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Records shed light on candidates' ancestors

They were a sailor, a bookkeeper and a factory worker, men of humble roots and distant times whose kin would run for U.S. president in 2008.
/ Source: The Associated Press

They were a sailor, a bookkeeper and a factory worker, men of humble roots and distant times whose kin would run for U.S. president in 2008.

Although they are long gone, these three are heard about on occasion through the voices of their descendants — John McCain, Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton.

Now there's another way to get to know them. Under an agreement being announced Tuesday, a vast range of records held by the National Archives will become more easily available online, offering information on some 100 million ancestors.

McCain talks in the campaign about granddad "Slew," the brilliant, foul-mouthed seaman.

Obama speaks of the "straight-backed" Methodist ways of his great-grandfather, Rolla Payne of Kansas.

Clinton talks about the times of Hugh Simpson Rodham, the grandfather who labored in a Scranton, Pennsylvania, lace factory, back when that was enough for a stable life.

The ancestors are anecdotes these days. Once they were making their own way.

The newly accessible documents provide a snapshot of who these men were.

Among the papers: a 1910 census statement showing John Sidney McCain serving as an ensign aboard the USS Washington; a 1917 draft registration card of Payne; and a 1942 draft registration card of Rodham.

Payne was white. In a sign of those segregated times, his card is marked at the bottom, along the left: "If person is of African descent, tear off this corner."

Generations later, his great-grandson, of African descent on his father's side, is close to becoming the first black Democratic nominee for president.

Rodham was 62 when he filled out his card. He fell under the 1942 "old man's draft" of World War II requiring registration by men up to their mid-60s.

Such documents are already available to the public at the archives in Washington and some can be found on genealogy sites.

Now they are being made available as a massive collection by, which has been transferring the National Archives records into digital form. People can search the online records for free through May 31. After that, a paid subscription will be required.

McCain's Navy legacy
In 1910, John Sidney McCain, the roughhewn son of a Mississippi sheriff, was stationed aboard the USS Washington in Puget Sound, Washington, when the census man came calling. The first of three John McCains was on his way to a legendary career.

Slew had a herky-jerky gait and a high-strung and fidgety nature; his words were plagued by whistles from his false teeth, describes Robert Timberg in "John McCain: An American Odyssey."

He was ranked a lowly 79 out of 116 at the Naval Academy, the first of three John McCains who distinguished themselves in the Navy despite mediocre academy marks.

"Current Biography" called Slew "one of the Navy's best plain and fancy cussers."

During World War I, he served as an engineering officer on the armored cruiser San Diego, escorting convoys across the Atlantic through schools of German U-boats.

In World War II, he commanded an aircraft carrier task force in the Pacific and fought the Japanese from Guadalcanal in the Solomon Islands to Tokyo Bay.

A hard drinker who could roll his own cigarettes with one hand — a talent that amazed his young grandson — Slew McCain was a pioneer in the development of naval aviation and in carrier attack strategy.

He stood on the deck of the battleship Missouri to witness Japan's surrender on Sept. 2, 1945, one of the chattier figures of that historic occasion. Later that day he was photographed with his son, submarine commander John Sidney McCain Jr., on a ship in Tokyo Bay.

Just days later, the senior McCain dropped dead of a heart attack. He was promoted to admiral posthumously.

John Sidney McCain III was 9 when his granddad died. "To spend time in his company was as much fun as a young boy could imagine," the Republican presidential candidate said in a campaign speech in Meridian, Mississippi, where a naval airfield is named for his grandfather.

Obama's Midwestern roots
For a man whose ancestry is half African, Obama has a deep American lineage with distinguished names. That's because some of his ancestors on his white mother's side were named after great historical figures.

There was Ralph Waldo Emerson Dunham of Kansas, 1894-1970; Christopher Columbus Clark of Missouri, 1846-1937; and George Washington Overall of Kentucky, 1820-1871.

As he reminds people frequently, he's also distantly related to Vice President Dick Cheney.

Rolla Charles Payne was not famous in any sense.

On his 1917 draft registration, Payne is listed as having a slender build, medium height, gray eyes and brown hair.

At age 24, he described himself as a bookkeeper for an oil company in Tulsa, Okla. His home address was in Kansas.

"Caucasian" is scribbled on the form, spilling over the too-short line. The corner for blacks to tear off — an easy way to sort black from white in the segregated armed forces — is left intact.

Obama speaks of Payne and his daughter, nicknamed Toot, in his memoirs. Toot was Obama's grandmother.

"Toot's family was respectable," he wrote. "Her father held a steady job all through the Depression, managing an oil lease for Standard Oil.

"The family kept their house spotless and ordered Great Books through the mail; they read the Bible but generally shunned the tent revival circuit, preferring a straight-backed form of Methodism that valued reason over passion and temperance over both."

Obama's denomination is the United Church of Christ.

Clinton's Scranton tradition
Born in Durham, England, to a Welsh miner, Hugh S. Rodham emigrated with his family to the U.S. and worked for the Scranton Lace Co. for a third of the company's 105-year existence.

His son, Hugh E. Rodham, joined his dad at the mill before leaving for Chicago to start his own drapery business.

He brought his children, including Hillary, back to Scranton for their christening.

Scranton Lace was once the world's largest producer of Nottingham lace. It used huge European looms to weave swaths of flowers, ferns and geometric shapes, according to Southern Textile News.

"The Scranton of my father's youth was a rough industrial city of brick factories, textile mills, coal mines, rail yards and wooden duplex houses," Clinton wrote in her memoirs.

Scranton Lace hung on longer than other relics from the boom years, closing in 2002 and putting a shrunken work force of 50 out of jobs.

Hugh S. Rodham's 1942 draft registration lists categories of complexion for applicants to check. Their choices were sallow, light, ruddy, dark, freckled, light brown, dark brown and black.

Rodham said he was ruddy.