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Obama as Father Figure

OAK PARK, ILL. — On Sunday morning in the South Side of Chicago, a man who never knew his own father, except through intermittent stories and recollections, and then through his own search to discover who this man was, addressed the nation as a dad.

Labeled a Father’s Day Speech, Sen. Barack Obama’s words at the Apostolic Church of God were clearly meant to carry on past midnight of June 15, when all the ties and cards and tennis balls were put away, never to be seen again. It was really the Illinois senator’s first step in trying to convince the nation whether, at the precocious age of 46, he was ready to restore the fatherly mantle to the office of the president of the United States.

"I resolved many years ago that it was my obligation…that if I could be anything in life, I would be a good father to my girls," said Obama. His two daughters, Sasha and Malia, sat with his wife Michelle near where he stood on the stage surrounded by choir members in light blue robes.

(Matt Mahurin)
(Matt Mahurin)

Certainly this was friendly terrain. Here within the church’s 3,000-seat sanctuary, Obama was greeted by a standing-room-only African-American audience. Close to his stately red-brick home in Kenwood, the inside of the church followed the blueprint of the modern megachurch–complete with an angled roof and plush benches. Those of us who have spent any time around large congregations are still awed by the scene of immaculately dressed men and women leaping to their feet during the sermon, at the emotion that can be generated in the name of faith. Today was no different, parishioners clapped relentlessly during Obama’s turn at the pulpit.

But this was a speech for more than his two children, or even for those mothers and fathers and children who’d assembled on this hot Chicago day, far from the glass and steel and fire-ready towers of the Magnificent Mile and the South Loop. More than a week had passed since the real start of the general election. As Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton stepped back from her push for the Democratic presidential nomination, Obama had begun to battle in earnest with his Republican counterpart on everything from taxes at home to the war in Iraq.

Now Obama was in his first church setting since he withdrew from Trinity United Church of Christ, after a series of embarrassing statements by church leaders present and past made staying an untenable proposition. Now he was confronting a man in Sen. John McCain who seems much like many of our fathers — balding, occasionally stubborn and suffused with sarcasm that, let’s face it, can be pretty damn charming. With his speech today, Obama tried to cast himself as a national father who is both hard-driving and forgiving.

Father figures are something we no longer talk easily about when it comes to American political life. Once they were the standard–men like Franklin D. Roosevelt and Harry S. Truman, Dwight D. Eisenhower and Ronald Reagan. It wasn’t their age that made them fatherly, but the way we looked at them as we have traditionally looked as our dads–as men with whom we might disagree, but whom we trusted, trusted deeply, that their actions would turn out right.

Moreover, they were men that a nation wanted to make proud. They were commanders-in-chief, yes, but also people who inspired armies and for whom individual moments of greatness were seen as an extension of their love of country and their love of us. When little Mary Lou Retton raised her arms triumphantly in Los Angeles 24 years ago, who couldn’t feel the eyes of the Gipper looking at her with admiration and fatherly awe?

Indeed, what Obama must now overcome are 16 years of men who were less father figures than contemporaries. I can vividly recall the morning after Bill Clinton’s presidency in 1992 when my art teacher in my hometown in Ohio declared, "Finally we have a president my age." That’s precisely what he was — a man with a full baby-boomer portfolio, including the ill-fated attempts to smoke pot. With George W. Bush many saw, whether they will admit it or not, a man they could relate to. Born of great privilege, he’d made mistakes, embarrassed his family only to find a degree of redemption at an age when many of his contemporaries were doing the same.

But it is in the time of deep crisis that we seek out not our best friend or that guy we went to high school with who seemed kind of smart, but our dads. At this stage in American history, the nation is engaged in two wars far abroad and faced with economic turmoil that many haven’t seen in a generation.

During his Sunday speech, while Obama spoke about the duties of fatherhood going beyond the point of conception, he also spoke of the need not just to move from one stage of life to another, not just to get B’s, but the need to excel. In so doing, he was serving as a chastising, even conservative force. He was less a buddy than a man sternly addressing a segment of the population that had not held up its share of the bargain, had not cleaned its room.

"Too many fathers are MIA, too many fathers are AWOL," he said, "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 this is true, but nowhere is it more true than in the African-American community."

It is a community that embraced him despite early trouble signs (In one of his moments of deft humor, he recalled a period when "I wasn’t black enough. Now I’m too black."), and whom he was addressing in harsh, definitive terms. The problems of the black community were real, he said, but they could not be simply explained away by the tragedies of the past. It was time, he told those listening, for a new sense of accountability — to oneself and to others.

"We can’t simply write these problems off to past injustices," Obama said. "Those injustices are real. There’s a reason our families are in disrepair, and some of it has to do with a tragic history. But we can’t keep using that as an excuse."

By so doing, Obama might have further intertwined himself with the image of John F. Kennedy, dead 45 years this November. Remember in Kennedy’s inaugural address he famously reached out to a generation born within the 20th century and living in a period of Cold War peace not to make demands of the country, but rather to serve in anyway it could. He was the leader of his generation, and, as such, embodied the aspirations of an entire nation. This ideal of giving human form to the nation’s hope is what Obama has to strive for should he expect the multitudes to follow.

But, as he left the pulpit, Obama recognized the shared responsibility of leading a larger family.

"Pray for me," he said. "Pray for Michelle."

And with that he was gone–at least from the formal service. Soon enough Obama with his entourage were in a small small gymnasium adjacent to the main sanctuary. Here, a group of young children, who had been watching Obama on a projection screen, ran to him.

Reaching out to them, he tried to touch as many of the kids as he could, knowing they would be following him, ever so closely, for what he clearly hoped were the months and years to come.

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