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John McCain’s remarkable mother: At 106, Roberta McCain has outlived her son

The Washington Post logo The Washington Post 28/08/2018 Rachel Siegel

Roberta McCain, right, and her twin sister, Rowena Willis at Roberta’s Washington apartment in 2000. © Michael S. Williamson/The Washington Post/ Roberta McCain, right, and her twin sister, Rowena Willis at Roberta’s Washington apartment in 2000. 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 and grandfather — both of whom shared his name — were the first father and son in Navy history to become full admirals.

But often overlooked is the influence McCain’s mother, Roberta, had on his upbringing and 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 and presumed lost.

Roberta, who lives in Washington, 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 and trekked through Europe on less than $5 per day.

In 1961, Lt. John S. McCain III, left, and his parents, Rear Admiral John S. McCain Jr. and Roberta McCain take part in the ceremony to commission McCain Field, the U.S. Navy training base in Meridian, Miss., named in honor of Admiral John S. McCain. (AP) © Provided by WP Company LLC d/b/a The Washington Post In 1961, Lt. John S. McCain III, left, and his parents, Rear Admiral John S. McCain Jr. and Roberta McCain take part in the ceremony to commission McCain Field, the U.S. Navy training base in Meridian, Miss., named in honor of Admiral John S. McCain. (AP) Roberta and Rowena were born in 1912 when William 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 California 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.

From right to left: John, Roberta , Joe and John S. MCain, Jr. in 1951. © Family photo/ From right to left: John, Roberta , Joe and John S. MCain, Jr. in 1951. “My mother grew to be an extroverted and 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 the University of Southern California. McCain Jr., known as “Jack,” was a young Navy ensign serving on the battleship USS Oklahoma, 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 Oklahoma for a visit when she crossed paths with Jack.

Sen. John McCain embraces his mother, Roberta, following his acceptance speech at the Republican National Convention in St. Paul, Minn. in 2008. (AP/Paul Sancya) © Provided by WP Company LLC d/b/a The Washington Post Sen. John McCain embraces his mother, Roberta, following his acceptance speech at the Republican National Convention in St. Paul, Minn. in 2008. (AP/Paul Sancya) Roberta and 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 and 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, and Roberta and her children moved repeatedly, “always in the middle of a school term,” she said in a 2008 C-SPAN 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 Arizona during a candidate forum, McCain shot back by saying that the place he had lived the longest in his life was Hanoi.)

A woman pays her respects at a makeshift memorial outside the funeral home where the body of the late U.S. Senator John McCain rests in Phoenix, Arizona, U.S., August 27, 2018.   REUTERS/Brian Snyder      TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY © Catalyst Images A woman pays her respects at a makeshift memorial outside the funeral home where the body of the late U.S. Senator John McCain rests in Phoenix, Arizona, U.S., August 27, 2018. REUTERS/Brian Snyder TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY To round out her children’s irregular schooling, Roberta planned road trips to educational destinations. In his memoir, McCain wrote that the attractions included art galleries, museums, buildings designed by famous architects, natural wonders and the homes of famous figures. He had particularly fond memories of the Grand Canyon, Carlsbad Caverns, Natchez, Miss., and Mount Vernon. 

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On one of those trips, Roberta drove her family to Juarez, Mexico, so she could 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 and wandered into a rough part of town, at which point Roberta “sensibly called off the search and 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 and been captured by the North Vietnamese.

A U.S. flag flies at half-staff in honor of Senator John McCain (R-AZ) at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, U.S., August 27, 2018. REUTERS/Chris Wattie © Catalyst Images A U.S. flag flies at half-staff in honor of Senator John McCain (R-AZ) at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, U.S., August 27, 2018. REUTERS/Chris Wattie “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 and brutal for McCain, who was imprisoned, bayoneted, beaten and tortured by the Vietnamese. When McCain was finally released in 1973, he was broken but alive.

For all her doting on her children and husband, Roberta took the reins of her own life, too. In 2007, she described to the New York Times how she and her sister would drive through the world’s open roads, always with Roberta riding shotgun as the navigator.

A makeshift memorial stands outside the offices of the late U.S. Senator John McCain in Phoenix, Arizona, U.S., August 28, 2018.   REUTERS/Brian Snyder © Catalyst Images A makeshift memorial stands outside the offices of the late U.S. Senator John McCain in Phoenix, Arizona, U.S., August 28, 2018. REUTERS/Brian Snyder Roberta’s simple request was that her hotel rooms have hot water and light. When her husband was stationed abroad, Roberta would travel ahead to meet his ship in Genoa or Barcelona. Often, she and Rowena, who died in 2011, would settle into their latest destination and 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 and drove it to San Francisco, she told the Times.

The American flag files at half-staff at the White House, Monday afternoon, Aug. 27, 2018, in Washington. Two days after Sen. John McCain's death, President Donald Trump says he respects the senator's "service to our country" and has signed a proclamation to fly the U.S. flag at half-staff until his burial. The flag atop the White House flew at half-staff over the weekend but was raised Monday and then lowered again amid criticism. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik) © Catalyst Images The American flag files at half-staff at the White House, Monday afternoon, Aug. 27, 2018, in Washington. Two days after Sen. John McCain's death, President Donald Trump says he respects the senator's "service to our country" and has signed a proclamation to fly the U.S. flag at half-staff until his burial. The flag atop the White House flew at half-staff over the weekend but was raised Monday and then lowered again amid criticism. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik) In his memoir, McCain wrote that he “became my mother’s son,” often by “emulating and 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 and 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 Pennsylvania Avenue toward Washington National Cathedral, with a stop at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial to lay a wreath.

Then two former presidents, Barack Obama and George W. Bush, will deliver eulogies for Roberta McCain’s extraordinary son.

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