Even as the Philadelphia region looks to figure prominently in determining McCain's future, the area figured prominently in his past, most devastatingly as the place where Carol McCain was horribly injured on an icy stretch of Route 320 in Gulph Mills on Christmas Eve 1969 while her husband was imprisoned in Hanoi.
Carol McCain spent the next six months in Bryn Mawr Hospital, while their daughter, Sidney Ann, 2, stayed with her grandparents Mary and Joe Shepp, an insurance agent, in Lansdowne. Her two sons, Doug and Andy, from her first marriage, to an Annapolis classmate of McCain's, stayed with friends in Florida, where the McCains had been living. (John McCain had adopted the boys.)
Over the next two years, she had 23 operations.
"She was leaving my house on Christmas Eve," recalled Connie Bookbinder, 71, one morning last week. She sat at the kitchen table of her Haverford apartment, surrounded by pictures of the old days, including a couple of John McCain. "She went out of my driveway and turned left."
It was Carol McCain's third Christmas while her husband was a POW; she was visiting her parents, when she drove over to see to the Bookbinders in Gulph Mills. Less than a mile away, near the hanging rock on 320 (a landmark said to have sheltered George Washington and his troops), McCain's car skidded into a telephone pole. Thrown from the car, she lay for hours by the roadside until police found her.
"She told me she didn't think she was going to survive," said retired Dr. William "Bud" Stewart, of Malvern, the orthopedic surgeon called in that night. "It was snowy and icy, and she didn't think she was going to be seen."
Carol McCain nearly died that night, the blood flow from her leg blocked, said Stewart. She had broken bones in her legs, arm and pelvis and a ruptured spleen.
Doctors were able to save her legs, surgically altering them and inserting rods that left her about four inches shorter than the 5-foot-8 she once was and unable to walk without difficulty.
The next morning, Stewart got a phone call from the State Department, asking whether he knew whom he had operated on. "I said I don't have any idea. They told me it was Carol McCain, her husband is a prisoner of war in Hanoi, and her father-in-law was supreme commander of the Pacific Fleet. They said don't give any info to anyone, because they were concerned that he would be subjected to more torture."
Connie Bookbinder went to see her friend in the hospital the next day. "She said, 'Don't cry.' "
Stewart recalled that Carol McCain did not want her husband to know, either. "She didn't want me to give any information to anybody," Stewart said. "She was a very courageous woman. She was very up most of the time, in spite of her problems. She felt very confident that John was going to get home."
It was four years later, in 1973, that she was reunited with her husband, both of them, incredibly, having suffered traumatic injuries during the separation. Her physical appearance was as altered as was his - both his arms and a leg had been fractured and his weight loss was severe. But both she and her friends say the accident was not the reason McCain divorced her in 1980, after years of carousing.
"He fell in love with somebody else 17 years younger," said Bookbinder, who also supports McCain, despite the fact that he left her best friend. "It's human nature. He missed almost six years of his life. He missed hippies, marching against the war, miniskirts, panty hose. He missed high boots - he would have liked that. He came back, Doug and Andy, were on baseball teams, Sidney Ann was in fourth grade. He could get some of those years back [with Cindy McCain]. He fell in love with somebody else who was a lot younger than she was, and Sheppie wasn't old. [She was 42.] She accepted it."
Connie Bookbinder recalls her friend telling her the marriage was over in 1980. Carol McCain was traveling in Philadelphia with Nancy Reagan at the time - the Reagans had befriended her and she was working as the future first lady's personal secretary. (Nancy Reagan reportedly was less forgiving than Carol regarding John McCain's behavior, as was Ross Perot, an advocate for prisoners of war, who stepped in and helped pay for her medical care.)
When her friend delivered the news, she and Nancy Reagan were at the Bellevue, Bookbinder said. "She said, 'He fell in love with somebody else, and there's nothing I can do about it.' "
Bookbinder says her friend has gone on to a varied career, including as a director of the 1987 "We the People 200" celebration of the Constitution's bicentennial here. "She's had a lot of boyfriends over the years," Bookbinder said.
By telephone from Virginia Beach, Carol McCain declined to be interviewed. Of her divorce, she told McCain biographer Robert Timberg, "I attribute it more to John turning 40 and wanting to be 25 again than I do to anything else."
Back when they were dating, in 1964 and the first half of 1965, Carol Shepp and John McCain were regarded as a charming couple. He was an entertaining, larger-than-life jokester in Navy whites who flew into Philly nearly every weekend to spend time with the tall, brunette beauty and her equally loquacious and sociable friends Connie and Sam.
As luck would have it, Sam Bookbinder could come up with some pretty good lobster dinners for his friends. ("Every evening we dined there on lobster and drank with friends," is how McCain recalled it in his book.) The foursome ate at Bookbinders Seafood House, where McCain's bachelor party was held, took in football games at Franklin Field and basketball at the Palestra. "We hung out in Philadelphia, he would take the kids to go swimming at the club at the Navy yard, go dancing at the Oak club," Bookbinder said.
With a jokey manner offset by a palpable sense of mission, McCain could easily impress, Bookbinder says, with the exception of Carol Shepp's mother, Mary. "She didn't like anybody," Bookbinder said. "It wasn't John."
McCain was coming up from Meridian, Miss., where he was stationed as a flight instructor. He would take a student pilot on a four-hour training flight to Philly on Friday evenings, in time to meet Carol Shepp for dinner at Bookbinders Seafood House at 15th and Sansom. His relationship with Shepp, McCain wrote, "added to my creeping sense that I might have been put on earth for some other purpose than my own constant amusement."
(History will note that Shepp was not the first Philly girl McCain dated. In his book Faith of Our Fathers, he writes of coming in by train to see a young woman on the Main Line. He gets waylaid at the 30th Street Station bar, with well-meaning travelers buying the Naval Academy guy drinks. When he finally shows up at her front door, he stumbles through the screen to make a dubious entrance. After about 15 minutes, her parents hail him a cab back.)
Carol Shepp and John McCain were married on a stifling hot July 3, 1965, in the Bookbinders' marble-fireplaced living room at 2117 Pine St. "The city of Philadelphia decides to repair the street," Bookbinder recalls. "They're out there [with jackhammers] uh-uh-uh-uh. And one of the guests went outside and said, excuse me, we're having a wedding here, can you lay off for a while?"
The city workers were happy to oblige. Like the bachelor party, the reception was held, naturally, at Bookbinders.
After the wedding, the couple moved to Florida with Carol's two sons. That fall, McCain flew in for the Army-Navy game in a trainer to meet his parents, who gave him presents for his family. On his way back, somewhere over the Eastern Shore of Maryland, his engine flamed out and he had to eject at a thousand feet. The Christmas gifts were lost, but the incident, McCain wrote, "added even greater urgency to my recent existential inquiries and made me all the more anxious to get to Vietnam . . ."
Their first child, Sidney Ann, was born in 1966; McCain's combat duty in Vietnam began in the summer of 1967, two years after their wedding.
Bookbinder says she feels sad that people assume McCain left her friend because she was somehow disfigured. She remains, Bookbinder said, the same woman, with no bitterness.
"She's never been in love with anybody else," Bookbinder says. "It would be a hard act to follow."
She regrets that her friend missed a chance to be a first lady from Philadelphia. "I told her, 'I'm sorry it isn't you.' She had the smarts and the looks and the savoir faire."
Contact staff writer Amy S. Rosenberg at 215-854-2681 or email@example.com.