Cindy McCain: Private Heiress And Philanthropist Cindy McCain devotes her time to charitable causes and to supporting her husband's bid for the presidency. The wife of Republican Sen. John McCain won't comment on her family business, — a beer distributorship — or her fortune.
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Cindy McCain: Private Heiress And Philanthropist

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Cindy McCain: Private Heiress And Philanthropist

Cindy McCain: Private Heiress And Philanthropist

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Yesterday we reported on the professional life of Michelle Obama; today the other woman who could become first lady: Cindy McCain. NPR's Ted Robbins has our story on McCain's role in her family's business.

(Soundbite of truck)

TED ROBBINS: The trucks come and go all day long at the sprawling Hensley and Company warehouses in Phoenix, the familiar blue Bud Light or red script Budweiser logos painted on their sides.

(Soundbite of truck horn)

ROBBINS: Budweiser calls itself the king of beers, and Hensley is the king of beer distributors around here, a 60 percent market share in thirsty Phoenix, $370 million in revenues last year. But you won't hear any of that famous sound of beer pouring in this story. The company and the chairman of its board declined to participate in it. That chairman would be Cindy Hensley McCain.

Ms. CINDY HENSLEY McCAIN: I don't think I'm very mysterious.

(Soundbite of laughter)

ROBBINS: That's Cindy McCain on ABC's "Good Morning America." She may not think she's mysterious, but when it comes to the family business, she has resolutely refused comment.

Ms. McCAIN: I'm not the candidate. I've never been front and center. I do the things that I enjoy, and I do the things that are important to me, and do them in the way that I like to do them.

ROBBINS: Cindy McCain has the means to do the things she likes to do. Her father, Jim Hensley, founded the beer business in 1955, built it into the third-largest Anheuser-Busch distributorship in the country, then left it to Cindy, his only child, when he died in 2000.

Cindy Hensley first met John McCain at a party in Hawaii. He was a 43-year-old Naval officer and married at the time. She was 25. They married a year later, in 1980, and they signed what was at the time fairly rare: a prenuptial agreement.

It's never been made public, but tax attorney Lee Sheppard, who writes for the non-partisan publication Tax Notes, says there could only have been one reason for it: Cindy had money and John didn't.

Mr. LEE SHEPPARD (Tax Attorney): She is an heiress, okay, who was marrying, and she was very young at the time, an old military guy who didn't have a job and went to work for the father-in-law right after they got married.

ROBBINS: John McCain's job with Hensley didn't last long. In 1982, he ran for Congress, running his campaign partially on loans from Cindy. Cindy McCain went to Washington but left two years later, homesick for Arizona.

The McCains have always filed separate tax returns. That was a problem earlier this year, when Cindy McCain refused to release her return. Once again, she told NBC's Ann Curry she isn't the one running for office.

Ms. McCAIN: This is a privacy issue. My husband is the candidate.

Ms. ANN CURRY (NBC News): You'll never release, you're saying…

Ms. McCAIN: No.

Ms. CURRY: Never.

Ms. McCAIN: No.

Ms. CURRY: Even if you're first lady, because that is, even though a non-elected position, you would be in a very public role.

Ms. McCAIN: I'm not the candidate.

ROBBINS: Eventually, Cindy McCain released a partial 2006 return. It lists income from salaries just under $300,000, and it lists income from businesses, real estate holdings and trusts at $4.5 million for that year - one figure, no detail.

This year, she has benefited from holding stock in Anheuser-Busch, which is being acquired by Belgian brewer InBev. Her family also owns a stake in the Arizona Diamondbacks baseball team.

Congressional financial disclosure forms do list the McCains' assets together, making John McCain the third-richest member of the Senate, but Lee Sheppard says Congress devised the forms so they don't offer much detail either.

Mr. SHEPPARD: Federal financial disclosure says things like, well, are you worth somewhere between a million and 100 million? In her case, it doesn't tell us much because family businesses don't have to be valued, and Hensley is a family business.

ROBBINS: And Sheppard says despite Cindy McCain's privacy protests, businesses have interests which ought to be scrutinized.

Mr. SHEPPARD: Let's go back in time. Lyndon Johnson was married to a very rich woman in the broadcasting business. Well, that has a little bit of political effect. That - and that is a business with a lot of political interests, and beer is a business with a lot of political interests too. Beer is affected by all kinds of legal questions.

ROBBINS: Hensley and Company executives have lobbied the federal government on a number of issues, including successfully opposing rules to put alcohol content on beer labels.

When he was chairman of the Commerce Committee, John McCain recused himself from alcohol-related issues. If he's elected president, recusal would not be an option. The campaign says McCain will deal with that if he's elected.

As Hensley's chairman, Cindy McCain is not involved in day-to-day operations. Those who know her say what she truly enjoys is charity work.

She had her own charity, providing emergency medical care to children, but it disbanded in the mid-'90s after Cindy McCain admitted to illegally obtaining painkillers from the charity for a back problem.

Now she is active in three charities.

Ms. VONNIE WRAY (Operation Smile): She participates in every way.

ROBBINS: Vonnie Wray is with Operation Smile, a charity which provides surgery for children with facial deformities. As recently as this spring, Cindy McCain traveled to Vietnam with Operation Smile.

Ms. WRAY: Cindy always scrubs and goes into the operating room. She's very, very hands-on with comforting the parents who are anxious and perhaps shows them pictures of her own daughter.

ROBBINS: Cindy McCain adopted a child with a cleft palate, Bridget, now 16. Through much of the '90s Cindy stayed out of the public eye, raising four children at home.

Unidentified Man: …and she loves John, and we love her, and we love John too, and here is Cindy McCain.

ROBBINS: But now, as in 2000, when her husband first ran for president, she is at his side, supportive of his career, but not revealing too much about her own. Ted Robbins, NPR News, Tucson.

BLOCK: One final note about Cindy McCain. Today she had to visit a Michigan hospital for X-rays after a supporter shook her hand too enthusiastically. McCain has had previous operations for carpal tunnel syndrome, and that handshake apparently didn't help. She was treated for a minor sprain.

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