Roberta McCain, mother of the senator and his beacon, dies at 108
By Robert D. McFadden
Roberta McCain, whose son, Sen. John McCain of Arizona, said she had inspired his will to survive as a prisoner of war in Vietnam — and who at 96 campaigned spiritedly in his losing bid for the presidency against Barack Obama in 2008 — died on Monday at her home in Washington. She was 108.
Her death was announced on Twitter by her daughter-in-law, Cindy McCain,.
An adventurous world traveler who took frequent home dislocations in stride and wartime family perils with outward calm, Roberta McCain was Navy through and through — the wife and daughter-in-law of admirals and the mother of the naval aviator who was shot down over Hanoi in 1967 and who, for 5 1/2 years, was America’s most famous prisoner of the Vietnam War.
For Roberta McCain and her husband, Adm. John S. McCain Jr., the commander of all United States forces in the Pacific and in the Vietnam War theater, their son’s captivity in North Vietnam was painfully endured with prayer, and with near silence in public. They knew that Hanoi tortured prisoners, and that Lt. Cmdr. John S. McCain III, as a propaganda prize, could hardly be exempted. He was not.
The younger McCain came home a war hero and, with his mother’s encouragement, began a political career as a Republican stalwart. He won two terms in the House of Representatives and six terms in the Senate, and he ran twice for the White House. In 2000, he lost the nomination to George W. Bush, who went on to win the presidency; eight years later he won the nomination, but lost the election to Obama. He died in 2018.
“From both my parents, I learned to persevere,” John McCain wrote in a memoir, “Faith of My Fathers” (1999, with Mark Salter). “But my mother’s extraordinary resilience made her the stronger of the two. I acquired some of her resilience and her felicity, and that inheritance made an enormous difference in my life.
“Our family,” he continued, “lived on the move, rooted not in location but in the culture of the Navy. I learned from my mother not just to take the constant disruptions in stride, but to welcome them as elements of an interesting life.”
The rebellious daughter of a wealthy Oklahoma oil wildcatter who settled his family in Los Angeles, Roberta McCain eloped and became a Navy wife in 1933. As her husband rose to global military prominence, she lived in capitals and naval bases in Europe, Asia and the Americas for nearly four decades. Her children were born in Honolulu, in the Panama Canal Zone and at the submarine base in Groton, Connecticut.
Her husband was promoted to rear admiral in 1958. Her father-in-law, John S. McCain Sr., was also an admiral, who commanded Western Pacific Naval air and carrier task forces in World War II.
In the early 1960s, the family lived in New York when John McCain Jr. was attached to the United Nations, and in London when he commanded American naval forces in Europe. During the admiral’s Pacific and Vietnam theater commands, from 1968 to 1972, Roberta McCain often accompanied him to Saigon, where he conferred with Gen. Creighton Abrams, the Vietnam military commander. She also joined him on missions to Thailand, Japan and the Philippines.
“My mother always traveled with my father,” John McCain III wrote. “Had the Navy allowed it, I am sure she would have accompanied him on sea duty, and found in the alternately exciting and dull world of men at sea some useful and interesting way to occupy her time.”
After her husband’s death in 1981, Roberta McCain and her identical twin sister, Rowena, took long driving trips through Europe, the Middle East and Asia. Once, when she was denied a rental car in Paris because of her age, she went out and bought a car. On road trips in the United States, she accumulated numerous speeding tickets and was once clocked at over 100 mph, her son said.
In her later years, she encouraged her son’s political career. Retired from the Navy in 1981, he was elected in 1982 to the House of Representatives, where he served four years, and then to the Senate in 1986, winning reelection five times, most recently in 2016. She had no role in his run for president in 2000.
But she joined John McCain’s 2008 “Straight Talk Express” campaign. She occasionally stole the show with acerbic comments on her son’s political foes, and she once mistakenly accused one rival, Gov. Mitt Romney of Massachusetts, of involvement in a scandal that rocked the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City. She and her son both apologized.
Roberta Wright was born in Muskogee, Oklahoma, on Feb. 7, 1912, one of five children of Archibald and Myrtle (Fletcher) Wright. She was a freshman at the University of Southern California in 1931 when she met Ensign John McCain Jr., a recent Naval Academy graduate.
Her parents disapproved of their courtship, but the couple eloped and were married in Tijuana, Mexico, in 1933. They had three children, Jean Alexandra, John S. III and Joseph Pinckney II.
Meghan Latcovich, Cindy McCain’s chief of staff, said Roberta McCain was survived by her son Joseph; 10 grandchildren; 11 great-grandchildren; and seven great-great-grandchildren. Her daughter, Jean Alexandra McCain Morgan, died last year.