In her new, intimate memoir, Cindy McCain opens up about her beloved husband, the late Sen. John McCain, their 38-year marriage, and the trials and triumphs of her life. She recently sat down with Ambassador Josette Sheeran, the McCain Institute for International Leadership’s executive chairman, to discuss the book.
In “Stronger: Courage, Hope, & Humor in My Life with John McCain,” McCain recounts the struggles and joys of being a political spouse, relives their early years together and their journey to create a blended family, and shares how her husband’s tenacity gave her the courage and confidence to find her own voice.
“When you’re young, you’re vulnerable, but you’re also very wary of being expressive because you’re not sure what people are going to think of you,” said McCain. “The older that you get — I’m a mother and a grandmother — you gain this confidence that is obviously experiential, but it’s also the confidence that you realize you do have a voice, and its OK to express it, even if people disagree. But also, the confidence to fight for what you believe in. I found that when I was trying to get Bridget home from Bangladesh.”
In 1991, McCain went to Bangladesh to aid those impacted by a cyclone. While working with an orphanage in Dhaka, she met two infant girls she felt needed to be brought to the United States for medical treatment. One of them is her adopted daughter, Bridget.
This is only one of McCain’s many humanitarian efforts. She has dedicated her life to improving the lives of those less fortunate — both in the United States and around the world. As chair of the McCain Institute’s Human Trafficking Advisory Council, she works to end human trafficking and supports recovering trafficking victims in Arizona, the United States and around the world. She also serves as co-chair of the Arizona Governor’s Council on human trafficking.
“The first thing I tell people that are interested in humanitarian action is that you have to do it from your heart,” said McCain. “Something has to move you. Don’t do it because it’s the cool thing to do, or because you ‘should’ be doing it. Do it because your heart tells you to do it. That’s exactly what happened to me.”
In addition to discussing her life with her husband and her humanitarian work, McCain has written honestly about her very public battle with an opioid addiction. She told Sheeran about her struggle to open up to her husband about her addiction — and how he and others gave her steadfast support once she did.
“It is an epidemic in the United States. It really is. And the power of seeking help is something that I hope people gain from this book,” McCain said. “The understanding that, if I can do that, they can do it. It is OK to admit that you have a problem. It is OK to admit that you have been weak. There is no shame in it, because there is help out there.”
Writing her memoir during the COVID-19 pandemic gave her a chance to grieve her husband’s death — something she said she hadn’t fully done — and reflect on America’s standing in the world, Sen. McCain’s foreign policy legacy and her role in maintaining it.
“In foreign affairs, we were always the ones the world looked up to,” said McCain. “When people saw the Americans coming, they knew everything was going to be OK. And that simply isn’t the case, certainly during the last four years. It’s time that we regain our front-and-center status on the world stage. John’s legacy can be a large part of that — if we listen to what he taught, learned and spoke about. I want people to know that.”
The conversation was organized by the McCain Institute for International Leadership at Arizona State University as part of its ongoing Authors & Insights Book Talk Series.