· A July 22 A-section article on Archie Wright, Sen. John McCain's grandfather, incorrectly attributed a statement by Roberta Wright McCain remembering her childhood in Los Angeles to biographer Elizabeth Drew. The attribution should have been to biographer Robert Timberg.
McCain's Maverick Side: Grandpa Would Be Proud
Tuesday, July 22, 2008
Sometime around 1900, Archie Wright made his way from Mississippi to Indian country around present-day Muskogee, Okla., and proceeded to raise Cain: "Arch Wright Given Jail Sentence," read a headline in the Muskogee Times-Democrat in 1908. "Lots of Booze," the same paper reported six months later after deputy sheriffs raided Wright's house.
That man, described in the local press at the time as a "well-known debonair, dead-game sport," was the maternal grandfather of Sen. John McCain. While much has been made of McCain's paternal lineage -- the upstanding admirals of the Navy -- less appears to be known about Arch Wright, who made a fortune on liquor, gambling and oil in Indian territory before relocating to Los Angeles with a sprawling clan in tow, including McCain's mother, Roberta Wright McCain. He died there in 1971, when McCain was being held as a prisoner of war in North Vietnam.
A former McCain aide, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he continues to associate with the senator's staff, said McCain seldom spoke about his maternal grandfather. When he did allude to him, it was generally in the context of a scant summary of his mother's side of the family that included a respectful but cursory reference to Wright's success in the oil business.
Mark Salter, a top McCain strategist and the co-author of several biographical books with the Republican presidential candidate, said in an e-mail that he does not "know much about the guy," other than that he had come west from Oklahoma, retired young and "didn't want Roberta to marry Jack McCain."
Wright arrived in Muskogee a gambler and bootlegger and left a wealthy wildcatter who owned some of the most valuable property in the region. He bartered for that land with gold coins and liquor, as Native Americans were receiving parcels of property from the federal government, according to Murray Clifford "Cliff" Smith III, a District cab driver whose grandmother was Wright's wife's sister. Smith's mother, Margaret Lawson Smith, was a cousin and playmate of Roberta Wright.
Oklahoma, carved from federal territory and Indian lands, entered the union in 1907, and as compensation, every Native American was promised land. The Creek, Cherokee, Choctaw, Chickasaw and Seminole were pushed from the southeastern United States onto reservations, then systematically robbed of their promised reward by some of Muskogee's most prominent citizens, and one of them was probably Wright, according to local historians
"I would 'wager' (ha) a guess that he won land with the card games and then sold it for the money," Sue Tolbert, director of the Three Rivers Museum in Eastern Oklahoma, said in an e-mail, adding: "The evidence against him is strong."
Nancy Calhoun, a local historian at the Muskogee Public Library, said: "He stood out in a town full of rascals."
To a generation of relatives who knew Wright after his days in Muskogee, such stories come as a surprise.
"In all of our estimation, he is up there with the angels and the saints," said Joan Higgs, 72, a cousin of McCain's who spent her teenage and early adult life with her grandfather, Archie, and now lives in New Mexico. Higgs confirmed Smith's relationship to the Wright family.
To McCain's biographers, Wright is "the man not spoken of," said Elizabeth Drew, who wrote "Citizen McCain." She said that Roberta Wright McCain was close to her father and that she spoke volubly about her days growing up in Los Angeles. But she never talked of her early childhood in Muskogee or her father's Oklahoma past. Robert Timberg, who chronicled McCain's background in "The Nightingale's Song," recalled Roberta simply telling him that her father had struck it rich, retired and never worked again, becoming the parent who took her and her twin, Rowena, to ballet lessons, school and on dates.
In Paul Alexander's "Man of the People: The Life of John McCain," Wright gets only one mention, as "a rich and strong-willed oil wildcatter."