The unlikely family tableau at the Republican National Convention surely jolted millions of viewers at home: there was Cindy McCain, strings of pearls about her neck as usual, clasping hands with her adopted 17-year-old daughter Bridget. Mother and daughter were on the edge of crying.
It’s not that America was unaware of the story of how Mrs McCain, a multi-millionaire head of a beer distributing company, travelled to Bangladesh in 1991 and returned home with two babies scooped up from an orphanage run in Dhaka by the late Mother Theresa. But it had never been told like this.
Mrs McCain, who for decades has promoted charitable causes in Third World countries with a particular focus on health care for children, was seated in a VIP box, with Bridget - looking slightly bamboozled under the television lights - at her side. How they came to be mother and daughter was narrated from the stage by Wes Gullett, a long-time family friend and former aide to John McCain.
It was a ten-minute pause in bread-and-butter politics that was meant to serve several purposes, notably to highlight the philanthropic globe-trotting of Mrs McCain – just the last few months have seen her in Georgia and Rwanda – and to distract the public’s attention from its scrutiny of another 17-year-old closely linked to the campaign, Bristol Palin, the pregnant daughter of running mate Sarah Palin.
It also was a message that if the Democrats this year are all about diversity – an African American winning the nomination after a tight race with a woman – there is some diversity in Mr McCain’s house too. Never mind all that stuff about him forgetting how many he actually owns, because he is so rich.
Mr Gullett knows all about the arrival of Bridget in America, because he and his wife ended up adopting the second baby Mrs McCain bought back with her after that trip in 1991. They named her Nikki. The Senator’s wife brought them to the US, because they both faced acute health challenges. Nikki had a heart condition and Bridget suffered from a cleft palate so severe she could not be fed.
According to versions Mrs McCain has given before, she lost patience with Bangladeshi officials after they promised to give the girls the treatment they need but failed to give her any timeline for it. “Then do it! What are you waiting for?” she allegedly demanded banging her fists on the table. “I don’t know where I got the nerve,” she would later tell Newsweek.
In the end, bringing them home, on rapidly arranged medical care visas, was the only option. At that time, she and John, married for eleven years, already had had three children of their own together. Allegedly, the Senator knew nothing about Bridget until his wife arrived with her at the airport.
“Her husband met her at the airport,” Mr Gullett, with Nikki standing at his side, told the convention yesterday. “He looked at the baby. ‘Where is she going,’ he asked her. ‘To our house,' she replied.” It was shortly thereafter that the Gulletts agreed to adopt Nikki. Both girls underwent intensive medical treatment for their conditions. Reportedly, the McCains paid the bills for both of them.
“I remember John’s face,” Mr Gullett said of the scene at the airport in New Mexico. “That day he was not the tough war hero senator. He was like every other new father, full of love and emotion.”
The introduction of Bridget may have reminded some of a much less happy time eight years ago when Mr McCain’s quest for the nomination cratered in South Carolina after operatives for the competing campaign of George Bush circulated rumours about his having fathered an illegitimate black child.
A main theme of this week in St Paul has been the selflessness shown by Mr McCain in serving his country and, most notably, in refusing to accept early release from a North Vietnamese prisoner of war camp in spite of terrible injuries, because other American captives were higher on the list to be let free. The story of his accepting Bridget into the McCain home is meant to underline the message.
“They will always answer the call of those in need because they have always done so.,” Mr Gullett said in his tribute to Cindy. “And I think America will be an even better place with John and his wife Cindy in the White House.”