McCain writes her new memoir Stronger that she quickly learned Nancy Reagan "was not a fan of mine" during one 1983 dinner party

By Virginia Chamlee
April 23, 2021 12:22 PM
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cindy mccain and nancy reagan
From left: Cindy McCain and Nancy Reagan
| Credit: Mark J Terrill/Ap/Shutterstock

For all the pomp and circumstance surrounding a White House dinner, Cindy McCain remembers an icy reception at a 1983 party hosted by then-President Ronald Reagan.

Nancy Reagan "was not a fan of mine," Cindy writes her new memoir Stronger, out next Tuesday and exclusively excerpted in this week's issue of PEOPLE.

The occasion of the 1983 interaction was a White House dinner attended by all of the newly-elected Republican members of the House, including Cindy's late husband, former Sen. John McCain.

She had been to dinner parties in the past, Cindy, now 66, writes in Stronger, but none like this one.

"Nancy Reagan had a flair for setting a scene, and she had the whole room gloriously lit with candlelight," she writes. "The round tables glistened with the new White House china, and though the First Lady had been criticized for spending so much money on it, each piece was spectacular."

As Cindy looked around at the distinguished guests and ivory china, she "felt a wave of gratitude that my parents had taught me the intricacies of silverware and finger bowls."

While Sen. McCain and President Reagan greeted one another as "old friends," Cindy's own interaction with the first lady (whom she was seated near during the meal) was decidedly less warm.

"As we took our seats, I complimented her on the gorgeous china, but she looked me up and down and offered only a chilly reply," Cindy writes. "Soon enough, she subtly let everyone at the table know that she was not a fan of mine. Every time I spoke, she glared at me like a judgmental parent."

Later in the dinner, as another guest commented that Cindy must have been excited to be a part of Congress for the first time, Mrs. Reagan was quick to interject.

"I started to answer, but Mrs. Reagan jumped in first," Cindy writes. " 'She's not the one who won,' she said abruptly. 'Her husband did.' Then she quickly moved the conversation in another direction."

Cindy writes that she "felt like all the wind had been knocked out of me," adding that she "understood the subtext."

"John's first wife, Carol, had worked on the Reagan campaign and gone on to run the East Wing of the White House," Cindy writes. "Mrs. Reagan had maintained a friendship with her and obviously felt great loyalty. That Mrs. Reagan, herself, was a second wife didn't make her any more sympathetic to my position."

Cindy continues in the book: "I'm not sure why she put me at her table rather than a different one. Maybe she wanted to find out what I was like. But she had no intention of accepting me."

For the remainder of the dinner, Cindy writes that she "sat quietly and didn't say a word," despite being "young and terrified and made to feel uncomfortable."

Although the evening didn't go as planned, Cindy says it taught her an important lesson: to keep her head high and "be kind to everyone."

"The act of surviving that evening stiffened my backbone and left me with one important lesson," Cindy writes. "When I left, I knew that however high John advanced in his political career, I would try to be kind to everyone."

Cindy adds: "Nancy Reagan did great work in her life and offered passionate support for her husband in good times and bad. But that night always stood as a reminder to me that you should treat people with kindness no matter what the circumstances."

Stronger COURAGE, HOPE, AND HUMOR IN MY LIFE WITH JOHN MCCAIN By CINDY MCCAIN
Stronger, by Cindy McCain
| Credit: Crown Forum

Cindy's memoir traces she and her late husband's journey — from their first blush of romance at a chance Hawaiian meeting in 1979, to their trials and tribulations as one of the country's leading political families.

Speaking with PEOPLE for this week's issue, Cindy didn't shy away from the reports that John's 2008 presidential campaign was hard on their union.

"We were married 40 years, and anyone that thinks a 40-year marriage is perfect hasn't been married 40 years," she told PEOPLE. "Our marriage was strong, it was solid, and we were great partners and we had a great life together. I have no regrets, and at the time of my husband's death, he said to me he had no regrets either."