I delved into Ariel Levy’s lengthy New Yorker profile of Cindy McCain with the belief that I would emerge feeling much like I do after watching most romantic comedies aimed at female audiences: vaguely annoyed, not particularly moved, and bored and frustrated with the predictability of it all. After all, I’ve heard Ms. McCain’s rare public speeches, her insistence that family values are the core around which our ailing society must revolve (despite the fact that her relationship with John began with love at first sight at a cocktail party – while John was still married and living with his first wife and three children), and her cutesy, winking, astoundingly unfeministic reminders that behind every man is a supportive woman, which makes me want to hurl any nearby object at my radio.
Levy’s piece defied my expectations, though. Her profile of John McCain’s blonde, size-0-St.-John-skirt-suited, “pampered and brittle” wife was brutally honest, fantastically observant, and extremely well-written. There are some anger-inducing moments in the piece – like when a family member recounts the time McCain described herself as an only child at her father’s funeral, despite the fact that her half-sister was sitting in the front row. There’s also her quirky tendency to fabricate critical details in many of her stories. McCain loves to recount the trip to Bangladesh, during which Mother Theresa encouraged McCain to adopt a ten-week-old orphan with a cleft palate. The Christian Science Monitor reported on August 20 that that whole Mother Theresa part is false. Levy writes:
“The stories that Cindy McCain tells all tend to have the same elements: secrecy, unilateral action, revelation. She is a kind of blond Lucille Ball in these tales, always up to something, never wanting to be found out by Ricky. But her madcap (if genteel) fifties-housewife sitcom persona is complicated by the more troublesome aspects of these anecdotes. She often leaves out a detail or two, omissions that change the shade of the story.”
Overall, though, the piece mainly made me feel sad. I feel sad for Cindy McCain. This is a portrait of McCain as someone who basically raised her children alone (she stayed in Phoenix, while John was in DC five days a week – for the past 20 years), was addicted to painkillers for at least three years (she admits to taking 10-15 Percocet and Vicodin pills a day: “When the kids were young and I was alone with all these babies, by Thursday I’d have a pity party”) before her husband even noticed (and then it was only because a pending DEA investigation forced her to fess up to him), spent four months on her own, recovering from a stroke, and now lives in constant fear that she’ll inadvertently say something that’ll screw up McCain’s campaign:
“McCain zigzags constantly between the two roles she was brought up with: she is the brave, individualistic Westerner who can ride the range and fly a plane and then the polite, fragile lady of the house with the flawless outfits and the duct-taped mouth. These are very different roles, but they both require privacy. Being a campaign spouse—or the First Lady—is an exceedingly public role. It is little wonder, then, that when she is on the campaign trail Cindy McCain often looks miserable… This is women’s work, as the McCains have defined it: to keep their own suffering quiet.”
This is picture of Cindy McCain as woman who suffers silently, but puts on a good “first wife” front, and John McCain as a man who’s always been to busy to pay any attention. How’s that for family values?