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A Project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center

McCain’s First Marriage

Q: Did John McCain cheat on his first wife?

A: He courted his current wife, Cindy, for months before divorcing Carol Shepp in 1980. He recently called the breakup of his first marriage "my greatest moral failure." But Shepp has been quoted as saying "we are still friends."


Hearing there was a previous Mrs. McCain before Cindy McCain. Is this so, and did John cheat on her after the 1st wife was in a bad car accident?


We've had several queries about McCain's marriage to and divorce from his first wife, Carol Shepp. McCain has addressed it a number of times. Most recently, on a nationally televised August 16 appearance at the Saddleback Church forum:

McCain (Aug. 16, 2008): My greatest moral failing – and I have been a very imperfect person – is the failure of my first marriage. It's my greatest moral failure.

According to his book "Faith of My Fathers," McCain married Shepp, a former Philadelphia model, on July 3, 1965. At the time, Shepp was a divorcée with two young sons. McCain wrote:

McCain ("Faith of My Fathers," page 171): I had known and admired Carol since Academy days, when she was engaged to one of my classmates. … She was attractive, clever, and kind, and I was instantly attracted to her, and delighted to discover that she was attracted to me.

A little more than a year after they were married, Shepp gave birth to their daughter, Sidney. In 1967 McCain was deployed to Vietnam, and a year later he was shot down and captured by the North Vietnamese. He was detained at the infamous “Hanoi Hilton" for five-and-a-half years. When he returned to the United States, his wife had not seen him for six years.

Meanwhile, Shepp had been severely injured in an automobile accident. When McCain returned from Vietnam, both he and Shepp underwent physical therapy simultaneously. Their marriage lasted seven more years. According to a 2007 profile of McCain in the Arizona Republic, "Their marriage began disintegrating," and "McCain has admitted to having extramarital affairs." But the two remained married. Robert Timberg also describes McCain's extramarital affairs in "The Nightingale's Song":

The Nightingale's Song (pg. 239): The storybook marriage that had survived separation, pain, and prison began to fray. Off-duty, usually on routine cross-country flights to Yuma and El Centro, John [McCain] started carousing and running around with women. … Asked about them, he admitted to having a series of dalliances during this period.

Then, in 1979, McCain met a young former cheerleader named Cindy Hensley at a military reception in Hawaii. As he described it later in his 2002 book "Worth Fighting For": "She was lovely, intelligent and charming, 17 years my junior but poised and confident." He added, "I monopolized her attention the entire time, taking care to prevent anyone else from intruding on our conversation. When it came time to leave the party, I persuaded her to join me for drinks at the Royal Hawaiian Hotel. By the evening's end, I was in love."

As the Arizona Republic then related it:

Arizona Republic, March 1, 2007: After a whirlwind courtship, John asked Cindy to marry him. But there were some details to clear out of the way.

McCain needed a divorce from Carol, his wife of 14 years from whom he was never separated.

John and Carol formally separated in January 1980. He requested a divorce from Shepp on Feb. 19, 1980, claiming their marital bond was “irretrievably broken.” He then acquired an Arizona marriage certificate on March 6, 1980, and, according to public records obtained by the Los Angeles Times, the divorce was finalized the following month – five weeks before McCain and Hensley's marriage ceremony.

Bud Day, a lawyer and one of McCain’s fellow prisoners of war, handled McCain's legal affairs. “I thought things were going fairly well, and then it just came apart," the Arizona Republic quoted him as saying. "That happened to quite a few. … I don't fault [Carol], and I don't really fault John, either.”

Timberg quotes McCain as saying, "I had changed, she had changed. … People who have been apart that much change. … I think she has reason to be bitter." When asked the same question, Shepp responded to Timberg: "The breakup of our marriage was not caused by my accident or Vietnam or any of those things. I don't know that it might not have happened if John had never been gone. I attribute it more to John turning forty and wanting to be twenty-five again than I do to anything else."

After the divorce, Shepp went on to work as the press assistant to soon-to-be First Lady Nancy Reagan. Today, Shepp supports McCain's presidential bid and was recently quoted by the Philadelphia Daily News as saying of her former husband: "He's a good guy. We are still friends. He is the best man for president."

–Emi Kolawole


Muller, Bill. "The Life Story of Arizona's Maverick Senator McCain." The Arizona Republic. 3 Oct. 1999.

Nowicki, Dan, and Muller, Bill "Who is John McCain?; Chapter 5: Arizona, the early years," The Arizona Republic 1 March 2007.

Timberg, Robert. The Nightingale's Song. New York, NY: Simon & Schuster, 1995.

McCain, John with Mark Salter. Faith of my Father. New York, NY: Harper Collins, 2000.

Smerconish, Michael. "The Other Mrs. John McCain." The Philadelphia Daily News. 19 Jun. 2008: 18.

Serrano, Richards and Vartabedian, Ralph . "McCain's Broken Marriage and Fractured Reagan Friendship." Los Angeles Times. 11 July 2008.