Politics & Policy

Dreams of His Father

Obama missed an opportunity in his speech defending Jeremiah Wright.

The Rev. Jeremiah Wright is not someone who should be advising a presidential candidate. That said, Sen. Barack Obama actually did an admirable thing in refusing to disingenuously disavow his friend and mentor just for the sake of a political win. In his recent speech in Philadelphia, Obama talked about his life story and about being a black man in America. But he failed to address a key issue facing Americans — particularly black Americans — today: family breakdown. He missed the opportunity to talk about sons, fathers, and father figures. He didn’t have the audacity to challenge our culture on the most fundamental level, and to serve as an inspiration and a catalyst for change.

Obama’s speech was in defense of a man he has known for two decades, a man he has made a part of his wife and children’s lives, and a man he made a part of his campaign. Wright is also a man who has said some pretty despicable things about America and about public servants. Obama explained that a YouTube video or two from an inflammatory sermon is not the measure of the man. He talked about Wright’s military service and ministry to the poor and sick.

But Obama’s story was incomplete. Nothing he said will excuse the lack of judgment he showed by choosing to expose his children to angry, anti-American tirades and off-color rants. Still, had Obama gone one step further in explaining why he couldn’t push Wright out of his life — if he had told us that Wright was the father figure Obama needed as a young man, and that is the reason he wouldn’t abandon Wright, despite his many failings — he might have had me.

Obama told us that he is “the son of a black man from Kenya and a white woman from Kansas.” He didn’t go any further talking about his father. Instead, he threw his maternal grandmother under the media bus, saying that she had “once confessed her fear of black men who passed by her on the street, and . . . has uttered racial or ethnic stereotypes that made me cringe.”

He left me asking, “But what about the father? Why didn’t he talk about his father’s abandonment of him and his family, and how that made his later relationship with Wright all the more important in his life?” I suspect that is the reason Obama will never repudiate Wright. The fact is, Obama grew up without a father. And, I assume, Wright for him was a father figure. That may be how Wright got to be such an influence in his life. This would not have answered all concerns about Wright and Obama, but it would have presented a more compelling narrative and, more importantly, he could have delivered an important cultural message about the impact the absence of male role models has on a child.

Obama has it in him to do as much. I know this because he already has. In his bestseller, The Audacity of Hope, Obama wrote that in black America, “the nuclear family is on the verge of collapse.” He felt it worth pointing out that “54 percent of all African-American children live in single-parent households, compared to about 23 percent of all white children.” Writing about his own struggles as a dad with a busy schedule, he remembers how he grew up without a father, and with “partial, incomplete” relationships with a grandfather and stepfather: “As I got older I came to recognize how hard it had been for my mother and grandmother to raise us without a strong male presence in the house. I felt as well the mark that a father’s absence can leave on a child. I determined that my father’s irresponsibility toward his children, my stepfather’s remoteness and my grandfather’s failures would all become object lessons for me, and that my own children would have a father they could count on.”

My problem with Obama’s speech (well, one of my problems with Obama’s speech) is that he didn’t go far enough. He could make history in some pretty dramatic, culture-shaking, and culture-rebuilding ways. He grew up without a father and had some tough struggles, but he overcame and achieved. He could truly inspire.

Obama and I will never agree on all marriage and family issues. He’s radically pro-choice, and he wouldn’t protect traditional marriage in the face of faux marriage conjured by courts and legislatures. But he could be an important voice for men and for families; he could find some common ground with social conservatives who fight for the same. And that would be something audaciously hopeful.

© 2008, Newspaper Enterprise Assn.

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