The secret life of Dad

He stood up to John McCain to protect me -- and never told me about it.

Published June 13, 2000 7:25PM (EDT)

Every year, I tell my father that I'm going to show up at his office on Take Your Daughter to Work Day. We both know it'll never happen.

My father runs a public utility, one of the largest companies in Arizona. I'm a political reporter at Phoenix New Times, the alternative weekly here. I make my (comparatively meager) living writing about the way my dad makes his living. Well, not my dad. I don't write about him or Salt River Project, his company. But his friends and associates and the politicians they elect? Definitely. It can't be helped; the town's too small.

You'd think such close quarters would breed contempt between a rep-tied father and his Doc Martened daughter. But really, our relationship has never been better.

Dad and I barely spoke before I took the job at New Times. Of all my childhood memories, one of the clearest is the feeling of my tiny hand in my father's huge, warm one, slowly swinging back and forth as we walked. I don't recall where we were going, but I do know that the memory is precious because it is rare.

My father almost never touched my sister or me. It wasn't because he wasn't around -- he was, always. I can't recall a night, growing up, without him stretched out on the couch, watching bad TV. He wasn't abusive. I'm almost certain that he would not have preferred sons to daughters. I don't think he wished he hadn't had kids at all. He just wasn't interested.

Looking back, I realize he was jealous of us. Jealous of the attention we snuck from the love of his life, our mother. And, again in hindsight, I see that he was shy. He didn't know what to say to us, these whiny, tangle-haired creatures with his hazel eyes, one with a freckle in the center of her lower lip, just like her dad.

He was uneasy around us, and gruff. My sister and I learned not to make a peep during "The Rockford Files," not to request extra bathroom stops on the way to San Diego, not to dare try to ease away a nightmare by crawling into bed with Mom and Dad.

In a lot of ways, I suppose, he was a pretty typical father for my generation. Hardworking, hardhearted. He expressed his love for us by working his ass off.

So you might be surprised by what happened when, at age 26, resigned to a long-distance relationship with my crosstown dad, I took the job at New Times.

Initially, Dad questioned my decision to join the hippie paper. He curled his lip and shook his head, and walked out of the room, disgusted. He took a lot of abuse from his pals. But then something odd happened. We found ourselves, my father and I, living in the same world: the Phoenix political scene. We were on opposite ends of the spectrum, to be sure, but suddenly we shared a common language. He had something to talk about with me.

My phone started ringing at 5:30 nearly every afternoon. Car phone static, then, "Hey, Ames!" I'd drop everything and scramble to answer the inevitable "So what's new in town?" Sometimes he even trusted me with gossip about his cronies -- strictly off the record, of course.

"Good story," he'd harrumph once in a while, and only after I asked. His friends insisted he bragged about me constantly, but I always figured Mom was my one true-blue fan.

And then, last year, about the time the national media started writing about Sen. John McCain's presidential prospects, I got a call. A guy identified himself as David Grann, a reporter for the New Republic, and said he was profiling McCain.

His question went something like, "So, tell me about that time, a few years back, that John McCain screamed at your dad in the Senate dining room, over a story you wrote for New Times."

I was stunned. As a political reporter in Arizona, there was (and is) no greater hide to hunt than that of McCain. I had made a hobby of collecting anecdotes about McCain's temper long before most Americans had ever heard of the hotheaded war hero. I sputtered to Grann that I had no idea what he was talking about. He explained that he had a source who knew all about the incident. Then he asked for my father's work number. I gave him the number for Salt River Project's press office, then hung up and called my father.

"Look," I said, "I'm not asking you if it happened. I just want you to know about the call I just got." Dad thanked me, and changed the subject.

Although they both declined to discuss the incident with Grann, neither McCain nor my father denied it. In his story, Grann reported that McCain had cornered my father and "showered him with curses."

Later, a Phoenix political insider told me he'd known about the incident for years, that it happened in 1994, shortly after I wrote a story about McCain's wife, Cindy, and an FBI investigation into her drug addiction and theft of drugs from a nonprofit organization she'd founded. It was my first big story as a young reporter; my father had just been promoted to general manager of Salt River Project.

McCain didn't speak to me for five years after I wrote that story. But I had no idea he'd gone after my dad. Oh yeah, my source blabbed, your father was devastated. "Why can't you control your daughter?" McCain had reportedly asked. My dad had even worried that he wouldn't be able to work with the state's senior senator -- a huge liability for a man hired, in part, to lobby Congress.

Amazing. My father felt like he couldn't do his job because of me?

The man who bellowed if my sister or I woke him from a Sunday afternoon nap never said a word, never asked me to stop writing about McCain. And he still hasn't. We don't talk about the incident, although we talk almost every day.

I suppose there really is room for me in my father's world, after all. And I'm proud to be his daughter. But I still won't be showing up at his office anytime soon for Take Your Daughter to Work Day.

By Amy Silverman

Amy Silverman is a staff writer for Phoenix New Times.

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Fatherhood John Mccain