This Bud's for John

John McCain's family

Hensley also needed a federal liquor license to operate his beer distributorship. Federal officials could not explain how Hensley -- convicted of federal liquor violations -- would have been able to get the "basic permit" required for liquor wholesalers. Such permits can remain in effect for many decades. It is extremely unlikely that a person with a similar conviction today would get a federal liquor license, according to the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms.

Today, Phoenix-based Hensley & Company, the nation's fifth-largest beer wholesaler, is a privately held business that 79-year-old James Hensley still controls. Now one of the wealthiest men in Arizona, Hensley built the Budweiser distributorship into at least a $200 million-a-year business, with annual sales of about 20 million cases of beer.

James Hensley controls nearly all of the voting stock, and most of the rest of the closely held shares in the firm are placed in trusts for his grandchildren or owned by his daughter, 45-year-old Cindy Hensley McCain, wife of U.S. Senator and presidential hopeful John McCain.

John McCain, doing one of his Nixon impressions.
John McCain, doing one of his Nixon impressions.

In the late 1970s, John McCain was at a crossroads, both personally and professionally. His marriage to his first wife, Carol, was falling apart; the two were in the midst of a number of trial separations. And McCain, who would never fully recover from injuries he sustained in Vietnam, finally accepted the fact that he would never fly again. He liked his job as the Navy's liaison to the U.S. Senate, but it had done more to whet his appetite for politics than satisfy his career goals.

Then he met beer heiress Cindy Lou Hensley, an event that transformed his life. She was 25, he was 42.

McCain retired from the Navy in 1980, got divorced, and married Cindy Hensley. Although Hensley wealth has helped propel McCain's political career, the senator doesn't have direct access to the Hensley fortune because of an agreement the couple signed before their marriage.

Still, Hensley's power and money have been instrumental in McCain's political success. At its peak, McCain's pay as a naval captain was about $45,000. His first job in Arizona was as a public affairs agent for Hensley & Company. He was paid $50,000 in 1982 to travel the state, touting the company's wares. But he was promoting himself as much as he was Budweiser beer. A better job description might have been "candidate."

That same year, Cindy drew more than $700,000 in salary and bonuses from Hensley-related enterprises as her husband campaigned for the U.S. House of Representatives. The Hensleys loaned John's campaign more than $160,000, about a third of what he raised in the hotly contested race.

McCain was considered an outsider to many rank-and-file Republicans in the conservative First District, which had been left open by retiring House Minority Leader John Rhodes. McCain benefited not only from Hensley money, but also from his father-in-law's friendship with Darrow Duke Tully, the publisher of the largest daily newspaper in the state. Tully was enamored with McCain's military record and gave McCain copious free space on the editorial pages of the defunct Phoenix Gazette and an entrée to the power structure in Phoenix.

McCain won the Republican primary and coasted to victory in the 1982 general election. McCain rose to power the old-fashioned way -- by tapping into wealth, rubbing elbows with the powerful, and manipulating a fawning and gullible press. Ironically, a centerpiece in McCain's remarkable and sudden rise to national prominence is his promise of campaign-finance reform.

Yet McCain has relied heavily on the financial contributions from big corporate donors -- with the liquor and beer industry near the top of the list. McCain won -- one could say bought -- his first election to the House of Representatives in 1982 with lavish sums of Hensley beer money.

James Hensley wasn't just giving McCain money just because he was his son-in-law. In a rare 1988 interview, James Hensley gave a glimpse of his political savvy.

"The neo-prohibitionists are real active about trying to dry us up all the time," he told the Phoenix Business Journal. "They're a constant battle. They're going after us in different ways now than they did in those days, trying to ban advertising, things like that ... We're legislatively involved very heavily ... It's a way of life to protect our industry."

Since 1982, Hensley & Company employees have donated almost $200,000 to federal political candidates and campaigns.

McCain himself has received more than $60,000 from James Hensley and his employees -- and tens of thousands more from other beer-related interests.

Today, McCain is ranked the 26th wealthiest member of Congress by Roll Call magazine. There are 535 members in the House and Senate.

John McCain benefits from James Hensley's money.

James Hensley benefits from John McCain's political power.

While McCain blasts his colleagues for falling prey to the influences of campaign contributions, the senator's record reveals his quiet support for the business that launched and has helped maintain his career.

John McCain hasn't always been a champion of change. He voted against campaign finance reform repeatedly in the 1980s. Until recently, he took money from tobacco companies. He was a member of the Keating Five, senators accused of improper actions on behalf of wealthy contributor Charles H Keating and the focus of the most extensive Senate Ethics Committee hearings in 100 years.
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