when all you eat is coffee, run around from place to place, and don't get much sleep, you're not going to gain weight.

What was the worst hotel you ever stayed in?

Ohh my, that's a really tough one. That one in Iowa that had the bathtub in the middle of the room was pretty bad. I have forgotten the name.

What are you doing right now and what are your plans for 2009?

Right now I am in the process of putting together and forming a new nonprofit, and the name is A Cause Greater. The goal of this organization is to make it easy for people to get up off the couch, to serve a cause greater than themselves. We will have an interactive website, where people can choose to give their time, money, or services to charities that have undergone a pretty thorough vetting process. It will be a one-stop shop for giving. We are going to match people with their nonprofit interests, both in the US and worldwide. There's a world full of people that need help, and I am going to make it easier for people to get to them.

I have been working with nonprofits for over 30 years, and I am constantly asked by people what they can do, or where they can give. Everyone needs a little help and the peace of mind that their money/time are going to good causes. I have been fortunate to work with both Operation Smile and Halo Trust, both wonderful organizations. Unfortunately I have also come in contact with organizations that haven't handled their money or people well. With A Cause Greater, people will know that their money and their time are not only going to be taken care of, but they are going to really enjoy what they get to contribute to.

The one thing I always wished was that people would have gotten to see your sense of humor in different situations. Why do you think that never was able to happen?

Well, I agree. The one thing I do know is that people that know me know I have a very wicked sense of humor. The campaign was never about me. The people that were covering us made a choice and decision on what they wanted people to know about me. Yes, we could have had some fun.

You’re about to leave for D.C. for the inauguration. Does it feel bittersweet?

Yes, it's bittersweet. I was talking to your dad today; both of us are supportive of the administration because we believe in this country. We want President-elect Obama to succeed because it's what is best for the country. But for me it is a very bittersweet moment and I believe your father would have made a good president. For me it will be a hard moment, but I am proud to be there.

Meghan McCain is originally from Phoenix. She graduated from Columbia University in 2007. She previously wrote for Newsweek magazine and created the website mccainblogette.com.