Paul Greenberg

We all knew Barack Obama was quite the rhetorician, and once again he's demonstrated his way with words - and not just words but thought. It happened when he was called on to deliver a Father's Day sermon at a largely black church on Chicago's South Side.

It could have been just another ceremonial occasion at the Apostolic Church of God, and just another appearance on a presidential candidate's crowded speaking schedule. Instead, the senator used the occasion to issue a moral challenge. Because this guest speaker had come not to praise the American father but to ask where he'd gone.

Barack Obama, U.S. senator and family man, could have delivered another routine paean to what the pollsters and political consultants have labeled Family Values, thereby reducing them to a standard political shtick. Instead, Barack Obama recalled his own fatherless childhood, and how his grandparents stepped in to provide support, guidance, love - in short, family.

As he pointed out: "A lot of children don't get those chances. There is no margin for error in their lives." And no father to step in and do what dads are supposed to do, which is a lot.

That's when Barack Obama took aim at all those who want to blame the declining state of the American family, particularly the black family, on handy scapegoats like Social Injustice, the Legacy of Slavery and Segregation, and all too painfully on - rather than working to overcome all that history family by family, father by father:

"We can't simply write these problems off to past injustices," Sen. Obama told his listeners. "Those injustices are real. There's a reason our families are in disrepair but we can't keep using that as an excuse."

Too many glib demagogues have done just that. And in making excuses, they have obscured the devotion of those fathers - and grandfathers - who embody the best of the past and therefore nurture the future. See Clarence Thomas' moving memoir of his grandfather ("My Grandfather's Son"), and the strength, independence, and iron will the old man passed on to a young boy who is now an associate justice of the Supreme Court of the United States - with a mind, will and character of his own.

In his book, Justice Thomas recalls how he and his brother bristled at the discipline - and high expectations - that this older, largely uneducated but utterly self-reliant black man in tiny Pinpoint, Ga., imposed on his grandsons. Any boys would resist such a regimen, being boys. For in his grandfather's house, it was all work by day and all study after the sun set - and maybe before it arose, too.

Paul Greenberg

Pulitzer Prize-winning Paul Greenberg, one of the most respected and honored commentators in America, is the editorial page editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.