Haunted by Spirits

John McCain derived his wealth from his marriage to Cindy Hensley McCain, whose father started his road to riches as a bootlegger. As a politician, the senator has remained beholden to the liquor industry and the family business

The 1982 Republican primary was crowded. McCain deftly deflected the "carpetbagger" label by noting that as a Navy brat, he'd never lived in one place longer than the five and a half years he spent in Vietnamese prison camps.

His friendship with Arizona Republic and Phoenix Gazette publisher Darrow "Duke" Tully gave McCain a free platform to deliver his campaign messages via a series of columns that appeared in the Gazette. (Tully was enamored of McCain's fighter-pilot experience. Tully resigned as publisher of the newspapers in 1985 after it was revealed he had fabricated a military background as a highly decorated fighter pilot.)

As much as his quick tongue, heroic story and free positive press, it was his father-in-law's funds that helped first get McCain elected.

The McCains' central Phoenix house  --  Cindy's 
childhood home  --  is a fortress.
The McCains' central Phoenix house -- Cindy's childhood home -- is a fortress.
The boys off the bus: John McCain takes questions in 
Concord, New Hampshire.
Ilkka Uimonen
The boys off the bus: John McCain takes questions in Concord, New Hampshire.

In 1982, John and Cindy McCain reported an income of $801,056. Of that, the only amount unrelated to Hensley was McCain's $31,038 Navy pension.

McCain lent $167,000 to his campaign -- a huge chunk of the $569,545 it took to get him elected that year. (Another major contributor that year was Charles H Keating, a former Navy fighter pilot who later ensnarled McCain in the biggest scandal of his political career.)

In addition, James and Marguerite Hensley and their employees donated $11,000 to McCain's first campaign; Anheuser-Busch's PAC gave him $1,000.

McCain easily won reelection in 1984. Fortune -- or McCain's foresight -- smiled again when Senator Barry Goldwater announced his retirement in 1986. McCain was the perfect candidate to succeed the straight-talking Goldwater, who was also a retired military pilot.

McCain jumped for -- and won -- the Senate seat.

Every election season, contributions from Hensley & Company and other liquor interests continued to fuel McCain's electoral triumphs -- victories McCain was beginning to take for granted.

In October 1986, just days before McCain was elected to the Senate, the Associated Press broke a story that the McCains had been quietly remodeling Cindy's childhood home -- a $500,000 spread still owned by Jim Hensley and located in north central Phoenix, outside of Congressional District 1 -- so they could relocate after the election. The project was kept so quiet, the AP reported, that modifications to the house were being made under the name "Smith," rather than McCain. As it turned out, Smith is Marguerite Hensley's maiden name. The building plans the AP obtained showed that McCain was adding "Jacuzzis, a cabana, a ramada, a swimming pool, fountains and a barbecue."

To this day, Jim and Marguerite Hensley live just around the corner. Cindy drives a Suburban with the license plate "Ms Bud."


In John McCain's early years in public office, he didn't enjoy the reputation he does today as a crusader, a maverick who rails against the evils of special interests. His only notable attribute was a grasp of foreign affairs.

Yes, he voted against pay raises for members of Congress, and donated his honoraria from speaking engagements to charity, but McCain's critics charged that was painless for a guy whose wife was a multimillionairess. It wasn't until the '90s, after he was embroiled in the Keating Five scandal (he returned more than $112,000 in contributions from the savings and loan mogul after being accused of improperly intervening with federal regulators on Keating's behalf), that McCain became a champion of campaign-finance reform. In fact, early in his political career, McCain voted against measures like the one he now proudly sponsors.

The same is true with tobacco and guns. McCain took tens of thousands of dollars from tobacco companies before 1998, when he infuriated the industry by pushing reform legislation. He has taken money from the National Rifle Association and its affiliates, and voted their way, although last year he supported a measure to ban gun shows.

McCain is reaping the benefits of his maverick act today, as scores of Democrats across the country are reregistering to vote for him in GOP primaries.

But there is one area where it is unlikely that John McCain will ever emerge as a champion of reform: alcohol.

When he was elected to Congress, McCain swore he'd recuse himself on all votes related to the alcohol industry, given his father-in-law's and wife's business. A New Times analysis of McCain's voting record since 1983 reveals that he has in fact recused himself on the two dozen or so alcohol-related bills that required a voice vote on the floor of the House and then the Senate, while McCain has served in those respective bodies. The bills examined dealt specifically with alcohol: examples include legislation to toughen drunken-driving laws and lower alcohol excise taxes.

But such votes are relatively insignificant when compared to other powers endowed on a senator -- particularly a senior senator who chairs an influential committee.

Particularly if the senator is John McCain, the committee is the powerful Senate Commerce Committee and the issue is alcohol.

The Senate Commerce Committee has a number of alcohol-related issues in its purview, including the labeling of alcoholic beverages and alcohol advertising. But you wouldn't know it from looking at the committee's agenda since McCain took its reins three years ago.

John McCain's influence regarding alcohol-related legislation comes from his inaction, rather than action. As a committee chairman, McCain has the unilateral power to kill a bill simply by refusing to put it on a committee agenda or schedule hearings.

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