A man fiddling with his wedding ring in the presence of another woman usually has something on his mind. At his introduction of Sarah Palin to the world on August 29, John McCain appeared a man possessed, playing with his ring, fastening his gaze on her breasts, her backside, his right fingers sliding up from that dratted gold band to the finger tip, pinching it as if to control the volcano stirring within him. “Boxed up,” the young McCain once said in a near-frenzy, describing to a confidante the state of his emotions under the Naval Academy’s discipline; the expression suited his performance that Friday in Dayton, when he finally regained composure by assuming the rigid posture of attention that the academy had taught so well.
Here was McCain, the angry old warrior, deploying sex as a central political weapon to recharge his potency, his party’s fortunes and the cultural oomph of the right. Not gender. The Republicans didn’t need just any woman to compete with Obama for the Wow factor, the Mmm factor, the stable, loving family factor. It is a calculated bonus that adherents can now speak loftily of making history, but for different reasons, drawing deep from the well of their identities, and not for the first time, both McCain and the right needed a sexual icon.
McCain’s first wife, Carol, airbrushed from his “compelling story” even when her three children trooped onstage to complete the convention’s family tableau, was a swimsuit model. Tall and slender when she saw John off to Vietnam, she was five inches shorter when he returned, broken grievously from a car accident, using a catheter and a wheelchair. “I don’t look so good myself,” he told her; privately he told friends the sight of her “appalled” him. He began looking for a more alluring replacement almost immediately. Carol says she has “no bitterness,” according to a story by Sharon Churcher in the London Daily Mail. John just “wanted to be 25 again.”
At 42 McNasty, as he was called in high school, took up with 24-year-old Cindy, a former junior rodeo queen, and, having boosted his image and his net worth via a marriage vow, soon reverted to the pattern of insults and macho egotism that has typified most of his life. He denigrated her education at USC as a tour through “the University of Spoiled Children.” For all but one of several miscarriages, he left her on her own. When she was popping ten to fifteen pills a day to mask her pain and “do everything he wanted,” he never noticed. In 1992, in a rage over her gentle teasing about his thinning hair, he exploded, “At least I don’t plaster on the makeup like a trollop, you cunt,” a one-two punch hurled in front of three journalists and two aides but unreported until recently, by Cliff Schecter in The Real McCain. On the campaign trail in June he joked about “beating my wife” and took umbrage when others failed to grasp the simple good fun in the remark. In early August he said he’d encouraged Cindy to enter the Miss Buffalo Chip beauty pageant at the high-revving, flesh-swinging biker rally in Sturgis, South Dakota. It might have been a fine quip except that up on the stage with her daughter Meghan, staring out toward the throng where a sign urged Show Ur Tits 4 McCain, Cindy had the thin, fixed smile of endurance, not joy. Just before the Palin pick, Mrs. McCain was so brittle that a supporter’s energetic handshake put her in a cast. With the press and vast swaths of the country swooning over the Obama family, John needed a new queen.
Like King Ahasuerus in the Book of Esther, who asserted his mastery by decreeing male headship and then held a kind of beauty pageant to replace Vashti as queen, McCain found his new “partner and soulmate” in Miss Wasilla 1984. Even Cindy, who suddenly let her hair down in bed-head style, perhaps at last relieved of the burdens of wifely duties, calls it “a perfect match.” If only by association, John McCain may now fancy himself in the image of his deepest desire, top gun.