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Carol McCain is the wife John left behind when he returned from Viet Nam. Bloggers have heard about how she suffered a life threatening car accident while John was still a POW and how she didn’t want him to worry about her so suffered silently without telling him. We’ve also heard that she still refuses to talk about him which is why so little is known about her in this country.
McCain likes to illustrate his moral fibre by referring to his five years as a prisoner-of-war in Vietnam. And to demonstrate his commitment to family values, the 71-year-old former US Navy pilot pays warm tribute to his beautiful blonde wife, Cindy, with whom he has four children.
But there is another Mrs McCain who casts a ghostly shadow over the Senator’s presidential campaign. She is seldom seen and rarely written about, despite being mother to McCain’s three eldest children.
And yet, had events turned out differently, it would be she, rather than Cindy, who would be vying to be First Lady. She is McCain’s first wife, Carol, who was a famous beauty and a successful swimwear model when they married in 1965.
She was the woman McCain dreamed of during his long incarceration and torture in Vietnam’s infamous ‘Hanoi Hilton’ prison and the woman who faithfully stayed at home looking after the children and waiting anxiously for news.
But when McCain returned to America in 1973 to a fanfare of publicity and a handshake from Richard Nixon, he discovered his wife had been disfigured in a terrible car crash three years earlier. Her car had skidded on icy roads into a telegraph pole on Christmas Eve, 1969. Her pelvis and one arm were shattered by the impact and she suffered massive internal injuries.
When Carol was discharged from hospital after six months of life-saving surgery, the prognosis was bleak. In order to save her legs, surgeons
had been forced to cut away huge sections of shattered bone, taking with it her tall, willowy figure. She was confined to a wheelchair and was forced to use a catheter.
Through sheer hard work, Carol learned to walk again. But when John McCain came home from Vietnam, she had gained a lot of weight and bore little resemblance to her old self.
Today, she stands at just 5ft4in and still walks awkwardly, with a pronounced limp. Her body is held together by screws and metal plates and, at 70, her face is worn by wrinkles that speak of decades of silent suffering.
For nearly 30 years, Carol has maintained a dignified silence about the accident, McCain and their divorce. But last week at the bungalow where she now lives at Virginia Beach, a faded seaside resort 200 miles south of Washington, she told The Mail on Sunday how McCain divorced her in 1980 and married Cindy, 18 years his junior and the heir to an Arizona brewing fortune, just one month later.
Carol insists she remains on good terms with her ex-husband, who agreed as part of their divorce settlement to pay her medical costs for life. ‘I have no bitterness,’ she says. ‘My accident is well recorded. I had 23 operations, I am five inches shorter than I used to be and I was in hospital for six months. It was just awful, but it wasn’t the reason for my divorce.
‘My marriage ended because John McCain didn’t want to be 40, he wanted to be 25. You know that happens…it just does.’
Some of McCain’s acquaintances are less forgiving, however. They portray the politician as a self-centred womaniser who effectively abandoned his crippled wife to ‘play the field’. They accuse him of finally settling on Cindy, a former rodeo beauty queen, for financial reasons.
Another friend added: ‘Carol didn’t fight him. She felt her infirmity made her an impediment to him. She justified his actions because of all he had gone through. She used to say, “He just wants to make up for lost time.”’
Indeed, to many in their circle the saddest part of the break-up was Carol’s decision to resign herself to losing a man she says she still adores.
Friends confirm she has remained friends with McCain and backed him in all his campaigns. ‘He was very generous to her in the divorce but of course he could afford to be, since he was marrying Cindy,’ one observed.
McCain transferred the Florida beach house to Carol and gave her the right to live in their jointly-owned townhouse in the Washington suburb of Alexandria. He also agreed to pay her alimony and child support.
A former neighbour says she subsequently sold up in Florida and Washington and moved in 2003 to Virginia Beach. He said: ‘My impression was that she found the new place easier to manage as she still has some difficulties walking.’
Meanwhile McCain moved to Arizona with his new bride immediately after their 1980 marriage. There, his new father-in-law gave him a job and introduced him to local businessmen and political powerbrokers who would smooth his passage to Washington via the House of Representatives and Senate.
And yet despite his popularity as a politician, there are those who won’t forget his treatment of his first wife.
Ted Sampley, who fought with US Special Forces in Vietnam and is now a leading campaigner for veterans’ rights, said: ‘I have been following John McCain’s career for nearly 20 years. I know him personally. There is something wrong with this guy and let me tell you what it is – deceit.
‘When he came home and saw that Carol was not the beauty he left behind, he started running around on her almost right away. Everybody around him knew it.
‘Eventually he met Cindy and she was young and beautiful and very wealthy. At that point McCain just dumped Carol for something he thought was better.
‘This is a guy who makes such a big deal about his character. He has no character. He is a fake. If there was any character in that first marriage, it all belonged to Carol.’
One old friend of the McCains said: ‘Carol always insists she is not bitter, but I think that’s a defence mechanism. She also feels deeply in his debt because in return for her agreement to a divorce, he promised to pay for her medical care for the rest of her life.’
Carol remained resolutely loyal as McCain’s political star rose. She says she agreed to talk to The Mail on Sunday only because she wanted to publicise her support for the man who abandoned her.
Even more on this story by Sharon Churcher at The Daily Mail.
H/T to ralph the wonder llama at TP