Barack Obama Chides Absentee Fathers On the campaign trail, Obama speaks about the role of fathers, while McCain says the U.S. is making progress in Iraq.
NPR logo

Barack Obama Chides Absentee Fathers

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
Barack Obama Chides Absentee Fathers

Barack Obama Chides Absentee Fathers

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript


Well, politics take no holiday. Barack Obama scolded absentee fathers this Father's Day weekend. John McCain said the troop surge in Iraq is working, and Barack Obama was wrong when he said it would fail. And Washington, D.C., settled down for at least a little while, as Tom Brokaw remembered Tim Russert on "Meet the Press." Here to talk about the weekend in politics is the editor in chief of, John Harris. Thanks for being here this morning, John.

Mr. JOHN HARRIS (Editor in Chief, Hey, good morning.

PESCA: Let's start with Barack Obama. He spoke at a church on Chicago's South Side yesterday. Father's Day. He chided the African-American community, specifically absentee fathers. Let's play a bit of what he said.

(Soundbite of speech)

Senator BARACK OBAMA (Democrat, Illinois): We know that more than half of all black children live in single-parent households, half, a number that's doubled since we were children.

(Soundbite of beep)

Sen. OBAMA: Any fool can have a child.

(Soundbite of crowd cheering)

Sen. OBAMA: That doesn't make you a father.

(Soundbite of applause)

Senator OBAMA: It's the courage to raise a child that makes you a father.

PESCA: Sounds like the crowd was eating that up. John, what are the politics of that?

Mr. HARRIS: You know, this is something that the most effective African-American politicians have done. Jesse Jackson used to do this a lot, and when he would make criticism of the African-American community, oh, that fellow blacks need to take more responsibility, I do think that it's a message that white audiences also like to hear, that there's a message of responsibility in Barack Obama's campaign speeches, not simply, you know, a message of black grievance, because a lot of whites find that quite unsettling. They don't want a - sort of a radical African-American politician. They want somebody who they believe shares consensual middle-class values.

PESCA: There's a great story waiting to be written, in my opinion, on the social significance of the fact that Barack Obama is the first politician - that I know of - who campaigns frequently, mentioning the shortcomings of his own family. He talked a lot about how his father abandoned him in that address. You remember, he talked about it, in his big race address, that his grandmother crossed the street when she saw a black man.

Mr. HARRIS: Right.

PESCA: I know Bill Clinton mentioned it in his memoirs, but this is actively campaigning. It seems a very generational thing to do. My question for you is, that sort of thing, might that turn off older voters who, you know, don't criticize their parents as much as baby boomers and later-borns do?

Mr. HARRIS: You know, I don't really know whether that's true. To my ear, it is one of the most compelling things about Barack Obama's rhetoric, that he's able to put it in personal terms. I mean, let's face it. His personal biography is this overwhelming asset running for president. It's why people are drawn to him. It's obviously not his long legislative record. It's not his record as an executive. He doesn't have either of those. It is his personal story. So he'd be crazy not to talk about it, and invoke it, and use it to talk about his - to use his private story to talk about his public values.

PESCA: Last week, we saw bits of his personal story, or at least distortions of his personal story, make the news, and Barack Obama was the one who put it out there, because he launched a website called "Fight the Smears," where he's going to combat Internet rumors. The downside of that is he maybe just giving a broader audience to these rumors. You know, a lot of newspapers weren't even ever going to touch the story, that Michelle Obama might have said "whitey" during a speech. Do you think that website can cut both ways? Or was it a good move on behalf of the Obama campaign?

Mr. HARRIS: No, no, no, it's a good move, and you know, you look at the last two Democrats to run for president, Al Gore in 2000, John Kerry in 2004, basically lost because they lost control of their public image, when, you know, they personally, sort of, were attacked and turned into - saw their public images distorted. Al Gore was made into a chronic liar. John Kerry was turned into an effete, kind of vaguely, you know, foreign fop, and...

PESCA: Wind surfer.

Mr. HARRIS: You know, those attacks were very effective and the results were very damaging to those guys. And they went through the same calculation. John Kerry at first didn't respond to this swift-boat veterans, because he said, hey, look, the mainstream press is not picking this up. It's not in the New York Times, not in the Washington Post, not on the network. And so, I'm not going to respond. What he found is that it got into circulation anyway, and by the end, of course, all the mainstream press was covering it. So I think Obama's got exactly the right message. You have to respond early and aggressive.

PESCA: John McCain criticized Barack Obama for saying the troop surge was a wrong thing to do. Here's John McCain.

(Soundbite of press conference)

Senator JOHN MCCAIN (Republican, Arizona): Astonishing to me, is that Senator Obama still does not recognize that we have had significant success as a result of this change in strategy that he said was doomed to failure.

PESCA: I can look at the same polls as you do. I see that the war is unpopular. I'm sure John McCain sees that to. Is he just playing the hand he's dealt?

Mr. HARRIS: Well, yeah. He's effectively - he is trying to double down on Iraq, take something that we all expect it might be a weakness, and turn it into a strength. Charles Krauthammer, a very influential conservative columnist, said basically that's what McCain ought to do. Make this election about Iraq, and make Obama put him on the defensive by saying he stands for surrender, and McCain stands for eventual victory, that the surge is working.

The war's unpopular, there's no question about that, but obviously there is ambiguity about whether the surge is effective, whether or not eventual victory there is ever even remotely possible. And McCain clearly has a view on this, because really - in essence, there's no - he's so identified with the war that there's no averting his gaze from the issue.

PESCA: Lastly, John, Tim Russert, of course, died Friday, age 58. My question is about the show. With the real estate that was established there, what he did with "Meet the Press," how it became the most important interview in town to do...

Mr. HARRIS: Right.

PESCA: Now that Russert's gone away, will it continue? Can they put someone else in that place, and have "Meet the Press" still be that important Washington proving ground, even after Tim Russert's untimely death?

Mr. HARRIS: No. They can't. It's going to be a different show. I don't believe Tim Russert himself could compete with what will soon be the Russert mythology. There's no one that's going to be capable of filling those shoes, and indeed, you know, in Washington, the show was not known as "Meet the Press." It was known as "The Russert Show." Obama's doing Russert this Sunday, Hillary Clinton's doing Russert, and Russert's gone, and the show is obviously going to continue. It's been continuing for 60 years now, but it's going to continue in quite a different form. There's - anybody would be foolish to try to replicate Russert's formula. They need to create a new one.

PESCA: John Harris, editor in chief of Thanks for being with us today, John.

Mr. HARRIS: Yeah. Good talking to you.

PESCA: All right. And next on the show, one man, in fact, a man who is employed by the BPP's mission to do everything that advertising tells him to do. He's like an automaton. He'll do it if they say it. Fascinating stuff. Also, The Best Song in the World Today. This is the Bryant Park Project from NPR News.

Copyright © 2008 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.