Today’S Dad, Revisited
The model to avoid.


Last year, after it became known that Los Angeles mayor James Hahn had separated from his wife of 20 years and their children remained with him in the family home, Hahn said in a Los Angeles Times interview that his “priority is to be Dad, not the mayor.” So this week NPR correspondent Karen Grigsby Bates, who’d been wondering why Hahn’s reelection campaign hasn’t made more of his devoted single-father schtick, came over to talk to me about it. (The interview airs today on Day to Day.)

I told Karen, who’s an old friend, that perhaps people are beginning to rethink how pious attitudes about one’s own devoted parenthood can seem to the public. Maybe suggesting that being a good dad is somehow comparable to an actual paid job, especially a taxpayer-supported one, isn’t exactly an asset. I like to think I’m a good mom–just as I’m also a good cook, tidy housekeeper, and smart shopper. But I don’t expect anyone who pays me actual money for services rendered to consider these “jobs” legitimate excuses for slacking off on a story.

As it happens, I offended a lot of fathers’ rights types last year when I wrote disapprovingly about the earnest new paternal species I think of as Today’s Dad, who often acts as if he deserves a medal for what moms do as a matter of course. I suspect, by the way, that this dynamic may have had something to do with how infuriated Lawrence O’Donnell got last week on Dennis Miller when I questioned his insistence that “every single one” of the teachers at his daughter’s elite public elementary school was “GREAT!” (And maybe all the children there are above average?)

Baby-boomer dads often congratulate themselves on how involved they are in their children’s lives, because compared to their own dads they certainly are; at least they routinely change diapers and go to parent-teacher conferences. But they’re still seldom as involved as moms (especially the ones who brag!), who, via the day-to-day drudgework of picking up kids and hearing playground gossip, not only know the names of all their children’s teachers but also the names of all the preferred (and non-preferred) teachers in each elementary-school grade–and how to improve the odds of getting their own kid into the favored class.

That’s always a major topic of conversation at privileged schools like O’Donnell’s. Although he may be happily ignorant about which teachers there are considered not-so-great, I’d bet that his wife is rather more knowledgable. Perhaps hearing a woman suggest that he doesn’t know quite as much about his child’s school as he thinks he does pushed some of his buttons, because this really was an amazing meltdown–which I now feel lucky to have witnessed before Miller was cancelled yesterday–complete with clenched fist and throbbing neck veins. I mean, I’m not exactly Swift Boat veteran John O’Neill, whom O’Donnell famously called “a filthy liar!” on MSNBC’s Scarborough Country just before the election.

But remembering how O’Donnell puffed up his chest, stuck out his manly jaw and sat up extremely straight as he became enraged on the Miller show–I suppose so I could get the full effect of just how much taller he is than I–makes me wonder about something I’ve noticed lately: When did it become O.K. for a man to yell at a woman in exactly the same tone he’d use with another man in a bar fight?

As it happens, I witnessed a similar incident last month at Yamashiro in Hollywood, where I regularly join a bunch of L.A. media types for drinks. A rather nebbishy-looking man, carrying an exhausted, sleeping child of about two or three, passed by our table on his way out from the bar area. I feel sorry for small children dragged around by their parents at night to adult venues like noisy bars, so…

“Baby in a bar,” I remarked to Rob Long, who was sitting next to me. “That’s always so nice to see.”

But the bar was particularly noisy that night, especially because our group was unusually large. So it’s not surprising that, as it turned out later, Rob didn’t hear my remark.

Instead we continued our discussion of that infamous how-to-get-on-in-society Nikki Finke article about the Plaza (it had run recently in the New York Times), the main point of which was that the author’s background is very, very rich and very, very classy–much more so than yours, dear reader.

“That was the most middle-class thing I’ve ever seen in the New York Times,” remarked Rob, who knows about actual upper-crust WASP attitudes and old money. Because really, the pretense of that piece was absurd. Her last name is Finke, not Saltonstall.

“My mother used to call that kind of thing ‘K,’ for common,” Rob added. So any commoners happening to overhear wouldn’t be able to dekode it. As I discovered that evening, such precautions against eavesdroppers can be quite sensible. Because about ten minutes after the man carrying the sleeping toddler had exited Yamashiro, he returned and angrily approached another writer in our group, Ruth Shalit, who’d been standing next to Rob and me.

“I heard what you said about a baby in the bar,” he yelled to an astonished Ruth, who also hadn’t heard my comment and so had no idea what he was talking about. “For your information, this is a restaurant, not a bar, and you’re an a**hole. F**K YOU!”

I wish I’d heard all that as it happened, so I could have interrupted and taken the blame. (Although part of me felt like a relieved George Costanza, watching Jerry Seinfeld get in trouble for some Costanza-caused disaster.) But as I said, the bar was noisy, so I didn’t quite catch it–Ruth reported the tirade later–and typically when people behave astonishingly badly there’s a few moments’ delay while you stare, jaw dropped, trying to process what’s going on.

Because our table was so large that night, Ruth assumed that the guy had been a member of our party she hadn’t met, sitting at the other end. So she ran after him as he stomped out.

“Sir, I don’t know what you’re talking about,” she said. “I didn’t say anything about a baby in a bar.”

“Well, someone said it!”

“I’m sorry, but it wasn’t me, it… it…. it… must have been some interloper.”

At that point, the man calmed down, apologized, and I hope felt like the complete dork that he is. It really was bad luck he’d heard my baby-in-the-bar remark at all, which I’d said so quietly that the people next to me didn’t catch it, but acoustics can be funny and sound does travel upward. I’ll have to remember next time to just roll my eyes and say, “K behavior at 10 o’clock, will explain later.”

These sensitive Today’s Dads really can be big wimps, though. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that, noticing the offending remark came from the general direction of two women, he picked the tiny one to attack. (Ruth barely clears five feet.) In any case, I’m always frustrated when I only get to see a snippet of what is obviously a larger story. What did the guy’s wife say later? Was he a hen-pecked type whose better half had ordered him back into the restaurant-not-a-bar to tell off the horrible woman who’d dared make an observation about their parenting habits?

Or was this the last straw? Maybe when he woke up the next morning, his wife turned over and said, “Harold, I want a divorce.”

And what, I wonder, would Lawrence O’Donnell think about all this?

Catherine Seipp is a writer in California who publishes the weblog Cathy’s World. She is an NRO contributor.