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Friday, August 22, 2008

Made Man

by , the New Republic

How Cindy Hensley invented John McCain.

By the following year, Cindy had developed a serious relationship with a classmate named Kerry McCluggage. McCluggage was a catch by any conventional measure: smart, ambitious, strikingly handsome. He would ascend to the presidency of his fraternity, win admission to Harvard Business School, and head Universal's television studios in his thirties. But McCluggage came up short on the one metric he couldn't control: his pedigree. He was the rare USC student putting himself through school. Friends of Cindy say the Hensleys were concerned about his family's financial situation and asked their daughter to end the relationship.

Cindy was by all accounts taken with McCluggage. They had dated steadily for over three years and at one point were even "pinned." (That is, Cindy wore McCluggage's fraternity pin as a symbol of their commitment.) But Cindy appeared to accept her parents' judgment. For all their wealth, the Hensleys were still striving to secure their place in Phoenix society. The source of their fortune was liquor, after all--not the most genteel business under any circumstances, especially so in Jim Hensley's case.

Cindy dutifully internalized her family's priorities. One night, she and two roommates were sitting in the Theta House flipping through an issue of Cosmo. They stumbled onto one of the magazine's trademark quizzes and, on a lark, decided to take it. The quiz claimed it could divine why a woman would get married. According to the results, the first roommate would marry for love. The second for money. And Cindy? "Cindy," recalls Nani Bush, one of the roommates, "would marry for prestige."

In 1975, during Cindy Hensley's junior year of college, John McCain took command of a squadron in Jacksonville, Florida, called VA-174, which trained pilots to fly A-7 jets. McCain was a well-known figure in the area even before he'd issued his first order. His wife, Carol, had been active in the POW movement during his nearly six-year captivity in Vietnam. "We all knew about John McCain," recalls Carl Smith, a friend and fellow Navy officer who worked on the base. "He had a certain celebrity status."

One upshot of this status was that McCain was soon in demand as a speaker at community events. Some of the local elders--retired military types, business leaders, Republican activists--began encouraging him to run for Congress. Before long, the Democratic establishment was treating him like a bona fide opponent. While speaking at his own son's high school graduation, McCain looked up and recognized a couple of Democratic operatives. He jokingly welcomed them to the ceremony.


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.

But the reality behind this political creation myth is far more complex. McCain was a relative nobody when he married Cindy Hensley--a middle-aged divorcé working a mid-level job in a far-off bureaucracy. It was the Hensleys who would breathe life into his prospects and provide a springboard for his ascent. Their ambitions burned every bit as brightly as his did. Except that, unlike McCain, they'd long since hidden their motives from public view.

Cindy Hensley was raised to think of herself as a member of the Phoenix elect. Her father Jim was the Phoenix area's exclusive distributor of Anheuser-Busch products like Budweiser, and, while she was in elementary school, he moved the family into a cavernous ranch-style house on Central Avenue. It had an enormous circular driveway and a fiberglass Clydesdale out front. Cindy's bedroom boasted a plush circular bed.

Cindy's mother, Marguerite "Smitty" Hensley, was a stern disciplinarian, but Jim showered his daughter with gifts. Jim and Cindy shared an interest in high-performance cars, and Jim would often take the family to the Indianapolis 500. In high school, Cindy drove a pink Jeep with a license plate that read MS BUD.

The University of Southern California was a conservative place in those days, and Cindy fit in seamlessly upon arriving there. During her freshman year, she joined Kappa Alpha Theta, a kind of finishing school for aspiring matrons. The sorority didn't allow alcohol in its house or men above the first floor unannounced. The "Theta Ladies," as they were known, even applied these rules to their fathers. If a proud papa showed up to help move his daughter in, he'd have to yell "man on the floor" before walking upstairs.

Cindy was an education major and took her studies seriously, perhaps only slightly less seriously than she took her consumption habits. "She loved to go shopping. If she would buy one thing, she would buy five," says one friend. Around the Theta House, Cindy was regarded as dutiful and good-natured, if somewhat withdrawn. "She was more on the reserved side," says Betsy McKibbin, who knew Cindy from their pledge class. "She was never one of these outgoing, gregarious people." Another classmate sighs: "As much time as I spent in her room--or she in my room--watching TV, talking about boys, I never felt close to her."

The Hensleys remained an active presence in their daughter's life well into adulthood. Jim and Smitty would materialize several times a year to treat Cindy and some classmates to dinner. "They were always just very generous with Cindy's friends," says Brad McCroskey, who dated (and later married) one of Cindy's sorority sisters. Sometimes the Hensleys would spirit Cindy and a girlfriend out of town for the weekend--to the annual USC-Notre Dame game or on a short holiday. One year, Cindy's parents threw her a lavish birthday party at the Beverly Wilshire in Beverly Hills. Many of her sorority sisters attended, as did a healthy contingent of family friends. The Hensleys bedded down in the presidential suite.

Romantic affairs were not outside the Hensleys' purview. Cindy was, in fact, in regular contact with her parents about prospective love interests. Early in college, a date had tried to hold her hand and kiss her, steps she wasn't yet keen on taking. After making arrangements for another outing, she had second thoughts and enlisted her father to bail her out. Jim told her to inform the young man she had a family engagement.

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