WASHINGTON -- Much has been written about the maverick, mercurial character of John McCain and his presidential campaign. We're here to tell you it's in the blood.
Specifically, it's in the maternal bloodline, which at this moment is on display in the antique-elegant maternal apartment on Connecticut Avenue NW. There the candidate's mother, Roberta McCain, and her twin, Rowena Willis, whom one admirer describes as ''a couple of feisty, high-fashion babes of 88,'' are granting their first joint interview for the press.
Rowena flew in from the West Coast for the occasion. But then these women cross oceans and continents the way other people drop by the mall.
They spend months traveling overseas every year, and when McCain launched his bid for the White House, they promptly took off for Kazakstan and Uzbekistan to stay out of the way. They bought a red BMW off the Internet for the trip.
''Actually, that's not right,'' says Roberta. ''I went to an agency in Arlington (Virginia) and they bought it off the Internet. At least that's what (younger son) Joe says.''
''How does Joe know that?'' says Rowena.
''I'm not sure he does.''
''OK, scratch the Internet,'' says Rowena. ''Anyway, we picked the car up in Munich. I flew home before she went on to India, Greece and New Zealand. I had to do my taxes.''
''But we brought the car home,'' said Roberta. ''I gave the old Jaguar to the Salvation Army.''
Right. But wait a minute. What were they doing in Uzbekistan?
''I wanted to see Samarkand,'' says Roberta, as if that explains it all. And maybe it does.
Roberta and Rowena may be the best-kept secret of the McCain campaign, though it's not clear just why. They are perhaps being held in reserve as some sort of thermonuclear campaign device: the Even Straighter Talk Express.
Famous for both wit and beauty, they bemoan the erosions of age even as they display near immunity to them. (''My hair looks like the wrath of God,'' frets Roberta. ''Can't you make me look like a combination of Brigitte Bardot and Marilyn Monroe?'') They bat their blue eyes and flirt shamelessly with their interrogator, carry on a constant stream-of-consciousness repartee and exude enough energy to light several moderate-size cities.
President Johnson found them such a joint national asset that he once wrote a special letter officially declaring Rowena a member of the McCain household so she could accompany her sister and her admiral husband on diplomatic missions.
Says Tom Arrasmith, naval aide to the senior McCain in those days, ''Roberta and Rowena are definitive proof that women are a higher life form.''
Asked once how he could tell his beautiful wife from her identical twin, the candidate's father replied famously, ''That's their problem.''
Given all that, why haven't the twins campaigned more for McCain?
''Oh, I don't think we're really assets,'' says Rowena coyly. ''We're too old. We're not pretty enough. ...''
''And we might come up with some inner thoughts,'' says Roberta, darkly. ''That might not be good.''
They also insist they worry about their ''cornball accent.''
''Whenever I try to speak in front of anybody these days,'' says Roberta, ''my voice cracks and I swear I sound like some old redneck.''
The accent, they say, dates from their girlhood. They were born Feb. 7, 1912, in Muskogee, Okla. (''Don't put that in,'' says Roberta. ''Say we were born in Manhattan or some fancy place''), daughters of a Mississippian named Archie Wright who had bought a lot of Texas and Oklahoma land just before the oil boom and done very, very well.
The Wrights spent summers in California to escape the Oklahoma heat and moved to Los Angeles for good when the girls were about 12. There they were raised on a steady diet of fresh-from-the-field fruits and vegetables and outdoor exercise (''surfing ... horseback riding on all those hills now covered with houses'') to which they credit their present extraordinary health and energy.
Archie Wright promptly retired to devote his life to his children, who remember him as the most loving father possible.
''But we were very controlled children,'' says Roberta. ''Mother never let us do anything. And in those days we did what we were told.''
Well, not always. When her parents told her she couldn't keep seeing that apple-cheeked Navy ensign off the battleship Oklahoma, she eloped with him to Tijuana, Mexico, where they were married in Caesar's Bar.
''Not exactly in the bar,'' she decides on reflection. ''It was really sort of upstairs.''
''Mother had a cat fit,'' remembers Rowena. ''She had a bunch of lady friends in shortly afterward, and while they were hashing it all over, appalled at the scandal, Daddy came downstairs and said, 'I want to tell you, ladies, if you ever find yourself with a couple of ugly girls on your hands, move to a port city. You'll get rid of them on the spot.' ''
Roberta loved the idea of Navy life, but within weeks of her January 1933 wedding, President Roosevelt closed the nation's Depression-shaken banks for two weeks ''and we had the Long Beach earthquake. I thought maybe I ought to go back to Mama.''
Rowena married six months later. ''Actually, I think the earthquake did it,'' she says. Not only did the earth move, but when the telephones went out, her soon-to-be fiance offered to drive her through the police lines to Long Beach to see if Roberta was still alive.
''They found us just fat, dumb and happy, enjoying the earthquake,'' remembers Roberta.
''Well, what else could you do? Buildings were still falling down. You might as well try.''
If there was any sense of adjustment in moving from the wealth and comfort of her father's house to the itinerant life with a penniless ensign, Roberta can't remember it.
Whether she was driving her three fractious children alone across the country chasing her husband's ship, or camping out in a Quonset hut cooking with galley equipment bigger than she was, or holding diplomatic receptions when her husband was head of the Pacific Fleet, ''I loved the Navy from the start,'' she says. ''I was having fun. I always have fun. I'm still having fun.''
''I became my mother's son,'' writes McCain in his memoir, ''Faith of My Fathers.'' ''What I lacked of her charm and grace I made up for by emulating and exaggerating other of her characteristics. She was loquacious, and I was boisterous. Her exuberance became rowdiness in me. She taught me to find so much pleasure in life that misfortune could not rob me of the joy of living. She has an irrepressible spirit that yields to no adversity, and that part of her spirit she shared with us was as fine a gift as any mother ever gave her children.''
Roberta says, ''Obviously, that means all the trouble he got into came from me.''
Rowena remained in Los Angeles, living in somewhat grander but no less independent style. Her first husband, John Luther Maddox, started an airline that grew to become part of TWA. After his death in 1939, she married California investment counselor Henry David Willis. They were divorced in the 1970s.
When they're not together, the sisters exchange ''four or five'' transcontinental telephone calls a day. Occasionally they're mistaken for each other.
''I was on a flight last year,'' remembers Rowena, ''when the stewardess came up and said two men in the rear of the plane wanted to know my name. And I thought, 'Two men! Well, things are looking up.' But then it turned out they thought I was Roberta. I was just crushed!''
Each woman had three children, but by the 1960s the children were old enough (Rowena's were in boarding school in Switzerland) that the sisters were globe-trotting with some regularity, first with Jack McCain and later, after his death in 1981, on their own.
Their most recent dizzying journey somehow encompassed Denmark, Singapore, New Zealand and Tasmania, and Roberta feels vaguely guilty they've seen so little of Africa ''and hardly any of Latin America.'' ''But we just love Europe,'' she says. ''All those cathedrals and museums and coffee bars.''
''And bars!'' says Rowena.
What's their favorite country?
''Whatever one I'm in at the moment,'' says Roberta. ''But these days we're doing good if we can remember what that is.''
She jumps up with the vitality of a schoolgirl and runs to a nearby room, returning with a framed quotation.
''Look what my daughter Sandy sent me,'' she says proudly.
The legend reads: ''My grandmother started walking five miles a day when she was 60. Now she's 95 and we don't know where the hell she is.''
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