Beer Baroness

NYT's Cindy McCain profile is oddly catty

It has always been unclear how to properly address the role of family money when covering a political candidate. But last week, after the senior senator from Arizona had a decidedly senior moment when asked to recall how many houses he owned, it seemed like the McCain money was now fair game. And journalists put the microscopes on the vast liquor fortune of Cynthia Hensley McCain.

On August 22, The New York Times ran an article, “For McCains, a Public Path but Private Wealth,” about the Hensley beer distribution fortune’s origin, size, and relationship to the McCain family. This is theoretically interesting, and the effort involved in figuring out just what Mrs. McCain’s role is at Hensley & Company, third-largest Budweiser distributor in the United States of America, is fairly impressive. But the article is consistently marred by bizarre non sequiturs:

But in his will, Mr. Hensley left Mrs. Portalski [Cindy McCain’s older half sister] just $10,000 and her offspring nothing. “It’s so disappointing, just being pushed aside,” she said. Mrs. Portalski said Mrs. McCain added insult to that injury by referring to herself, in her eulogy for her father, as his only child — while her half-sister sat in a front pew.

Well, OK. But is that really relevant to how Mrs. McCain controls the Hensley company? Strictly speaking, no. Though a case could be made for how, as the eldest daughter of Jim Hensley, Kathleen Hensley Portalski ought to have something to do with the $300 million-a-year corporation. The Portalski story might vaguely suggest something about the McCain family’s notions of fair play and appropriate conduct.

However, as the article also explains:

Far more of Mrs. McCain’s money is invested in real estate. With Sharon Harper, a close friend, Mrs. McCain has stakes in three office complexes. At the Brophy College Preparatory School, where the McCains’ two sons went to high school, the Harper Balcony sits just over the McCain Colonnade.

And earlier:

In the late 1980s, [Cindy McCain] set up a charitable organization out of Hensley headquarters, distributing medical supplies in developing countries. But she disbanded the group in the early 1990s after she became addicted to painkillers and was caught stealing from its supply of drugs.

And she also, apparently, wears too much makeup. The Times article turns out to be really just a send-up of Mrs. McCain. And these little jabs throughout the article ostensibly about her wealth (which is surely story enough) are really just, well, bitchy.

The fact that, for the first time in history, the U.S. has a major candidate closely connected to a corporation that distributes beer could be handled a number of ways. Journalists could, for instance, consider what this means with regard to underage drinking. For a variety of reasons the McCain campaign probably doesn’t see this as a major policy initiative of a potential administration (no more than, say, the United States would have considered condiment policy if John Kerry had been elected in 2004) but still, there are a number far more relevant ways to tackle this issue.

As one reads this sort of article it is understandable why The New York Times is so often accused of displaying a liberal media bias. It isn’t strictly relevant which presidential candidate the author, David Halbfinger, supports (or whether or not he votes at all), but the McCain article is a slanted one. And the Times can surely do better.

The fact of the matter is that, like many scions of large family fortunes, Mrs. McCain has a very limited role in the corporation owned by her and her children. That’s a story right there; there’s no need to resort to personal attacks to make it interesting.

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Daniel Luzer is web editor of the Washington Monthly.