Roberta McCain, the Senator’s Mother and His Beacon, Dies at 108

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Roberta McCain, whose son, Senator John McCain of Arizona, said she had inspired his will to survive as a prisoner of war in Vietnam — and who at 96 campaigned spiritedly in his losing bid for the presidency against Barack Obama in 2008 — died on Monday at her home in Washington. She was 108.

Her death was announced on Twitter by her daughter-in-law, Cindy McCain.

An adventurous world traveler who took frequent home dislocations in stride and wartime family perils with outward calm, Mrs. McCain was Navy through and through — the wife and daughter-in-law of admirals and the mother of the naval aviator who was shot down over Hanoi in 1967 and who, for five and a half years, was America’s most famous prisoner of the Vietnam War.

For Mrs. McCain and her husband, Adm. John S. McCain Jr., the commander of all United States forces in the Pacific and in the Vietnam War theater, their son’s captivity in North Vietnam was painfully endured with prayer, and with near silence in public. They knew that Hanoi tortured prisoners, and that Lt. Cmdr. McCain, as a propaganda prize, could hardly be exempted. He was not.

He came home a war hero and, with his mother’s encouragement, began a political career as a Republican stalwart. He won two terms in the House of Representatives and six terms in the Senate, and he ran twice for the White House. In 2000, he lost the nomination to Mr. Bush, who went on to win the presidency; eight years later he won the nomination, but lost the election to Mr. Obama. He died in 2018.

“From both my parents, I learned to persevere,” Senator McCain wrote in a memoir, “Faith of My Fathers” (1999, with Mark Salter). “But my mother’s extraordinary resilience made her the stronger of the two. I acquired some of her resilience and her felicity, and that inheritance made an enormous difference in my life.

“Our family,” he continued, “lived on the move, rooted not in location but in the culture of the Navy. I learned from my mother not just to take the constant disruptions in stride, but to welcome them as elements of an interesting life.”

The rebellious daughter of a wealthy Oklahoma oil wildcatter who settled his family in Los Angeles, Mrs. McCain eloped and became a Navy wife in 1933. As her husband rose to global military prominence, she lived in capitals and naval bases in Europe, Asia and the Americas for nearly four decades. Her children were born in Honolulu, in the Panama Canal Zone and at the submarine base in Groton, Conn.

Under relentless Navy reassignment moves, her youngest son, Joe, had attended 17 schools by the time he finished the ninth grade. During World War II Mrs. McCain, living in Hawaii, rarely saw her husband, a submarine commander whose dangers on monthslong patrols in the Pacific were the stuff of wartime legends and family nightmares.

With husbands gone, wives took on all the tasks, Senator McCain wrote:

“Our mothers run our households, pay the bills and manage most of our upbringing. For long stretches at a time they are required to be both mother and father. They move us from base to base. They see to our religious, educational and emotional needs. They arbitrate our quarrels, discipline us and keep us safe.”

After World War II, when her husband became the Navy’s information chief and congressional liaison, the McCains kept a home on Capitol Hill. Senators, representatives and Pentagon brass were frequent visitors at their home, which later became the Capitol Hill Club.

“My mother’s charm proved as effective with politicians as it did with naval officers,” Senator McCain recalled in his memoir.

Her husband was promoted to rear admiral in 1958. Her father-in-law, John S. McCain Sr., was also an admiral, who commanded Western Pacific Naval air and carrier task forces in World War II.

In the early 1960s, the family lived in New York when Admiral McCain was attached to the United Nations, and in London when he commanded American naval forces in Europe. During the admiral’s Pacific and Vietnam theater commands, from 1968 to 1972, Mrs. McCain often accompanied him to Saigon, where he conferred with Gen. Creighton Abrams, the Vietnam military commander. She also joined him on missions to Thailand, Japan and the Philippines.

“My mother always traveled with my father,” Senator McCain wrote. “Had the Navy allowed it, I am sure she would have accompanied him on sea duty, and found in the alternately exciting and dull world of men at sea some useful and interesting way to occupy her time.”

After her husband’s death in 1981, Mrs. McCain and her identical twin sister, Rowena, took long driving trips through Europe, the Middle East and Asia. Once, when she was denied a rental car in Paris because of her age, she went out and bought a car. On road trips in the United States, she accumulated numerous speeding tickets and was once clocked at over 100 miles an hour, her son said.

In her later years, she encouraged her son’s political career. Retired from the Navy in 1981, he was elected in 1982 to the House of Representatives, where he served four years, and then to the Senate in 1986, winning re-election five times, most recently in 2016. She had no role in his run for president in 2000.

But she joined Senator McCain’s 2008 “Straight Talk Express” campaign. She occasionally stole the show with acerbic comments on her son’s political foes, and she once mistakenly accused one rival, Gov. Mitt Romney of Massachusetts, of involvement in a scandal that rocked the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City. She and her son both apologized.

Roberta Wright was born in Muskogee, Okla., on Feb. 7, 1912, one of five children of Archibald and Myrtle (Fletcher) Wright. She was a freshman at the University of Southern California in 1931 when she met Ensign McCain, a recent Naval Academy graduate.

Her parents disapproved of their courtship, but the couple eloped and were married in Tijuana, Mexico, in 1933. They had three children, Jean Alexandra, John Sidney III and Joseph Pinckney II.

Meghan Latcovich, Cindy McCain’s chief of staff, said Mrs. McCain was survived by her son Joseph; 10 grandchildren; 11 great-grandchildren; and seven great-great-grandchildren. Her daughter, Jean Alexandra McCain Morgan, died last year.

On Mrs. McCain’s 100th birthday in 2012, a crowd of relatives and friends gathered at the Capitol Hill Club, her former residence, for cake and a slide show of her panoramic past. She was pictured with Lord Mountbatten, the last viceroy of India; John Paul Getty, the industrialist and collector; Bob Hope; Ambassador Clare Boothe Luce; Madame and Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek; and others.

After Senator McCain’s death in August 2018, Mrs. McCain was unable to attend her son’s memorial service in Phoenix. But she led her family in attendance at a memorial in Washington, where the senator lay in state in the Capitol Rotunda. She also attended his funeral at Washington National Cathedral, where Mr. Obama and former President George W. Bush gave eulogies, and was present for a private service and burial ceremony at the Naval Academy in Annapolis, Md.

“We still, to this day,” Senator McCain said of his mother in his memoir, “have spirited discussions about politics and policy.”

Alex Traub contributed reporting.

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