The time may be right for a national commitment to renew the American family, but it will require help from the media, Hollywood, academia, and others who influence our culture.
As we look at global terrorism and the fight against it, we are reminded once again of what we are fighting for: the preservation of our families and our freedoms. September 11 was an attack on all of our values and freedoms. Those values include the central role of family in our society, the desire to raise our children in freedom and security, and an abiding respect for the dignity and equality of our women and their enormous contributions to our well-being. In the War on Terrorism, our nation is fighting for the preservation of precisely those values.
The nation remains, however, engaged in a long-running debate over the family and how to strengthen it. Central to the debate, I think, should be the question of what really makes families strong. Since September 11, most of us have been quite impressed with the obituaries that have run in the New York Times about all the people who tragically lost their lives on that date. And as you read through those obituaries, perhaps you were struck that what made these life stories so powerful was not their listing of career accomplishments or wealth or worldly success. What made the stories powerful was all the evidence of how these dear people committed themselves to their parents, brothers, sisters, spouses, children, neighbors, and friends.
Millions of Americans have taken this lesson to heart. Surveys and evidence from our daily lives show that since September 11 Americans are more likely to trade a business dinner for one more conversation at home. We are more likely to trade a round of golf with the big guys for a game of catch with the little guys. We are more likely to swap a shopping trip for a trip to the neighborhood park. The fine soldiers that we’re sending abroad to fight the War on Terrorism are fighting for the American family, and they gain strength from their own families. That is as it should be, and we can only hope that our renewed respect for the importance of family will endure.
Murphy Brown Revisited
It is now almost exactly ten years since I made a speech to the Commonwealth Club of San Francisco, in which I argued that a nation is only as strong as her families. It was supposed to be a speech about U.S.-Japanese trade relations, but after the Los Angeles riots following the verdict in the Rodney King police-brutality case, I focused instead on what I called the poverty of values. Given that there was a certain amount of inaccurate reporting about what I said, it makes sense to summarize the main points here: that the breakdown of the family is a root cause of our most serious social problems, and that family breakdown was becoming worse in America—from generation to generation—not because of economic poverty but because of a poverty of values. (Although having an opportunity to earn a decent wage is a central part of life, the social breakdown of the family had far more to do with the values than with income.)
I also argued that government programs were not helping to end that poverty of values—they tended to encourage single motherhood while doing almost nothing to break the cycle of welfare dependence. At the time—and the statistics are about the same today—a child living in a two-parent family had a 5 percent chance of living in poverty, but one living with a single mother had a 34 percent chance of living in poverty. I also pointed out that fathers are important figures and can serve as constructive role models in the home, helping both emotionally and financially. It was rather surprising that speaking about the importance of having two parents rather than one should have been that controversial; one would have thought that it was a rather commonsense notion that an intact family would be the obvious preference.
Three things about that speech stand out. First, the arguments don’t sound so radical anymore. They are downright mainstream and bipartisan. Bill Clinton gave the same speech several times, starting in 1993 at a Memphis church. (I’m still waiting for credit.) Second, I never criticized or attacked single mothers. On the contrary, the speech sympathized with their struggles. My own grandmother raised her family as a single mother after a divorce, in a time when divorce carried an enormous stigma.
Third, the speech did not center on Murphy Brown. I happened to have been struck a few weeks earlier by an article in the Outlook section of the Washington Post, written by Barbara Dafoe Whitehead. She was the first to suggest that this television show was glamorizing a circumstance—single motherhood—that is not glamorous at all for those who experience it. Whitehead argued from a woman’s perspective, and I reacted to the same phenomenon from a man’s point of view, noting that the show was mocking the importance of fathers. The reference to Murphy Brown composed one small paragraph in a forty-five-minute speech.
The print media actually treated the speech in a straightforward manner. It was the lead story in the Washington Post, and it appeared above the fold in the New York Times. Murphy Brown was not mentioned until about the tenth paragraph. The reaction on the television news, however, was quite different. One of the national reporters on ABC World News Tonight even stated that I had just blamed the L.A. riots on Murphy Brown. Perhaps this overreaction occurred because I seemed to be attacking one of their own: a television star.
But that was then. What has happened since family values were placed on the national policy agenda ten years ago is much more important and deserves much more attention. There is plenty of good news to report. On the policy front, bipartisan welfare reform in the mid-1990s ended the old Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) program’s bias in favor of single motherhood. The new bias favors employment and independence. As a result, the bad statistics long associated with this program have leveled off. In the past five years—since welfare reform—we’ve seen the first drop in the illegitimacy rate in three decades. There were still 1.3 million out-of-wedlock births in 2000, fully one-third of all children born in that year. That’s about the same percentage as in 1992. But what seemed to be the relentless rise in out-of-wedlock births has stopped. If the rate of increase in 1992 had continued, today some 50 to 55 percent of newborn children would be born out of wedlock. The same is true of the number of American children who live in a home without a father or stepfather: it has not grown since the mid-1990s. From 1960 to the mid-1990s, the number of American children who lived in a home without a father or a stepfather climbed from seven million to a tragic twenty million. That number leveled off in the mid-1990s, and it is still high, but it has not grown, and it shows signs of possibly trending down. Finally, the percentage of America’s children who live in single-parent families in America also reached a plateau in the mid-1990s and has actually declined slightly in the last seven years. It is certainly not great news that 27 percent of our children still live in single-parent homes—but it is great news that the proportion no longer is climbing.
What pleases me most about the progress in the last decade is not so much the statistics as the tremendous growth of grassroots fatherhood initiatives—private programs that promote responsible fatherhood, starting with the presence of fathers in children’s lives. The National Fatherhood Initiative (NFI), which began in 1994, is a great example. Wade Horn, the group’s founder, has reported that at his first national summit, three people turned up in the auditorium, and two soon left when they realized that they were in the wrong room. That doesn’t happen today. Thousands now come to NFI’s summits, and the keynoters in recent years have included national leaders ranging from Al Gore to George W. Bush.
Another good example is the Promise Keepers, a group started by college football coach Bill McCartney, which has led more than four million men to reexamine their relationships with their families. This organization rents out football stadiums and auditoriums across the country and gets as many as eighty thousand men to attend and recommit themselves to being good husbands, good fathers, more active in their community, better neighbors, and better family members. (The biggest applause comes from their wives, who say, “Yes, that’s a good program—you should do all those things.”) The Million Man March of 1995 was another positive sign. March leader Louis Farrakhan himself has often preached contemptible doctrines, although the speakers at that gathering did much to restore the African-American male, exhorting the attendees to go to church, serve their families, be good husbands and fathers, and become involved in their communities.
Marriage Is In
In the past decade, the terms of the debate have changed rather dramatically. It is now acceptable to argue—even in our nation’s capital or in state capitals and universities—that fathers do matter, and that marriage is good. You can now use the “M” word in a positive way. A few weeks ago, a Washington Post editorial criticized the liberal National Organization of Women for their knee-jerk opposition to any federal program that deals with marriage. That indicates significant progress.
My second book, The American Family: Discovering the Values That Make Us Strong (1996), explored exactly what it is that makes families strong. I studied five families from across the United States, ones representing a wide spectrum of ethnicity, income, education, and marital status. What I found to be most striking about these diverse families was their similarities. They all recognized the complementary strengths that mothers and fathers bring to a family. They understood the importance of discipline, personal responsibility, and clear messages of right and wrong. They feared the damage that could be done to their children by problems in the surrounding culture. They understood that, sooner or later, their children would set out into that culture, as free men and women, making their own choices.
But while stable marriages are crucially important, I do not pretend that differences in education and wealth don’t matter in terms of the ability of American families to respond to the mistakes and setbacks that turn up in everyone’s lives. Education and wealth—status, to be quite blunt about it—give the fortunate members of our society a safety net that the poor do not have. As authors Midge Decter and Myron Magnet have pointed out, when the “haves” remake the culture, the “have-nots” pay the price. The haves can dabble in drugs, abuse alcohol, and even glorify these vices in popular culture. When they get in trouble, they have the money to check into the Betty Ford Clinic to take care of themselves. The have-nots do not have that opportunity. If they do what the haves do, they may end up paying with their lives. The haves can talk about and practice loose sex—maybe even glamorize it on the screen or in our society pages. They practice contraception and can afford therapy to allay the emotional consequences. The have-nots, by contrast, often end up with broken homes, as single parents, or suffer and possibly die from AIDS or other sexually transmitted diseases. The haves can snicker at the idea of marriage as a vital, long-term commitment. The wealthy can afford to live on one income or pay for a divorce lawyer to secure long-term support. The have-nots don’t have those resources to fall back on, and many of them end up facing life alone.
That is why the ideas of America’s cultural elite are so important. When I was growing up, Hollywood films typically portrayed decent values on the screen, but in their personal lives the performers and filmmakers often scorned these notions and failed to live up to them. Today’s Hollywood is an interesting contrast, because quite a few Hollywood people who are perfectly willing to trash traditional values on the screen actually cherish their families and practice good values in their personal lives. Some of them are very restrictive about what their children can see and not see—in fact, they might not even let them watch the film that they have just made—and they exercise admirable personal discipline, parental control, and, yes, censorship. Their personal lives are vastly different from the culture they purvey in their work.
Madonna, hardly the girl next door in her performances, had a storybook wedding not too long ago, and seems more focused these days on her children than on her career. Warren Beatty now talks openly about the joys of marriage and fatherhood. A recent cover story in an entertainment journal declared, “Marriage is in,” and offered a long list of young Hollywood stars who had chosen marriage over playing the field. Sarah Jessica Parker stars on the racy HBO comedy Sex and the City but is taking time off to enjoy motherhood with her longtime husband, Matthew Broderick. The Friends star whose television character has just had a child out of wedlock, Jennifer Anniston, is happily married to Brad Pitt. And in Murphy Brown—yes, I’ll bring it up again—Candice Bergen portrayed a single mother who did not seem to value the contributions of a husband or a father. In her real life at the time, Candice Bergen was blessed with a wonderful marriage, shared across two continents with a loving husband and father. Her warm reflections on life with Louis Malle, shared after his tragic death from cancer in 1995, are just the right message for young people to hear.
It Takes a Family
These laudable personal decisions, however, have yet to be reflected in the influential media work of these stars. The message for young people is do as they do, not as they act. Meanwhile, America’s cultural elite likes to portray itself as being on the side of the downtrodden and the poor. Yet there is one proven formula for staying out of poverty, and it is this: finish high school, wait until you are married to have children, and don’t get married until you are twenty years old. Among Americans who follow those three rules, only 8 percent live in poverty. Among Americans who don’t make these choices—those who don’t finish high school and who have a child before reaching age twenty—fully 80 percent live in poverty. Think of that: an 80 percent chance of falling into poverty. Given these dire facts, one would think that our cultural leaders would glamorize education, abstinence, and marriage, but the situation, of course, is actually almost the very opposite. Note that 90 percent of all sexual situations depicted on television are outside of marriage. That’s strike one against the world’s only proven antipoverty formula.
Parents should not try to be their children’s best friends. Discipline and the setting of boundaries are powerful expressions of love. Moving outside the house, parents must involve themselves in their children’s education, demanding accountability from their children’s schools. Washington is starting to move to the parents’ side in that battle, albeit slowly, and now is the time for parents to demand the best possible education for their children, with no excuses allowed and no delays accepted. We should all take a stake in our neighborhoods as well. We should watch what’s going on down the street and work with our neighbors and the local authorities to keep order in our streets and other public areas.
It is every American citizen’s right to challenge the cultural elite over their hypocrisies, but there is a limit to what we can do to change their habits. Politics has proven ineffectual as a means of influence over the culture, and for good reason. America’s founders included freedom of speech and the press in the Bill of Rights to ensure that transitory political majorities could not suppress ideas they did not like. As consumers, however, Americans certainly can make a statement, by choosing not to watch or pay for entertainment products that denigrate the values we want our children to learn. And we all have the responsibility to communicate with one another about what is good and bad in our contemporary culture. As the saying goes, sunshine is the best disinfectant, and this is true of cultural matters also. There remains much that we can all do in our daily lives to improve the American family, starting in our own homes.
Parents should make an effort to know their children’s friends and invite them to visit. And when doing so, they should set standards and impose accountability. Good behavior can be contagious, and we can all start encouraging that at home. An important means of encouraging good behavior—though it is far, far more than just that—is to share one’s spiritual life with one’s children. There is much more to life than just getting and spending; we have souls that need nourishment, and a family that shares a fulfilling spiritual life is better equipped to face the challenges the world sets up every day.
Ten years after the Murphy Brown controversy and several months since the September 11 attacks brought us up short, Americans are reassessing the value of the traditional family and looking to restore it to its proper place in our society. They will gladly do this work, but they will not succeed unless the nation’s leaders remove the obstacles they have thrown in the way. America’s families need help from the nation’s media, from Hollywood, from academia, and from others that have an influence on our culture. Just as the War on Terrorism is requiring a commitment from all of us, so too will the regeneration of the American family. It is an effort of equal importance, and one that will require a similar explicit commitment. One senses that the present moment may be just right for it.
This article is adapted from a speech delivered by Mr. Quayle to a National Press Club event, cosponsored by the Hudson Institute, on the tenth anniversary of the so-called Murphy Brown speech.