No good deed goes unpunished. Last month, former NFL head coach Tony Dungy was among the attendees at a bill signing ceremony in Florida for new legislation supporting fatherhood. The bipartisan Responsible Fatherhood Initiative will set aside more than $70 million to help struggling Sunshine State fathers play a greater role in the lives of their children. Much of the funding will go to nonprofits like Dungy’s All Pro Dad foundation that assist fathers seeking employment, readjusting to life post-incarceration, and learning parenting skills.
Regrettably, a vocal group of leftist political commentators, including former sportscaster Keith Olbermann, sought to use Dungy’s support for responsible fatherhood as a political football. They took to Twitter to hurl epithets like “racist” and “fascist” at the first black head coach to win a Super Bowl.
As repugnant as these attacks were, this was not the first time arrogant media figures directed their hatred at those with the temerity to talk about the critical importance of fathers. Dungy’s critics are a faint echo of the firestorm that was directed at Vice President Dan Quayle, 30 years ago this month.
Two weeks after the 1992 Los Angeles Riots devastated that city and horrified the world, Quayle reflected on the troubles facing poor urban communities in a speech before the Commonwealth Club of California. Quayle placed the blame for the heinous violence and wanton destruction squarely on the perpetrators.
But in refusing to excuse the actions of the rioters, Quayle also contextualized the riots as part of a broader societal trend. Noting that society is only as strong as its foundational unit, the family, Quayle detailed at length the direct relationship between family breakdown and poverty, crime, and drug use. He welcomed welfare reform but emphasized that no amount of tinkering with anti-poverty programs would replace the absent fathers of inner cities.
The problem, Quayle said, was a “poverty of values” causing an increasing number of Americans, including the vast majority of black Americans, to be born out of wedlock and raised without both a mother and a father in the home.
Quayle lamented that those controlling the commanding heights of the culture often send the wrong message. He specifically faulted the CBS-TV sitcom Murphy Brown for depicting its lead character as “mocking the importance of fathers, by bearing a child alone and calling it just another lifestyle choice.” Quayle concluded his remarks by inviting a “national debate” over these issues to “roar on.”
The roar went on for months. Quayle was immediately denounced by Diane English, Murphy’s creator and producer. Hillary Clinton called Quayle “out of touch.” The controversy reached a crescendo when the series returned for a fifth season that fall. Its season premiere was devoted to the Quayle speech with its star character lecturing the audience about the merits of nontraditional family structures.
Unlike today, Murphy aired during an era when many people still watched network television shows. It lasted ten seasons and was ranked number three in the Nielsen ratings at the time of Quayle’s criticism. The series’ rejoinder to Quayle was watched by 70 million viewers. Despite the show’s popularity during its original run, Murphy struggled to find success in rerun syndication, its topicality having quickly dated the show. A 2018 attempt to revive the sitcom ended after 13 episodes.
In contrast, Quayle’s comments on fatherhood aged gracefully because his thesis is timeless. Television writers may insist that all family structures are equally strong, but 60 years of social science suggests otherwise. Years later, Emmy Award-winning actress Candice Bergen, who played the character “Murphy Brown” on the eponymous TV show, confessed that she agreed with Quayle, calling his remarks “a perfectly intelligent speech about fathers not being dispensable.” Bergen knows a thing or two about the importance of fathers. She followed her father Edgar Bergen, a famed ventriloquist on radio and television, into show business.
Dungy also knows something about the importance of fathers. He became involved with promoting responsible fatherhood after visiting a prison and discovering that inmate after inmate went through childhood without a father.
In response to his critics, Dungy cited a politician who once said “Children who grow up without a father are five times more likely to live in poverty and commit crime; nine times more likely to drop out of schools, and 20 times more likely to end up in prison. They are more likely to have behavioral problems, or run away from home or become teenage parents themselves. And the foundations of our community are weaker because of it.”
That politician was not Dan Quayle. It was Barack Obama. Unlike Murphy Brown, reruns of Quayle’s message still hold up.
Paul F. Petrick is an attorney in Cleveland, Ohio.