For the first time in American history, the two candidates for President have both been affected by divorce. Barack Obama’s mother, Ann, was divorced twice and had a child from each marriage. John McCain divorced his first wife, Carol, to marry his current wife, Cindy.
Of course, we have had a divorced President before: Jane Wyman divorced Ronald Reagan in 1949 on the grounds of “extreme mental cruelty.” (He married the devoted Nancy four years later.) Reagan went on to pioneer no-fault divorce as Governor of California by signing the Family Law Act of 1969.
Perhaps only someone who had been through a divorce would see the wisdom in such divorce reform.
So what might we expect from John McCain?
McCain’s divorce was in 1980, after 14 years of marriage, six of which he spent as a prisoner of war in Vietnam. By all accounts he remains friendly with Carol McCain, their daughter, Sydney, and Carol’s two sons, Doug and Andy, whom he adopted. Carol McCain fully supports his run for President.
As Nicholas Kristoff said in “The New York Times” in 2000, when McCain was first running for President, “No candidate could be luckier in his choice of an ex-wife than Senator McCain, and he must be the only politician around who could cheat on his wife and divorce her and still get her support and her campaign contributions today.”
If an ex-wife says something nice, that’s a hell of an endorsement.
So, end of story? Is it any of our business?
As has been proven in the John Edwards affair, people seem to feel that private behavior, like the lying and deceiving that Edwards did, indicates unworthiness to be President.
For all the venom hurled at Edwards, little has gone to McCain.
“The Los Angeles Times” ran a story this week that said that McCain’s divorce from his first wife was anything but pleasant, and led to a social and political freeze from Ronald and Nancy Reagan. The story added that McCain appears to have lied about the timing of the new woman, and the end of his first marriage.
In his 2002 memoir “Worth the Fighting For,” McCain wrote that he had separated from Carol before he began dating the 24-year-old heiress, Cindy Hensley. Documents show that McCain, then 43, sued his wife for divorce on Feb. 19, 1980. In the petition he said that they had lived together as man and wife until Jan. 7, 1980.
But he met Cindy in April of 1979, at a party in Honolulu. April to January is nine months.
Recently the poised Cindy McCain said on “The Tonight Show,” about the night they met, “He kind of chased me around... the hors d'oeuvre table.”
McCain relates in his book: “When it came time to leave the party, I persuaded her to join me for drinks at the Royal Hawaiian Hotel. By the evening's end, I was in love."
McCain was not in politics in 1980, but he was a highly decorated Navy pilot working in Washington. His marriage to Carol had taken a turn for the worse when he returned from imprisonment in Vietnam to meet her after she had been in a devastating car accident.
Kristoff wrote, in “The New York Times” story, that in 1973 McCain “stepped off a military transport plane on crutches, an instant war hero, and quickly had a painful shock. His wife, Carol, a tall, slim woman who had once been a model, had nearly died in a car wreck... the injuries left her four inches shorter and on crutches, and she had gained a good deal of weight.”
“The LA Times” says that McCain told friends she was not the same woman he had married. There were rumors that he was having affairs between 1973 and 1978; those troubles were serious enough that the McCains separated for two weeks at one point.
Still, his wife told friends, she was shocked when he announced he wanted a divorce. She said later that the breakup wasn’t due to his imprisonment in Vietnam, or her car accident.
She told the English newspaper The Daily Mail in June that "My marriage ended because John McCain didn't want to be 40, he wanted to be 25. You know that happens... It just does.”
But it doesn’t make it right.
Ross Perot, who paid for Carol McCain’s hospital bills while John McCain was a prisoner of war, said, “After he came home, Carol walked with a limp. So he threw her over for a poster girl with big money from Arizona. And the rest is history.”
But John McCain honored his married life with Carol financially.
Her settlement included alimony and child support. She got the right to a townhouse in Alexandria, Virginia, and ownership of a beach house in Florida. Her husband also said he would pay for her ongoing medical treatments for the rest of her life. Nancy Reagan hired her as a press assistant in Ronald Reagan’s 1980 campaign, and many stalwarts in the Republican party rallied around the popular and sympathetic first wife.
She did not contest the divorce, which was granted within a month. A few weeks later, John McCain married Cindy Hensley, whose family wealth backed his political career. They went on to have four children, and by all accounts it is a happy marriage.
McCain has always taken full blame for the break up of his first marriage. "One of the reasons I've been reluctant to judge other people is that I've had so many failures of my own,” he said. “I failed when I was in prison. I failed in my marriage. I think that if there are any benefits from my failure, it's to realize that other people fail, too."
Don Gordon, an Ohio University professor and creator of the “Children in the Middle” program for divorcing families, notes that McCain and Obama, who grew up with a step father and a half sister, in a series of homes, may have learned resilience from their experiences.
“Being President is a piece of cake compared to going through a divorce.” he said. “They can tough it out no matter how bad it gets.”
And with those lessons learned, face the future that awaits them.