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Roberta McCain, John McCain mother, dies at 108

PHOENIX — Roberta Wright McCain, the mother of Sen. John McCain who used her feisty spirit to help convince voters during his 2008 presidential campaign, has died. She was 108.

A spokesperson for daughter-in-law Cindy McCain says Roberta McCain died Monday. A cause of death was not immediately released.

At 96, Roberta McCain became the Republican senator’s secret weapon at campaign stops as evidence that voters need not worry about her son’s age – past 70 – as he sought the presidency.

She remained energetic and active into her 90s, traveling often with her identical twin sister Rowena, who died at age 99. She attended the 2008 Republican National Convention, where her son credited “her love of life, her deep interest in the world, her strength, and her belief we are all meant to use our opportunities to make ourselves useful to our country. I wouldn’t be here tonight but for the strength of her character.”

It was 1933 when a 20-year-old Roberta Wright defied her family and eloped with John McCain Jr. Documents released in 2008 showed that as a young ensign, John Jr. got into trouble when the couple decided to marry and he left his ship without permission.

“I got married young,” she told The Muskogee Phoenix in her native Oklahoma in 2008. “I was 20 years old, and it was the best decision I ever made.”

She married into a storied military family – her husband retired in 1972 with the rank of four-star admiral, the same rank held by his father, John S. “Slew” McCain Sr. Her son was later held as a prisoner-of-war in Vietnam even as his father was commander in chief of Pacific forces by the late 1960s.

Roberta McCain also was a young mother when her three children were born, later telling the Oklahoma paper that she was “too young and irresponsible to know you were supposed to worry about them. I just let them go. I got a kick out of watching them.”

The senator, who died in 2018, said in 2008 that his “father was often at sea, and the job of raising my brother, sister and me would fall to my mother alone.”

Her other son, Joe, told The Associated Press in 2007 that the family had endless dinner-table discussions about history, politics and legislation led by their mother.

“We were all basically on the same side of the fence,” Joe McCain said. “But it was like Talmudic scholars arguing about a single word or an adjective in the Testament.”

When Sen. John McCain wrote a memoir about his experience as a POW for nearly six years in a north Vietnamese prison, he described times when he swore in English at his Vietnamese guards, who didn’t understand.

His mother later told him: “Johnny, I’m going to come over there and wash your mouth out with soap.”

Her granddaughter, Meghan McCain, recalled her strong will and sense of duty in a 2012 column for The Daily Beast website, writing that Roberta McCain did not have “a lot of patience for excuses, especially from my father when he was growing up and acting out.”

“She once hit him over the head with a thermos in the back of a car because he was acting up so badly on a road trip,” wrote Meghan McCain.

The McCain matriarch’s spunky personality became the stuff of stories for the family – and among those in their circle of Washington society.

“Last Christmas, she wanted to drive around France. So she flew to Paris and tried to rent a car,” the senator once joked. “They said she was too old, so she bought one and drove around France.”

Roberta Wright was born Feb. 7, 1912, in Muskogee, Oklahoma, where her father was a businessman whose varied, colorful enterprises included bootlegging and oil wildcatting. The family moved to Los Angeles in the mid-1920s.

Her husband commanded submarines in World War II and was second in command of the cruiser St. Paul during the Korean War. He later held key posts including the Navy’s chief of congressional liaison, and died in 1981.

In 1934, when a fitness report deemed him underweight, the future admiral wrote: “My wife doesn’t know how to cook, and my meals are very irregular.”

• This story contains biographical material compiled by former AP reporter Polly Anderson.

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