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.

Young Clarence did not fully understand what his grandfather was giving him, not then, for he was a child and saw as a child. "But as I grew older," Mr. Justice Thomas writes now, and "made my own way in the world, and raised a son, I came to appreciate what I had not understood as a child: I had been raised by the greatest man I have ever known."

How we need not just such paternal models, but fathers of all styles and persuasions. For there are different ways of being a good father, which first means being a good husband, and then being there for the kids. Last Sunday, Father's Day, Barack Obama had the candor to point to the man who isn't there in too many American "families" today. Good for him.

Perhaps someday someone, even a presidential candidate with much to lose by being candid, will rise on Mother's Day and point out that bringing children into the world without a father to complete the family, and to help rear and provide for the next generation, also helps explain what's wrong with much of American society. And why so many of our children are being raised, as Sen. Obama put it, with no margin for error.

Let's not overlook maternal irresponsibility, either, or make excuses for it. It merits the same kind of moral indictment that Barack Obama, to popular applause and general approbation last week, drew up against the absentee father.

Single young mothers - and their children - need all the support and guidance their families and society can provide. But so do young, vulnerable girls - little more than children themselves - in a sociey where all the forces of vulgar fashion and the omnipresent media conspire to turn adolescents into sexpots.

In this latest age of sexual liberation (mainly for the male of the species) we need to transmit the age-old wisdom of the species - what used to be called mother wit - to each generation. Namely, the fundamental importance of the marital and family bond.

The Victorians understood the centrality of the family in the nation. So did the Puritans before them, and on back to the sayings of Confucius and the detailed statutes and ordinances of the Old Testament. But man forgets the old lessons, and children pay the price. So does society in general.

Excuses are a luxury that those concerned about the American family can no longer afford. Freedom, independence, character - like so many good things, those begin at home. With families. And with responsible fathers - and mothers.


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.