WASHINGTON — John McCain’s rebellious streak didn’t come out of nowhere. His mother, Roberta, had a habit of speeding behind the wheel and racking up tickets. When told during a trip to Europe that she was too old to rent a car, she bought a Peugeot. Her son once answered the telephone to hear his mother say she was on a cross-country driving trip – by herself, in her 90s.

Now 106, Roberta McCain lived a life of full of travel and adventure, punctuated by her sass and determination.

She once said her son held her up as an example of “what he hopes his lifespan will be.”

But in the end, she is mourning him instead of the other way around. Though slowed by a stroke, she is expected to attend memorial and burial services in Washington and Maryland later this week for the middle son she called “Johnny.”

The senator said in one of his books, “I am grateful to her for the strengths she taught me by example.”

McCain’s father, who was a Navy admiral, also had a penchant for living large, with the senator recalling that a predilection for “quick tempers, adventurous spirits, and love for the country’s uniform” was encoded in his family DNA.


A native of Muskogee, Oklahoma, Roberta Wright was nearly 21 and a college student in southern California when she eloped to Tijuana, Mexico, in January 1933 with a young sailor named John S. McCain Jr.

He would go on to become a Navy admiral, like the father he shared a name with, and the couple would have three children – Jean, John and Joseph.

The family lived in Hawaii, the Panama Canal Zone – where the senator was born in 1936 – Connecticut, Virginia and points in between.

“To me, the Navy epitomizes everything that’s good in America,” she told C-SPAN in 2008 during the presidential contest John McCain lost to Barack Obama.

John McCain followed his father and grandfather’s footsteps into the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland, and joined the combat action in Vietnam. He was on his 23rd bombing run over North Vietnam when he was shot out of the sky and taken prisoner in October 1967.

His parents were in London getting ready to attend a dinner at Iran’s embassy when a special phone rang. She answered and listened as a friend told her two planes had been shot down and none of the pilots had ejected. The couple kept the news a secret and proceeded with their plans.

She later said she was “ashamed” of her son for the “terrible language” he used toward the Vietnamese captors who tortured him.

Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or login to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.