By E.J. Dionne Jr.
Tuesday, June 17, 2008; 12:00 AM
Will everyone dismiss Barack Obama's Father's Day call to responsible parenting as a simple political ploy?
After all, the man who would be our first African-American president is struggling for support from white working-class voters, many of whom have traditional views of family life and some of whom harbor deep suspicions about black men.
What could be more reassuring to them than his flat statement that "too many fathers ... have abandoned their responsibilities, acting like boys instead of men"?
"You and I know how true this is in the African-American community,"
Obama said, speaking at a Chicago church more theologically conservative than the Trinity United Church of Christ he recently left. "We know that more than half of all black children live in single-parent households, a number that has doubled -- doubled -- since we were children."
For a campaign that wants to fight Republican claims that Obama is a down-the-line liberal, here is a theme he has been talking about for a long time that simply doesn't fit into anyone's parody of liberalism.
Yes, his speech spoke of what government could do to meet responsible fathers "halfway." But Obama's emphasis was not on programs but on the personal responsibility of fathers to "be there for their children, and set high expectations for them, and instill in them a sense of excellence and empathy."
Moreover, Obama told his own story as the son of a single mother. She "struggled at times to pay the bills; to give us the things that other kids had; to play all the roles that both parents are supposed to play." Yet he was devoid of self-pity. "I was luckier than most," Obama acknowledged.
For a guy accused of being an elitist, he didn't sound like one in this sermon, a perfect volley in that phase of the campaign when his imperative is to reintroduce himself to an electorate that still doesn't know much about him
This is all true. But it would be unfortunate if Obama's words were read only as an attempt to win white votes. It actually matters that a presidential candidate is taking the costs of fatherlessness seriously.
Every social problem is made much, much worse by the abandonment of children by their fathers. Yes, social justice depends upon what government does. Yes, government should do far more to relieve the burdens on those who struggle economically and work hard for little pay. And, yes, racism is a damaging reality that explains many of the problems faced by African-Americans -- including family breakdown itself.
But government simply cannot replace absent fathers. Government cannot do all the things that parents ought to do. The reason Obama's speech is important beyond all of the short-term political calculations and analysis is that it reflects a hard-won consensus that family structure matters.
When Daniel Patrick Moynihan wrote about "the weakness of the Negro family" in 1965, he was denounced for "blaming the victim." This was a misreading of what Moynihan was saying, and also of the purpose of his words. Moynihan's view was vindicated years later when many of the most important African-American advocates of equality came to see strengthening the black family as essential to the civil rights agenda.
All politicians should be required to read Moynihan's 1986 book "Family and Nation." It makes his essential point that "no government, however firm might be its wish, can avoid having policies that profoundly influence family relationships." He continued: "The only option is whether these will be purposeful, intended policies or whether they will be residual, derivative, in a sense, concealed ones." It augurs well that Obama clearly stands with Moynihan.
Another of Moynihan's good deeds was to discover the talents of a young man from Buffalo, N.Y., named Tim Russert, who died Friday at 58. Not enough can be said about Tim's many random acts of kindness (which our family experienced) or his down-to-the-precinct-level love of politics.
There are two things about Tim I particularly admired: his devotion to his roots in Buffalo's working class, which included a loyalty to his religious faith, and his devotion to fatherhood, as both a dad and a son.
It made perfect sense that someone who took fatherhood so seriously got his first big break working for Pat Moynihan. It is an accident of timing that Tim's passing received so much attention on a Father's Day. That is a great sadness because he should have been granted so many more of them. But the honor was wholly right and just.
E.J. Dionne's e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.