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Another life away from the campaign

Cindy McCain uses her energy and wealth to help causes such as land-mine removal and children's healthcare.

April 16, 2008|Jill Zuckman | Chicago Tribune

DJAKOVA, KOSOVO — An icy wind whips by as Cindy McCain tramps across hillsides still slick from snow on the Albanian border, wearing well-worn hiking boots and carrying her Prada purse. She's looking out at minefields and visiting schools where children must thread their way around leftover munitions.

One headmaster told her he had uncovered a cluster bomb when he went out to plant a tree. At another school, the principal said work on a new sports field was halted when workers found more than a dozen unexploded bombs.

McCain's trip to Kosovo last month with Halo Trust, an international group that removes land mines from post-conflict countries, was a little more comfortable than her typical overseas trips. She has camped out in rural Angola, and was once left stranded when an overbearing African minister of education commandeered her charter plane. She has seen a boy get blown up by a mine in Kuwait.

Those images are a studied contrast to the stylish, perfectly coiffed 53-year-old McCain seen on the presidential campaign trail. She's a constant presence with her husband, John McCain, the presumptive Republican nominee. She likes to say, "I'll be brief," and she is -- preferring to cede the spotlight quickly.

The portrait of Cindy McCain is a complex one. While her husband is talking daily about the situation in Iraq, she's worrying about her sons in the military, making sure her adopted Bangladeshi daughter is doing her homework in Phoenix and trying to stay healthy four years after a stroke.

Then there is her philanthropic work in some of the world's most miserable reaches. On her to-do list: a visit to Darfur to try to aid the refugees and bring attention to the genocide and rapes.

"It's not about being a cowboy," she said during a series of interviews over the course of her four-day trip to Kosovo. "It's just these types of things don't necessarily happen in Phoenix, Ariz., and you have to go where it is."

In between, she's helping her husband make a second run at the White House.

The Arizona senator first approached his wife in mid-2006 about another presidential bid. She ignored it, half hoping the idea would go away. But after opening presents that Christmas, the McCains held a family meeting.

That session included Meghan, 23, a blogger on the campaign; Jack, 21, a junior at the U.S. Naval Academy; Jimmy, 19, an enlisted Marine who has served in Iraq; and Bridget, 16, the McCains' adopted daughter.

The children peppered their father with questions. Bridget wanted to know what he would do in the face of personal attacks. In 2000, Cindy McCain's past had become campaign fodder: There were stories about her onetime addiction to Percocet and Vicodin following two back operations. She also recalled attacks that depicted her husband as being mentally unstable as a result of his time as a prisoner of war.

"It still affects me," she said. "John says, 'Oh, don't let it bother you.' . . . Well, I'm not as tough as he is, and things like that do bother me."

In addition, Cindy McCain was working to regain her health after suffering a stroke in 2004. She was focused on eating well, exercising and reducing stress -- things not usually compatible with a campaign. But with two sons in the military and a nation at war, Cindy McCain said, "It was not only something he wanted to do badly, but we needed him for the country."

One of the hardest things Cindy McCain has had to do on the trail, she said, is not talk about Jimmy and not fall apart, potentially upsetting the parents of soldiers who are serving or have been killed. "I'm a crier, I'll admit it. I just had to button up," she said.

McCain believes in her sons' military service, but declines to say whether she had doubts about the war, saying she "leaves those decisions" to her husband and "the men and women who know it better and understand it better."

Despite her reluctance to comment about policy, she got riled up in Wisconsin when she saw video of Michelle Obama, the wife of Democratic candidate Barack Obama, saying that "for the first time in my adult lifetime, I am really proud of my country." Taking the stage to introduce her husband, McCain caught the media's attention when she said with more bite than usual:

"I am proud of my country. I don't know about you, if you heard those words earlier, I am very proud of my country."

She said later: "It just spilled out of my mouth, and then I got back on the bus and I thought . . . 'Oh, I should never have opened my mouth.' "

More typically after introducing her husband, McCain stands to the side, her eyes often trained onto some sort of middle distance. She admits she's often thinking about other things.

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