America’s Father Hunger

By Michael McCormick and Glenn Sacks

Are fathers irrelevant? Are they really the useless buffoons we see on TV? The irresponsible deadbeats the local DA says they are? The controlling abusers we see in domestic violence PSAs?

That’s not the way Tim Russert’s readers see them.

Russert’s new book Wisdom of Our Fathers: Lessons and Letters from Daughters and Sons is a surprise runaway hit, reaching #1 on both the New York Times bestseller list and on Book Standard’s Overall Bestsellers Chart. In 2004, Russert published Big Russ and Me about his father, and says he received an "avalanche" of letters from men and women who wanted to tell him about their own dads. Wisdom is largely a sampling of those 60,000 letters.

In heartwarming and heart-wrenching stories, Russert’s readers remember their fathers as strong, devoted and honorable. In the chapter "Daddy’s Girl," one woman tells Russert that she was her "father’s princess," and explains "growing up in a rural area of the Deep South could have been a harsh experience for a little black girl, but I was insulated by his love and tenderness."

Another "Daddy’s Girl" writes:

"When I was a little girl and my father put me to bed…I had a litany of things I went through every night. ‘Can I call you if I need anything?…Can I call you if I get scared?’…He would listen and say yes after each one, and I would fall asleep, secure that I was completely loved and cared for."

Another remembers:

"When I was four, my father took me on my first official date…I got all dressed up in my prettiest pink dress and shiny black-leather shoes…I was so excited and proud to be his date, and he made me feel so special to be ‘his little girl.’ To this day I am still proud to be his little girl, even if I’m not so little anymore. My dad was the strongest and handsomest man I have ever known, and he will have that title in my heart forever."

Another remembers:

"I was an only child. Mom said I was plenty; Dad said I was perfect. He worked hard to support us: twelve-hour shifts with thirteen days on and only one day off, because overtime paid the bills. He left early in the morning, long before Mom and I were awake; He came home exhausted and slept until it was time to do it all over again. It was hard on him because he had so little time with us. It was hard on us too.

"We all found little ways to compensate…I would put my favorite toy in his lunchbox so he would have something to play with at work.

"Dad’s special time for me was morning coffee. He would get up at 4 A.M., start the coffee brewing, and get ready for work. When the pot was ready, he would come into my room and wake me up. I would sit at the kitchen table as he poured two cups of coffee. His was always black. Mine was barely brown, full of milk and sugar, sweet to the taste. Dad would tell me about his day and ask about mine. When the cups were empty, he would tuck me back into bed and kiss me good night before heading out to work. It was our special time together, and we never missed."

Perhaps the book’s most striking feature is the overwhelming outpouring of love from women towards their fathers.

The Russert dads also knew when to take a stand. One letter writer remembers:

"By 1963, white flight was beginning to transform our neighborhood, and before long the first African American child took a seat in my Catholic school classroom. Birthday parties were about the biggest social events a third-grader had to look forward to, and I was delighted to receive an invitation to her party. Then I learned that none of my friends were going. I remember being confused by that, because we all went to one another’s parties. But if my friends weren’t going to this one, I wasn’t going to go either, especially when they seemed convinced that there was something wrong with the very idea.

"…Dad put his foot down and told me that, like it or not, I was going to that party. He took me to the five-and-dime and we bought a card and a gift. The day of the party, he took me by the hand and we walked the three or four blocks to the girl’s apartment. My whining and complaining were useless, and it wasn’t until many years later that I understood why he made me go. He knew why none of my friends was there, and he wanted no part of it. No child of his was going to contribute to the hurt that would surely be felt by a little girl sitting at an empty birthday table."

Another says:

"My dad’s second job was serving in the New Jersey National Guard…In the summer of 1967, his Guard unit was sent to Newark, where a riot had erupted and the police were having trouble containing it…When he died a few years ago, we had both his memorial service and his wake in a local restaurant…one of dad’s old guard buddies, Sergeant ‘Jeep’ MacAdams, grabbed the sleeve of my suit…Jeep rasped into my ear…’You know we were in Newark during the riots of ‘sixty-seven. It was a combat situation, let me tell you. I want you to know what an excellent and brave soldier your old man was. He was a true leader.’

"‘We were called to a building that the state police had their machine guns trained on. They said they needed backup because there were rioters in the building. They told us to help them take this position with tear gas, machine guns, grenades, whatever.’

"‘Your dad challenged the state cops from the get-go. He asked them what made them think there were no innocent civilians inside the position. The state police were zealous, you see. They had already fired shots, and they wanted us to fire warning shots, but your dad asked them to please hold their fire. Then he volunteered to assess the situation. He stayed low and got to the big door of the building, which was locked, and he calmly announced, ‘I’m with the New Jersey National Guard and I’m here to lead you to safety. Everything will be ok. Follow me.’

"‘Suddenly, about twenty-five black high school kids came out of the building behind him, shaking and crying. Your dad was comforting them with one hand and giving the ‘hold your fire’ sign with the other. He asked if they needed water or food…If he hadn’t gotten involved, I’m sure there would have been bloodshed, if not death.’

"This is what I learned for the first time at my dad’s memorial service. Could I be more proud of him had he won the Congressional Medal of Honor? I don’t think so."

Wisdom’s significance goes far beyond that of a sentimental journey. It’s success is a testament to the hunger so many Americans feel for what recent generations have lost–their fathers. The book’s letters are overwhelmingly from baby boomers–perhaps the last generation of Americans who could ever be reasonably confident that they’d have a father in their lives.

The fathers in Wisdom are largely men of modest means who sacrificed greatly to provide for their families. Wisdom begs the question why, in one generation, have so many fathers apparently thrown off all their responsibilities and abandoned their children?

The answer is simple–most of them haven’t.

According to a study of 46,000 divorce cases published in the American Law and Economics Review, two-thirds of all divorces involving couples with children are initiated by mothers, not fathers, and in only 6% of cases did the women claim to be divorcing cruel or abusive husbands. Divorcing women instead cite emotional reasons, such as a perceived lack of closeness or of not feeling loved and appreciated. Most of these men didn’t fail as fathers–they only failed at the often difficult task of keeping their marriages together.

Once a marriage falls apart, fathers often struggle to maintain a regular presence in their children’s lives. While shared parenting protects children’s loving bonds with both parents, many family courts instead allow men only a few days a month with their children. Moreover, many divorced mothers resist co-parenting because they are unable to put aside or see beyond their anger and disappointment. According to research conducted by Joan Berlin Kelly, author of Surviving the Break-up, 50 percent of mothers claim to "see no value in the father’s continued contact with his children after a divorce." Does this stunning finding only reflect poorly on fathers and not also on mothers?

Russert writes, "Growing up, I didn’t know about families who were missing a father, because there weren’t any in our neighborhood." Today over a third of American children are born into single-parent homes. Is this all men’s doing?

The typical Wisdom family is supported by a hard-working dad whose sacrifices are understood and appreciated by his children. Though his work obligations sometimes cut him off from his kids’ everyday lives, his place in the family is honored and respected, and he still manages to make a huge impact on his children.

Today that Wisdom dad has often been exchanged for a dad who’s not in the home, and who works to support kids from whose lives he is largely barred. For our children, it’s been a lousy trade.