When Sen. John McCain died Saturday at age 81, the tributes were quick to mention his family’s prestigious lineage within the American military. McCain’s father & grandfather — both of whom shared his name — were the first father & son in USN history to become full admirals.
But often overlooked is the influence McCain’s mother, Roberta, had on his upbringing & political life. Now, at age 106, she has outlived the child she still calls “Johnny,” whose death she faced once before when he was shot down over Vietnam & presumed lost.
Roberta, who lives in DC, spent years crisscrossing the globe, often alongside her identical twin sister, Rowena, eager for whatever spontaneous adventure came next. She has ridden through the Jordanian desert in the dark of night, hopped a ferry to Macau & trekked through Europe on less than $5 per day.
Roberta & Rowena were born in 1912 when Wm Howard Taft was president. They grew up traveling the country with their father, a successful oil wildcatter who retired young to raise his children. The family would travel for weeks, sometimes along the CA coast or by the banks of the Great Lakes.
Those trips would later serve as the blueprints for what Sen. McCain described as his mother’s “mobile classroom” — one that could show her children the world’s wonders in ways a four-walled classroom could not.
“My mother grew to be an extroverted & irrepressible woman,” Sen. McCain wrote in his memoir, “Faith of My Fathers.”
Roberta met her future husband, John S. McCain Jr., as a 19-year-old student at USC. McCain Jr., known as “Jack,” was a young Navy ensign serving on the battleship USS OK, whose home port at the time was in Long Beach, Ca. Another ensign, who’d taken Roberta out a few times before, brought her onto the OK for a visit when she crossed paths with Jack.
Roberta & Jack fell in love, but Roberta’s mother was so unhappy that her daughter could end up with a sailor that she banished Jack from her family home, Sen. McCain wrote. That did not deter Roberta. Instead, she & Jack eloped one weekend in Tijuana, Mexico, in 1933. The following Monday, she went back to USC to finish her exams.
Travel was a given for the wife of a naval officer, & Roberta & her children moved repeatedly, “always in the middle of a school term,” she said in a 2008 interview. A roving childhood would come to define Sen. McCain’s first run for Congress in the early 1980s. When accused of setting down artificial roots in AZ during a candidate forum, McCain shot back by saying that the place he had lived the longest was Hanoi.