Obama Leads Conversation On Fathering by Example

By Courtland Milloy
Monday, June 22, 2009

Barack Obama, regular guy, was telling a gathering of mostly young black men about his experiences as a dad. He recalled an urgent drive to the hospital with his then-pregnant wife, Michelle, as well as an oh-so-careful ride back home with her and their newborn baby on board.

By the time he had finished reliving the moments, gesturing with excitement and sighing in awe, you'd have thought that daughters Malia, 10, and Sasha, 8, had been born just yesterday.

"And that night, knowing that there was this new life inside your house, in the little bassinet . . . and then feeling them lying on your chest after you've fed them and they are falling asleep . . . "

Obama's voice went low, as if on the verge of being lost in emotion. "And you realize at that moment you will do anything for that child. There is nothing you wouldn't do for that child. In a heartbeat."

It was the kickoff to the president's "national conversation on responsible fatherhood," held Friday at the White House. About 100 youngsters and their celebrity mentors had gathered for chats indoors and later for a grilled chicken lunch on the South Lawn.

"Probably the most fun I've had since I've been president was actually at a parent-teachers conference where the teachers were bragging on my children," Obama recalled. He puffed out his chest for effect. "And I just sat there and basked in the glory."

Of course, more seasoned fathers can hardly wait to see how Daddy O holds up when his girls become teenagers. But the joy he shared the other day was enough to lift the spirits of fathers young and old.

"And suddenly Michelle woke me up at around 3, 4 o'clock," Obama recalled. "And she was like, 'Hey, Buster, I think this may be happening.' And I was jumping out of bed, looking for my shoes and the bag . . . and things went very smoothly."

You half expected him to start passing out cigars.

The young adults in the audience were spellbound. At 47, Obama was younger than many of their dads, as eloquent as any rapper and revered even by the athletes that they hold in highest esteem.

Cameron Windham, 16, was seated with Dwyane Wade, star guard for the Miami Heat, when Obama stopped by their table. "He casually asked Dwyane if he wanted to play ball with him and LeBron [James of the Cleveland Cavaliers] in the White House gym," recalled Windham, a student at St. Albans School for Boys. "It was like he was just a regular guy, grabbing some friends for a pickup game."

When you can get Wade and James to come over to your house for some hoops, chances are good that you can get youngsters to listen when you talk about being responsible fathers.

"Here's the important point," Obama said. "With as many responsibilities as I have . . . it turns out that you can still carve out time to make sure you're having a conversation with your kid."

And they knew he wasn't just talking trash. Despite upheaval in the Middle East, war in Afghanistan and a financial crisis here at home, the president had still found time for them.

Why? To show that he understands that this country cannot truly be safe or economically stable when 23 percent of its children are fatherless (including roughly 50 percent of black children).

Children who grow up without fathers are more likely to drop out of school, commit crimes and end up in prison. Homegrown ignorance -- that's got to be much more of a threat to national security than, say, Iran will ever be.

Security starts at home. No excuses.

"That bond between parent and child is something that is precious, sacred. It's a true blessing," Obama said. "If there's one last thing to communicate to those fathers who maybe haven't been involved in their child's life, it's to emphasize that this isn't an obligation. It's a privilege to be a father."

Although raised by what he called a "heroic" single mother, Obama received lots of manly guidance from his grandfather and his father-in-law.

"Let's be clear," he added. "Just because your own father wasn't there for you, that's not an excuse for you to be absent also. It's all the more reason for you to be present."

Other fatherhood conferences are scheduled in cities across the country, more healthy-family initiatives set to be launched. But it's unlikely that you'll hear fatherhood described more enthusiastically than by Obama.

Unless it's your child hearing it from you.

E-mail: milloyc@washpost.com

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