James Dobson builds a following in the nation’s capital

When U.S. Congressman Frank R. Wolf (R-Va.) attended a Capitol Hill showing of Where’s Dad, he recalls sitting in the back of the room “so I could duck out if it got boring.” Wolf, alone in the auditorium, watched James Dobson expound biblical principles of being an effective father. “He got to the part about Harry Chapin,” Wolf says, “and that really grabbed me.”

In the film, Dobson, voice cracking occasionally, recites the lyrics of Chapin’s hit song “Cat’s in the Cradle,” about a father and son who remained strangers until it was too late.

Instead of ducking out, Wolf joined with Dan Coats, U.S. congressman from Indiana, to promote the film and other Dobson materials on parenting among their colleagues. They scheduled two more screenings of Where’s Dad, patterned after the third film in Dobson’s Focus on the Family series, and circulated notices throughout the House office buildings. Coats, elected in 1980, believes “being a good congressman, good husband, and good father is the biggest conflict we have.” Frequent divorces and family-related scandals on Capitol Hill attest to how difficult the task is. Many seasoned political figures, according to Coats, say their biggest regret is that their families were neglected in the maelstrom of public life.

No one showed up for those first screenings, so Coats and Wolf hit on a sure-fire plan: send invitations to the congressmen’s wives. Then a few began to straggle in, Coats said, “saying their wives called them 19 times in two days to be sure they would not miss it.” Word about the film began to spread and now, two years later, Coats estimates that 50 or 60 of the 435 congressmen, as well as numerous staff members and wives, have seen it. A number of them sponsored it during prime time on Washington’s CBS television affiliate last winter.

For Wolf, the film had a tremendous personal impact. Both he and Coats sought appointment to a new select committee on children, youth, and families.

Wolf installed a direct telephone line into his office, so his wife and children could call without being intercepted by staff members. His calendar automatically turns up “booked” on birthdays or other special occasions.

Wolf’s four daughters and one son see a marked change, and jokingly refer to “Before Dobson” and “After Dobson” eras in their family life. Together, they attend Vienna Presbyterian Church in the Virginia suburbs, which is also the location of Wolfs district. With his constituents just a quick commute away, Wolf acknowledges that his job may be more difficult than that of most elected representatives. “I tried to be everywhere and do everything—every Rotary Club meeting. I’ve changed that. I don’t do nearly as much as I used to,” he says.

Exhausting overcommitment plagues other congressmen as well, and Dobson’s influence has been instrumental in helping some of them place renewed emphasis on family. Coats wrote to Dobson, saying congressmen have “rediscovered the need for, and the joy of, spending more time with their families.” The film reminded one member of early fishing trips with his dad, and prompted him to schedule regular outings with his own son.

Coats also credits the film’s influence for spurring a shift in schedule this summer that will affect nearly all of Washington. Ordinarily, Congress takes a month-long recess before the fall session begins sometime in September. This year, the break was scheduled from August 13 to September 13. “Some of us prevailed on the congressional leadership, saying we have kids in school and need to be with our families in August,” Coats said. As a result, they gained a week of vacation time when the recess was rescheduled to August 6 through September 6.

Coats, a Wheaton College graduate who first sampled Washington at a National Association of Evangelicals seminar, attends a suburban Virginia Baptist church. Of the Dobson films, he says “I have never seen the message presented more directly or effectively.” Coats and Wolf carried the message with them on a recent tour of military installations in Europe and hope to see Dobson’s teachings take root there as well.

“We feel this is so valuable,” Coats says, “that even if only one member shows up to see it, we’re on cloud nine the rest of the day. This constantly reminds me of the need for balance, and I constantly work at it.”

Dobson’s influence in Washington isn’t limited to Capitol Hill. In March, he spoke at a dinner given in his honor by White House Chief of Staff James Baker and his wife. About 160 people attended, including Cabinet members, senators, and members of the White House press corps. The dinner was held at the Hillandale Estate in Washington, DC.

Mrs. Baker, who organized the dinner, said, “I have never sponsored an event like this before, but I wanted to do it for Dr. Dobson. I feel that he is one of America’s greatest resources for the family.”

Dobson’s emphasis on family life understandably keeps him from spending a lot of time on the lecture circuit, but a speech he delivered in Denver in April indicated the large following he has throughout the country. More than 18,000 people paid $6 each to hear him speak at the city’s McNichols Arena, reportedly a record crowd for that hall. It was only Dobson’s third major address in the last 13 months (the next one is scheduled for Phoenix, on September 29).

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Notable business, sports, and religious leaders led throughout the six months of planning for the Denver rally, which included churchmen from nearly all Protestant denominations as well as representatives from the Catholic church.

Dobson’s organization estimates that four million people listen to his daily radio program and that some 20 million have seen the Focus on the Family film series.

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