NEWS

Editorial: Getting frank about fatherhood

Staff Writer
Mount Shasta Herald

It's risen above a whisper now from folks of a certain generation and usually a certain party who look at presumptive Democrat presidential nominee Barack Obama and just don't get it. They gloss over the obvious intelligence and gift for oratory and zoom right to his lightness of national political experience and legislative accomplishment and they ask, "What's this guy bring to the table?"

What Obama brings like perhaps no other contemporary politician was on full display on Father's Day before one of the largest African-American church congregations in Chicago, where he stood up and spoke a Cosbian truth that many in attendance may have preferred not to hear.

"We need fathers to realize that responsibility does not end at conception. We need them to realize that what makes you a man is not the ability to have a child - it's the courage to raise one.

"Too many fathers are MIA ... missing from too many lives and too many homes. They have abandoned their responsibilities, acting like boys instead of men. And the foundations of our families are weaker because of it.

"You and I know how true this is in the African-American community. We know that more than half of all black children live in single-parent households ... We know the statistics - that children who grow up without a father are five times more likely to live in poverty and commit a crime; nine times more likely to drop out of schools and 20 times more likely to end up in prison ... And the foundations of our community are weaker because of it."

He went on in that vein, telling congregants to turn off "SportsCenter," stop making such a big deal of eighth grade graduation, set better examples. He did not absolve himself, acknowledging that the demands of a campaign have compromised his efforts as a father even though he pledged himself to "break the cycle."

What was remarkable about Obama giving this speech was not just the courage of his timing and choice of place. Like his keynote address at the 2004 Democratic National Convention in Boston and his remarks on race and religion earlier this year in Philadelphia, this again distinguishes Obama as a different kind of American politician - unafraid to stray from the beaten path, to tackle subjects most wouldn't dare, to defy expectations.

This was no argument for another government welfare program, which is what you'd anticipate from a liberal Democrat, but an appeal to people to help themselves, a call for self-responsibility, which is what you'd predict of a conservative Republican.

To be sure, Obama is uniquely situated to make these kinds of comments and not be booed out of the room. In part it's because he's a black man speaking to a predominantly black audience where this situation is particularly prevalent, though this is emphatically not just a black issue; indeed, "absentee" fathers come in all colors. (Can anyone who works 14 hours a day really call himself a "family man"?) But Obama's credibility on this subject goes beyond that, because he is the product of a no-dad-to-be-found household himself, someone who watched his mother "struggle at times to pay the bills, to give us the things that other kids had."

It is no knock on John McCain to suggest this is a speech he could not have given, not because of what he believes, but because how he looks and where he comes from deny him the ears of this audience on this matter. He'd not be the first to learn that the hard way. Obama suffers the same handicap when he talks about a military in which he never served. That's McCain's advantage. Few question what the latter brings to the table.

You know, a president can propose taxes and push for a balanced budget. He can put troops in or pull them out of harm's way. He can impact programs like Social Security and Medicare. Those are the matters we typically think of as "issues" for presidents; some of those also are at the margins of most Americans' lives. But if a leader could get fathers to really listen and act like fathers, given the staggering social costs that occur when they don't ... well, that would be revolutionary.

That's the potential Barack Obama brings to the table, and what makes this such a special election.

Peoria Journal Star