First Father Knows Best: Famed Dads Mentor Youth

By Dan Zak
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, June 20, 2009

The students of Ballou Senior High School's automotive technology program can thank Barack Obama's absent father for their current predicament: getting rapped at by Darryl McDaniels of Run-DMC, who's mixing rhyme and reason about being a good man and finding significance in one's life. He and a dozen male students are sitting in the program's auto shop in Southeast yesterday afternoon, sheltered from the first truly sunny day in recent memory.

"I didn't come here to be a famous rap dude," says McDaniels, standing in front of a hydraulic brake demonstrator across from three busted-up cars on hydraulic lifts. "I didn't come here to be the king of rock. If [Run-DMC] didn't do what we did, there would be no hip-hop."

The students consider this theory.

McDaniels ponders his example more deeply, saying: "What I represent is purpose and destiny. . . . Don't let anyone tell you you can't do it. . . . I was like y'all, a school kid growing up in the 'hood. . . . And I became not just a rapper but one of the greatest ever to do it. And the reason it happened was because I took every opportunity."

Former Pittsburgh Steelers coach Bill Cowher sits nearby, silently, in a beige suit and blue oxford shirt, next to the diagram of a multi-part fuel-injection trainer. His mustache won't say whether he's smiling.

The Super Bowl champion and one-third of the legendary hip-hop group were in the garage as part of President Obama's national day of conversation about fatherhood and personal responsibility. Father's Day is tomorrow, and Obama -- whose father's absence shaped his life and inspired a best-selling book -- deployed famous and semi-famous men to eight sites in the Washington area to interact with nonprofit organizations that focus on youth mentorship. Obama visited one such group in Arlington yesterday morning before heading back to the White House for a town-hall meeting on fatherhood and a mentoring session with young men on the South Lawn.

At Ballou, Cowher gets in some less-lofty words.

"Part of life is acquiring a skill," he says. "I'm not saying you are going to [repair cars] for the rest of your life, but your skill separates you from a lot of people. I couldn't even change the oil on that car."

Then DMC takes over, popping around in his black CBGB shirt and paint-splattered jeans. He gesticulates with passion, stressing the importance of not dropping out of school, not using foul language and not getting shot.

"Put me on the stage with any rapper," he challenges the students. "I will defeat them and I won't curse at all."

Then he says that if he hadn't been given up for adoption and cared for by a loving family in Hollis, Queens -- We're funky fresh from Hollis, Queens! -- there would be no Run-DMC and, hence, no hip-hop.

And it would follow that without Barack Hussein Obama the father, there would be no Barack Hussein Obama the son, and maybe without the father's absence, there would be no President Obama, and no White House Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships, which coordinated yesterday's events and will sponsor regional town halls on fatherhood in the future.

The events "are designed to send a strong message -- a PSA -- that fatherhood matters," says the Rev. Jim Wallis, who's on the president's advisory council for the faith-based office. "It's about visibility. This is all a bully pulpit."

Later, Cowher, DMC and a phalanx of famous fathers (Sen. Evan Bayh and Washington Wizard Etan Thomas, for example) sit in gold-colored chairs under a glittering chandelier in the air-conditioned East Room of the White House, a galaxy removed from Ballou's auto shop. Obama paces in front of a roomful of volunteers, activists and reporters. He's starting a "national conversation" because, as he says, 23 percent of young people are growing up without a father.

"This isn't an obligation," he says. "It's a privilege, being a father."

He takes a question from a student from St. Albans School for Boys.

"Which is funner: Being a father or being president?" the student asks.

"I mean this," Obama says. "Nothing is more fun than being a father. But my kids aren't teenagers yet."

Everyone laughs.

The event is followed by a mentoring session on the sunny, swampy expanse of the South Lawn, where groups of well-dressed local high-schoolers sit in semicircles and talk about manhood and fatherhood and brotherhood with Ray LaHood, Obama's transportation secretary, among others.

Obama drifts between the pods of young and old men, who share their life experiences.

A reporter calls out, "Mr. President, what do you want for Father's Day?"

"A health care bill," he says, without missing a beat.

DMC holds court nearby and Cowher listens, unable to get a word in. Only snippets of the hip-hop pioneer's mentoring can be heard above the other hubbub:

". . . importance of being responsible . . . leaders of tomorrow . . . Jay-Z. . . I ain't talking about all the great rap records . . ."

At one point Vice President Joe Biden sits down with another group and talks at length about his sons. Some of the teenage fathers-in-training are drowning in sweat, and Biden talks so long his bald spot seems to burn purple in the sun.

More DMC: ". . . the showbiz aspect . . . iPods! . . . 3 percent of what pop culture is all about. . . .You ain't the king, I'm the king . . . "

Bobby Flay, father and celebrity chef, grills rib-eyes and corn on the cob nearby. The conversations about how to be a good man and father will continue over lunch.

DMC redux: ". . . what it's like to live in the 'hood . . . take advantage of every opportunity . . . I had a Cadillac gold chain . . . "

At one point, the president walks past DMC and Cowher, pats the former on the shoulder and tells the kids, "I suspect these two are interesting together."

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2009 The Washington Post Company