Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Mrs. McCain’s sister act

Leo Tolstoy famously wrote that “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” I have sometimes wondered whether Tolstoy had that quite right, and so, by way of explanation, I submit to you (and to Leo) Mr. and Mrs. McCain.

Last Tuesday, NPR did a story about Cindy McCain, second and current wife of presidential wannabe John McCain, and referred to her as the only child of wealthy beer baron Jim Hensley. It’s not surprising that they reported such:

McCain herself routinely uses the phrase "only child," as she did on CNN last month. "I grew up with my dad," she said then. "I'm an only child. My father was a cowboy, and he really loved me very much, but I think he wanted a son occasionally."

There’s a problem with that touching little anecdote, however—Cindy McCain has an older sister, and Cindy McCain knows it.

Documents show Kathleen Anne Hensley was born to Jim and Mary Jeanne Hensley on Feb. 23, 1943. They had been married for six years when Kathleen was born.

Jim Hensley was a bombardier on a B-17, flying over Europe during World War II.

He was injured and sent to a facility in West Virginia to recuperate. During that time, while still married to Mary Jeanne, Hensley met another woman — Marguerite Smith. Jim divorced Mary Jeanne and married Marguerite in 1945.

Cindy Lou Hensley was born nine years later, in 1954.

She may have grown up as an only child, but so did her half sister, Kathleen, who was raised by a single parent.

[Kathleen Hensley, now Kathleen] Portalski says she did see her father and her half sister from time to time.

"I saw him a few times a year," she says. "I saw him at Christmas and birthdays, and he provided money for school clothes, and he called occasionally."

Big Jim helped put Kathleen’s kids through college, and did give about $10,000 in gifts to their family, but when Jim Hensley died in 2000, he left all of his vast fortune to Cindy. Kathleen got $10,000; her children—Jim’s grandchildren—got nothing.

It is a slight that Cindy Hensley McCain has never attempted to redress.

While it is true that Cindy McCain is not the one running for president, I think there is still something here to explore.

My takeaway on this is that Cindy McCain is icky. I know that sounds a tad juvenile and reductive, but I mean it to be visceral, because that's how I think this story is relevant to the presidential election.

Had her husband chosen a less public line of work, Cindy's family schism would be her affair, but thinking about it in the context of the life and career of Arizona’s oh-so-senior senator, this revelation just adds a (OK, another) sleazy taint to the whole McCain clan. Yes, Pa Hensley made this mess, but Cindy could have gone a long way toward cleaning it up by first correcting the reports that billed her as an only child, and second by sharing some small part of her substantial fortune with the family her father chose to screw.

All families have past sins—it is what a person does to address those sins that matters.

According to campaign surrogates and a fawning press, we are to believe that one of John McCain's great strengths is his judgment. He himself harped on judgment Monday in a speech before the VFW. His camp loves to talk up the idea that you can judge how maverick-alicious he is by the company he keeps. Well, what does it say about McCain and his judgment that he chooses a life partner that is so, I'll say it again, icky?

Obviously, when attacking McCain, this wouldn't be the head of the spear—there are plenty unsavory alliances to fill an anti-McCain quiver—but I am all for letting McCain be judged by the company he keeps. The icky company.

And, I'll just add a nagging question that says so much, I think, simply as a nagging, unanswered, question: Why was it important to the McCain campaign to perpetuate the idea of Cindy as an only child?

Is it perhaps because the Hensley’s unhappiness is so similar to the unhappiness John McCain caused his first family?

What would Tolstoy think?

(cross-posted on guy2k, The Seminal, and Daily Kos)

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