John McCain’s remarkable mother, Roberta, is 106


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.
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To round out her children’s schooling, Roberta planned road trips to educational destinations. McCain wrote that the attractions included art galleries, museums, buildings designed by famous architects, natural wonders & the homes of famous figures. He had particularly fond memories of the Grand Canyon, Carlsbad Caverns, Natchez, MS., & Mt Vernon.

On one of those trips, Roberta drove her family to Juarez, MX, to show her children a cathedral that her own father had taken her to when she was young. The trip did not go as planned. The family got lost & wandered into a rough part of town, at which point Roberta “sensibly called off the search & beat a hasty retreat for the border,” McCain wrote.

In 1967, the McCains were in London when they received a call that their son’s plane had been shot down over Vietnam. Roberta believed Johnny was dead.

Instead, he’d ejected & been captured by the N Vietnamese. “Can you believe that’s the best news I ever heard in my life?” Roberta told C-SPAN.

The next 5½ years were agonizing for his parents & brutal for McCain, who was imprisoned, bayoneted, beaten & tortured. When McCain was finally released in 1973, he was broken but alive.

For all her doting on her children & husband, Roberta took the reins of her own life, too. In 2007, she described to the NYT how she & her sister would drive the world’s open roads, always with Roberta riding shotgun as the navigator. Roberta’s only request was that her hotel rooms have hot water & light. When her husband was stationed abroad, Roberta would travel ahead to meet his ship… Often, she & Rowena, who died in 2011, would settle into their destination & pick up a gin rummy game that had literally gone on for decades.

Once, when traveling through France in her 90s, Roberta was told she was too old to rent a car. So instead, she bought one. At the end of her vacation, she had the car shipped back to the East Coast, where she picked it up & drove it to SF, she told the Times.

In his memoir, McCain wrote that he “became my mother’s son,” often by “emulating & exaggerating” her characteristics. For example, she was exuberant, so he was rowdy. “She taught me to find so much pleasure in life that misfortune could not rob me of the joy of living,” he wrote.

It was that bond that followed Roberta on the campaign trail for Sen. McCain. During her 2008 C-SPAN interview, talk turned to why Roberta believed her son should be elected president. At the time, Roberta was 95 years old. Her son was 71. Sen. McCain had been criticized for being too old for the Oval Office, the reporter noted. But he always responded by pointing to his mother’s longevity.

“Well, of course,” Roberta said with a shrug & smile. “He’s glad to put me up as what he hopes his life span will be.”

On Saturday, after a day of lying in state at the U.S. Capitol, McCain’s casket will be driven down Penn Avenue toward Washington National Cathedral, with a stop at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial to lay a wreath.Then two former presidents, Barack Obama & George W. Bush, will deliver eulogies for Roberta McCain’s extraordinary son.


Awesome post.


She sounds like a remarkable woman!

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