McCain’s First Wife

Carol McCain - John’s First WIfe Steve Benen points to a Daily Mail piece about John McCain’s first wife, Carol, whom he divorced for a younger, more attractive, wealthier woman a few years after returning from Vietnam and wonders if there isn’t a double standard at work.

Now, I should clarify that as far as I’m concerned, McCain’s marital difficulties and adultery aren’t especially significant in this campaign, especially years later. I’m inclined to see a distinction made between public and private worlds. I defended Bill Clinton, and said his personal controversies had no bearing on his ability to be a good candidate and a good president, so I can’t very well turn around and say the opposite about McCain, no matter how badly he treated his first wife.

But therein lies the point: if Clinton’s personal history was a matter of tremendous national significance as a candidate and as a president, then it’s not unreasonable to wonder why McCain isn’t subjected to the same scrutiny. I’d prefer both issues are off the table, but I’m hard pressed to imagine why only Democratic presidential candidates’ personal lives are of interest in the context of a national campaign.

I’d note, first off, that there have been rumblings about McCain’s divorce for months. Indeed, Steve himself published a piece on the matter, which he links, in the Washington Monthly two years ago. So it’s not as if the story has gone unremarked.

As to the differential treatment between what McCain did in 1979 and what Bill Clinton did throughout the 1990s, I’d say the answer is easy: only one of them was a sitting president of the United States at the time of their transgressions. Indeed, only one of them was in public life.

Steve’s right, though, that Christian conservative leaders, who were so appalled by Clinton’s conduct, seem to have accepted bad behavior from Rudy Giuliani, Newt Gingrich, and McCain. That’s mostly political opportunism, of course, although part of it’s likely personal. Bill Clinton simply rubbed a lot of people the wrong way and the fact that he seemed to get away with everything made the desire to get him all the more palpable. (Indeed, much the same has been true of George W. Bush and Dick Cheney, with similar results.)

Ross Perot notwithstanding, I’m inclined to give McCain the benefit of the doubt in a way I wasn’t for Clinton and Gingrich. Partly, McCain has been, to the best of my knowledge, silent about the matter and it’s possible that there’s more to the story than that he came home to find that his wife wasn’t as fun and good looking as when he’d left. For another, to the extent that “growing apart” is a morally acceptable rationale for divorce, five years in a POW camp strikes me as a better reason than most for that happenstance.

I wouldn’t be shocked, though, if a pro-Obama 527 group produced some ad spots on this issue to see if it has any salience. Indeed, I’d be mildly shocked if they didn’t.

FILED UNDER: Campaign 2008, Media, , , , ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. Bithead says:

    here’s a major difference betwen McCain’s actions and Clinton’s, unless he’s married the long line of other women.

  2. David Harris says:

    Isn’t there also a difference, at least in perception, between adultery and a divorce/remarriage? The merits of the divorce and remarriage can be debated up and down, but a sitting president who fooled around while STILL married, and then lied about it, no less, seems to be a more serious offense than divorce for the wrong reasons.

    And by offense, I mean in the court of public opinion, media scrutiny, or general judgment-passing.

  3. Steve Plunk says:

    Clinton’s transgressions seemed much more brazen. The accusations from former state police troopers of facilitating liaisons and the general perceptions of womanizing coupled with their boisterous defense set him up as a bad boy well before the Lewinsky affair. He made it a public issue while McCain has not. Even Gingrinch tried to keep his private life private.

    McCain’s story is also very old. Divorced in 1979? That’s nearly thirty years ago, should we see who he dated in high school and how he treated them?

    The differences are clear to those who are willing to see them.

  4. just me says:

    I admit I struggle more with the intentional extramarital affair that was for the purposes of sex on the side.

    I can grasp falling out of love with a spouse, and McCain remarried and has been married to that spouse for more than 20 years, and to my knowledge hasn’t created a string of extramarital affairs in his wake.

  5. anjin-san says:

    That’s nearly thirty years ago, should we see who he dated in high school and how he treated them?

    There is a big difference between how nice you were to your high school girlfriend and dumping the wife who kept the home fires burning while you were at war for a younger, hotter and richer woman. McCain is running partly on character, which infers he has more than Obama, so the door is open.

    The issue is different that Clinton’s behavior, which I make no excuses for. Besides, Clinton is not running, McCain is. Last time I looked, Clinton is a private citizen, so perhaps it is time for the right to stop obsessing with him and pay attention to the matter at hand.

  6. mq says:

    I like how the article tries to make the argument that McCain is some sort of monster for divorcing Carol, but also points out that McCain gave her quite a bit in the divorce settlement. Two homes, child support, alimony, and picking up her healthcare tab for life was hardly leaving her in the lurch.

    And you’re right, this has hardly gone without comment. In fact, they’re aren’t many personal McCain stories that have gone without comment. Guess that’s one positive thing he got out of 2000.

  7. PD Shaw says:

    GW Bush established a 25 year statute of limitation on youthful indiscretions. For McCain that means things that happened during his midlife crisis are off limits. For Obama, things that happened in kindergarten are off limits.

  8. Anon says:

    I’m inclined to give everyone a pass on matters like this, unless they commit perjury, or try to portray themselves as strong on family values.

  9. Beldar says:

    Reagan mostly got a pass on his divorce. That was the watershed in American politics on this topic.

    John Kerry divorced his first wife, Julia, when she was suffering from severe depression. There were many questions raised about Kerry’s character in 2004, but except for a few people who noted that Theresa Heinz was the second heiress Kerry had married, almost nothing was said by anyone during the 2004 election about the circumstances of his divorce. (She, in turn, said nothing during the campaign about him interrupting their honeymoon to meet with North Vietnamese and Viet Cong representatives in Paris. The only quotes from her to appear during the campaign were vaguely supportive.)

    Fred Thompson divorced his high-school sweetheart after their kids were grown. They remained friends, and she was quoted last year as supporting his run for the presidency.

    Nick Kristof wrote a great deal about McCain’s divorce during the 2000 campaign, not all of it flattering. But before, during, and after that campaign, McCain acknowledged (without detail) his own infidelity and blamed himself for the breakup of the marriage. As with the other politicians I’ve mentioned, it appears that his ex-wife has continued to be generally supportive.

    McCain has a huge ego, fiery temper, and sharp tongue, but he also is quick to admit that he’s a “flawed vessel” for others’ hopes and ambitions. Given his admission of culpability — yeah, he was a flyboy and a horndog — I think he’ll get the benefit of the doubt, as Dubya mostly did when he admitted to being “young and irresponsible when he was young and irresponsible.”

    (I was interested to note the quote in Kristof’s piece from McCain’s divorce lawyer, “George Day.” That of course is George “Bud” Day, holder of the Medal of Honor, and one of McCain’s Hanoi Hilton cellmates and strongest supporters today. (He was also a leader of the ex-POW group that affiliated with the SwiftVets in 2004.)

  10. vnjagvet says:

    I don’t think this issue is getting much traction with McCain’s likely supporters.

    After all, even Carol sports a bumper sticker supporting him.

    The outraged are primarily those who have decided to support his opponent.

    In addition, McCain was Carol’s second husband, adopted her two children from her first marriage and paid child support for all three after their divorce. He and Carol had been married less than 18 months when he was assigned to combat duty in December, 1966.

    He didn’t return home until March, 1973, having spent the last five of those years in captivity. Both he and Carol had been severely injured — he in captivity, she in a car accident in 1969– when he returned. It is fair to say that both of these folks had a lot of trauma to get over.

    They divorced in 1980 seven years after his return from captivity.

    That both have voiced a high regard for one another for the past 28 years is the best evidence for me that, at the least, McCain is not a cad within his own family.

    At least in my version of Christianity, Christians aren’t perfect — just forgiven.

  11. Anderson says:

    The story is useful inasmuch as it addresses McCain’s “character,” which is apparently the sole reason we are supposed to vote for him.

    It may also register with some of the evangelical voters who are already none too thrilled with him.

    But not terribly major — as Vnjagvet suggests, it will mostly resonate with people who aren’t voting McCain anyway.

    If he were big on the “social conservative” side, it might have more weight, but he isn’t.

  12. od says:

    I doubt this issue has ever made much difference – its a case of preaching to the choir. I don’t think Clinton’s affairs changed anyone’s votes (ie those who were ready to vote for him forgave him instantly, those who never forgave him would never have voted for him under any circumstances anyway, and most people didn’t think it was a major issue compared to the economy). I suspect the same thing will hold for McCain. If the democrats push this they’ll be wasting their time and money, just as the republicans did against Clinton in his presidential runs – with limited time and money there’s just not that much point devoting effort to issues that only matter to people who already support you anyway.

  13. vnjagvet says:

    I agree with od. Inevitably, any ad bringing this up will be met with Carol saying what a great guy Jawn is and with the message at the end, as he holds her hand, “I’m John McCain and we approve this message”.

  14. Kirk Muse says:

    Make sure that all the people you know, especially the women, who are thinking of voting for McCain read this story.

    We call a woman who marries for money a gold-digger.
    What do we call a man who does the same thing?

  15. anjin-san says:

    At least in my version of Christianity, Christians aren’t perfect — just forgiven.

    It’s a shame so many forgot about Matthew 7:1 when Clinton was having marital problems…

  16. Kiril says:

    I’d note, first off, that there have been rumblings about McCain’s divorce for months. Indeed, Steve himself published a piece on the matter, which he links, in the Washington Monthly two years ago. So it’s not as if the story has gone unremarked.

    Of course, Steve’s story is about the double standard for marital infidelity when committed by Republicans as opposed to Democrats. And an article in the Washington Monthly is hardly the same as years of cable, network news and major newspaper coverage.

    As to the differential treatment between what McCain did in 1979 and what Bill Clinton did throughout the 1990s, I’d say the answer is easy: only one of them was a sitting president of the United States at the time of their transgressions. Indeed, only one of them was in public life.

    Again, I disagree. Clinton’s affair with Monica Lewinsky was discovered as a result of years of politically motivated digging into allegations about his sex life. Were it not for the insatiable prurience of Republicans and the media — as well as financing from Republican contributors like Scaife — none of us would have ever heard of Monica Lewinsky. If you think the discovery of sexual transgression in public figure justifies the attention, then you must support an ongoing investigation into McCain’s private life. Who knows what else is there?

    (For the record, I’m not actually advocating that we repeat Republican methods of character assassination as a governing style. I just like to respond sometimes when journalists try to justify the fact of a double standard when dealing with the two parties.)

  17. c. wagener says:

    We call a woman who marries for money a gold-digger.
    What do we call a man who does the same thing?

    Answer: John Kerry

    People don’t care about divorce. I’d like to think they would care about rape, but of course, if the perp is a dem: “the bitch had in comin'”.

    “Better put some ice on that.”

    – Bill Clinton

  18. It’s a shame so many forgot about Matthew 7:1 when Clinton was having marital problems…

    Being forgiven is usually preceded by an admission of wrongdoing. But then again, I don’t want to argue about the meaning of the word “is.”