YOU DON'T hear much about the first Mrs. John McCain, who was from the Philadelphia area.

But in light of her recent comments in a U.K. publication, I'm beginning to understand why. Apparently, she's not about to let others use her to beat up on John McCain.

I had heard years ago that the senator had been married to a gal from Philadelphia. A couple who listen to my radio program told me they were friends with Carol McCain and had spent time with her and John McCain after his release from the Hanoi Hilton. They also told me Carol had been in a terrible car accident in the Philadelphia suburbs.

Sometime later, in his memoir "Faith of My Fathers," I read Sen. McCain's account of his courtship and marriage to Carol Shepp, a swimwear model from Philadelphia whom he first met when she was engaged to one of his Annapolis classmates.

McCain identified Connie Bookbinder, whose family owned Bookbinder's Restaurant, as Carol's college roommate, and said he and Carol would often join the Bookbinders for dinner, football games at Memorial Stadium and basketball at the Palestra.

The McCains were married in 1965. Little more than two years later, he was shot down over Hanoi and began what would be more than five years of captivity in North Vietnam. On Christmas Eve 1968, while he was a POW, Carol McCain was in an auto accident just outside the city after delivering presents to a friend. According to McCain's account in "Faith," she "skidded off the road and smashed into a telephone pole, and was thrown from the car. The police found her sometime later in shock, both legs fractured in several places, her arm and pelvis broken, and bleeding internally."

Several days passed before she was out of danger, and she spent the next six months in the hospital. By the time doctors were finished, she'd undergone 23 operations and was five inches shorter than she was before the accident.

Fast-forward 30 years. John McCain is remarried. And the former Mrs. McCain now lives out of the limelight in Virginia.

The U.K.'s Mail on Sunday tried to draw her out in a story printed on June 8. The Mail's coverage dripped with sarcasm and innuendo about the events giving rise to the McCain divorce.

The Mail said Carol McCain "casts a ghostly shadow over the senator's presidential campaign," that she lives in a "faded" seaside resort and that John McCain "divorced her in 1980 and married Cindy, 18 years his junior and heir to an Arizona brewing fortune, just one month later."

The story said that some in the orbit of the couple when they were together thought McCain had abandoned his first wife after her car accident in favor of a trophy wife. Ross Perot was one of them. He'd paid for Carol McCain's medical bills, and told the paper that John McCain was a "classic opportunist."

But guess who didn't go along with the hit piece launched from across the pond based on the way McCain had treated his first wife?

Carol Shepp McCain.

She said she decided to talk to the Mail because she wanted people to know she supports her ex-husband's candidacy. "He's a good guy. We are still friends. He is the best man for president."

Last week, I read the Mail story aloud on my radio show. It drew a call from someone with knowledge of Carol McCain - Bud Stewart, a retired orthopedic surgeon who had operated on her the night of her accident.

Stewart said he'd worked on Carol McCain at Bryn Mawr Hospital for most of that Christmas Eve night. The next day, he received a call from the State Department. Did he know the name of the woman he'd spent the night operating on, someone wanted to know?

"As things happen, I was more concerned about the patient's problems than the patient's name, and I told them I didn't know. And they said it was Carol McCain."

"They suggested that I not make any comment to the press or to anyone because John was a prisoner of war at that time and her father-in-law was the supreme commander of the Pacific fleet. They thought it would result in more torture to John if it was described."

Stewart kept in touch with Carol McCain for a while, and told me she went on to become Nancy Reagan's personal secretary in the White House. He called her a "courageous, and inspiring woman."

SO, FAR FROM the forgotten, fading figure portrayed in the Mail, Carol McCain actually beat her ex-husband to a job in the White House.

Today she drives an SUV sporting a McCain for President bumper sticker. Of course, John McCain comes to Philadelphia these days only to campaign or see the Army-Navy game.

And Stewart? He retired 10 years ago and is raising 85 alpacas with his wife. They still live in the area. *

Listen to Michael Smerconish weekdays 5-9 a.m. on the Big Talker, 1210/AM. Read him Sundays in the Inquirer. Contact him via the Web at www.mastalk.com.