By Jonathan Weisman
Washington Post Staff Writer
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."
But Wright's days of booze, gambling and scrapes with the law seem to have infused his daughter Roberta with her own cantankerous side. Roberta McCain, at 96, is still campaigning for her son, still living in the District and still making trouble. She told a television interviewer that Republicans were "going to have to take" her son, but that they would do so "holding their nose."
Archibald Wright was born in 1875 in the village of Kossuth, in Alcorn County, Miss. He appears in the Muskogee City Directory in 1905 along with his wife, Myrtle Fletcher, with his occupation listed as "farmer" -- unusual, because his address -- 708 S. Main St. -- was downtown. In January 1908, under the headline, "Two Big Ones Are Fined," the Times-Democrat reported that "Arch Wright and Tom Owens, under bond the last two weeks for running a gambling house, were convicted in Judge Jackson's court yesterday and fined $100 and costs."
On Nov. 27 of the same year, the paper said that Wright had been fined $100 and costs and sentenced to serve 30 days in the county jail for "running a gambling place over the Mistletoe bar on North Main Street."
Days later, Wright was back in Bailey's courtroom, but this time, the paper reported, he was pulling "down the stake" of $1,000 in a "legal game" of cards with three deputy sheriffs.
The next week, under the headline, "Big Bunch of Gams Pinched," ("gams" being short for "gamblers"), the paper noted that "a squad of deputy sheriffs made a successful raid on Arch Wright's gambling joint last night and arrested 40 gamblers," and added: "Wright put up $1,685 in cash [around $37,000 in today's dollars] to insure the attendance of the gang before Justice Bailey this morning. The raid was effective because the 'buzzer' failed to work and give the alarm of the approach of the officers, the result being that the men were caught dead to rights in the net of gambling."
On Jan. 17, 1910, he was taken into custody "to answer to the 126 indictments returned against him" for "selling casks and barrels containing beer." Wright, "after consulting with Superior Judge McCain," who was no relation, decided to cough up $13,000 cash bond. Yet four months later, authorities raided his house again to confiscate liquor.
His big break came in 1911, when Wright bought the Turner Hardware company property at Broadway and Main, one of the most valuable business corners in Muskogee, for $135,000 -- nearly $3 million today.
"He paid $135,000 for THE prime piece of downtown Muskogee property," Calhoun marveled in an e-mail after researching the purchase. "He didn't make that amount of money selling chickens off the farm or aspirins from his drug store."
On Feb. 8, 1912, under the headline, "Arch Wright Proud Father of Twins," the Muskogee Phoenix began, " 'This is the most important piece of news you ever printed in your paper,' said Arch Wright over the telephone to the Phoenix last night. This is the news: Born to Mr. and Mrs. Arch Wright, two fine baby girls." One of the twins was named Roberta, who would become John McCain's mother.
Where Wright's money came from remains a mystery. Calhoun said card sharks and other schemers were flocking to Indian territory at the time of statehood, looking to get rich on oil and land. Higgs said it was "common knowledge" that McCain's maternal grandfather made his money buying and selling oil leases, but there is no way to prove how those lands and leases came into his possession.
Higgs said she knew her grandparents only from their days in Los Angeles. Wright, she recalled, loved playing cards, any game of cards -- especially at the Los Angeles Athletic Club. But he wanted no part of vice in her memory, especially gambling and drinking.
To impart life lessons on his granddaughter, he told of the exploits of Uncle Eichard and Aunt Ida, fictional relatives and rogues from Muskogee, but, Higgs said, their misdeeds "were something you would never, ever want to do."
Beyond that, all she knew of Muskogee was the servant her grandfather brought with him, whom she says Wright treated generously.
"To us, our grandfather was kind and loving and loyal and a tremendously generous grandfather," she said. "We certainly never knew him as a rogue."
Staff researcher Madonna Lebling contributed to this report.