If anyone wondered where the late Sen. John McCain got his wit, grit, sharp tongue, or ability to withstand 5 ½years as a prisoner of war after his plane was shot down over North Vietnam, they only needed to meet his mom.
Roberta McCain, 108, who weathered her own heartache resolutely as her son “Johnny” was held captive in a war in which her husband served as commander of U.S. Pacific Command, died Monday.
She was a dignified, direct woman with inner-strength who raised her children alone while her husband was away at war and through numerous deployments, her daughter-in-law Cindy McCain recalled Monday.
“People always marveled at John … someone of great distinction and dignity. He got all of that from her,” Cindy McCain told The Arizona Republic. “She was a woman of great substance and great character and dignity and he really did get that from her. She was a woman that was not just honest, but deeply thoughtful about doing the right thing. John’s very much her son, for sure.”
Up until her death, she remained at her Washington, D.C., condominium where her son Joe McCain and a longtime caregiver helped care for her.
In the kitchen, Roberta McCain made a mean curry.
When it came to politics, she was a fixture in both of his campaigns for president. During her son’s first presidential run in 2000, she was so involved on the campaign trail in New Hampshire, she was assigned her own staff.
On Monday, after news of Roberta McCain’s death spread, Cindy McCain fielded calls and text messages from across the nation from former campaign aides and staffers looking back with fondness at Roberta McCain’s energetic defense of her son.
Roberta McCain will be buried at Arlington National Cemetery next to her husband, John S. “Jack” McCain Jr., an admiral in the U.S. Navy and commander in chief of U.S. Naval forces in Europe who died in 1981.
Though elderly, she was a mainstay throughout his presidential campaigns and would sometimes dress-down her son — then in his 70s when he was the 2008 GOP nominee for president — when she disagreed with his public comments or campaign messaging. During that race, she was such a constant presence, the campaign assigned the candidate’s mother her own campaign bus.
“We saw a few times on the bus and other places where if she disagreed with him in one-way or another … she’d make sure he knew it,” she said. “Here it is, her son’s running for president, she’s scolding him in the back of the bus. … She wanted to make sure that he was reminded. And John obviously loved her really dearly.”
Roberta McCain maintained her sense of humor, even when her age started to catch up with her.
Cindy McCain remembered rescuing her in Lisbon, Portugal in 2009, after her mother-in-law, an avid traveler, tumbled down a set of cathedral stairs at the age of 97. Cindy McCain remembered visiting her in the hospital, where Roberta McCain was being monitored in the intensive care unit.
Though she was “really banged up,” Cindy McCain said, she was chatting up nurses and doctors and insisted her son Joe let her get a good look at herself so she could assess the damage. Her son acquiesced and took a picture, one she insisted on seeing herself, even though he told her she shouldn’t view it.
“He winds up showing her the picture and she started laughing,” Cindy McCain recalled, laughing. “ … She goes, ‘I’m going to make that my Christmas card that year.’ That’s just who she was!”
A World War II bride, she had great inner-strength, driving her children across the country with her three kids while her husband was away, and losing her son, the senator, in 2018, and then her daughter, Jean Alexandra “Sandy” McCain Morgan, last year.
“Coping was not an issue,” she said. “You just did what you did, and that’s who she was. And I think I learned a lot of that from her. In politics … a few times, you just have to suck it up. She reminded me about dignity.”
Roberta McCain leaves behind her son Joseph, 10 grandchildren, 11 great grandchildren and 7 great-great grandchildren.
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