In his introduction, Dale Buss mentions his first interview with James Dobson for a 1987 Wall Street Journal profile. It almost didn't see print, Buss says, because Dobson insisted that the newspaper refer to him as "Dr.," a title The Journal uses only for physicians. "Dobson rightly pointed out that he was known far and wide as 'Dr. Dobson.'"
Dobson was hardly unusual in fussing about titles, but he was unique in insisting that he did it out of concern for others' welfare. That blending of the personal and the public is a key to his personality, and it partly explains his phenomenal impact. He can hardly say, "That's just my opinion." If it's his opinion, he believes it is right, and if it is right, he will not compromise, though the world go up in flames.
The best thing about Buss's admiring but overly long biography is that he doesn't smooth out the complications. Buss, who has interviewed practically everybody, tries to give the whole picture.
He describes an itinerant Nazarene evangelist's only child, born in 1936, who grew up with an overpowering perfectionism. "Jim's parents and grandparents really conveyed to him a sense of destiny, that he would be used of God to touch the world in a special way," a close friend from college remembers.
The most natural place to work out that destiny was in the Nazarene church as a pastor. Dobson chose psychology instead, building a career at USC's School of Medicine, where he ran a major research project on PKU (Phenylketonuria) and wrote a textbook on mental retardation. Like his father, though, Dobson was drawn to reach the masses, writing the best-selling Dare to Discipline in 1970 and offering weekend seminars.
Dobson built a massive ministry around his daily radio program, Focus on the Family. His public folksiness had a darker side in private, however. "Intimidating," "demanding," "micromanagement," "control freak," "black-and-white," "relentlessness," "controlling," and "authoritarian" are some of the words Buss and others use.
Yet Dobson created an organization known for quality and a laser-like sense of mission. Focus reflects its founder and his fierce sense of integrity.
Increasingly, Dobson has concentrated his ambition on Washington. Buss fails to explain why Dobson decided to focus on politics as the key to the family's future. But certainly Dobson had become frustrated by policies and rulings that he believed undermined his advice to families.
Dobson pulled his punches until, in 1998, he addressed the Council for National Policy, an influential conservative group. Dobson was fed up. He began to make open threats: If Republican leaders failed to follow his pro-family agenda, he would pull his supporters away.
Dobson has had health worries, but in 2003 he began to enter a series of high-stress battles: Judge Moore and his Ten Commandments monument, Terri Schiavo, and gay marriage. He "felt compelled to mount every barricade," Buss says.
Nobody, including Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson, and Ralph Reed, has done as much to align evangelicalism with hard-nosed partisan politics. Dobson has become a polarizing figure whose controlling perfectionism has caused him to bruise and batter even some of his friends.
Thus the title Family Man sounds oddly dissonant. Not that Dobson is anything but a powerful advocate for the family, and a good husband and father. But "family" no longer goes with baseball and apple pie. It has become a fighting word, and a politicized one at that.
Tim Stafford is a senior writer for CT.
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Family Man: The Biography of Dr. James Dobson is available from Christianbook.com and other book retailers.
CT's full coverage of James Dobson includes:
Separation of Ministry and Politics | In order to influence public policy successfully, Focus on the Family must quickly learn how to remove politicking from its ministry core. (July 15, 2005)
Q&A: James Dobson | The chairman of Focus on the Family speaks about the need for the proposed Federal Marriage Amendment. (June 29, 2004)
New Leader at Focus | Dobson turns to an old friend to stabilize his organization. (May 09, 2003)
'Get Our Kids Out' | Dobson says pro-gay school curriculum has gone too far. (July 29, 2002)
Broadcasters Aim to Cool NRB Controversy | Dobson, Neff make gestures to mend wounds. (March 08, 2002)
Daring to Discipline America | James Dobson's influence, already huge, is growing. Can he keep his focus? (March 1, 1999)
The New Cost of Discipleship | Many Christians in America are engaged in a great debate today about moral issues and whether they should be working to promote their beliefs in the centers of power. By James Dobson (September 6, 1999)
Why I Use Fighting Words | A response to John Woodbridge's Culture War Casualties. By James Dobson (June 19, 1995)
Also: Why Words Matter | A response to James Dobson. By John D. Woodbridge (June 19, 1995)
Keys to a Family-Friendly Church | An interview with James Dobson (January 1, 1986)
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