Are the alpha dad and the clown really our only options?
A few words on Dr. Henry McCord
There are plenty of bad fathers in literature, such as Tolstoy’s Ivan Ilyich, who are either directly cruel or who withdraw from family life. There are also many nurturing types, none so kind and gentle as Cather’s Anton Rosicky, whose daughter-in-law pays him the ultimate compliment of trusting him with her pregnancy before anyone else knows. And there is a vast spectrum of other more complicated fathers, like Louise Erdrich’s Kurt Krahe, who are loving but flawed in the way that most of us are.
Popular culture typically casts fathers in one of two roles. There is the alpha type, like Peter Florrick in The Good Wife, who sometimes supports and sometimes obstructs an ambitious spouse. And there is the buffoon, a la Homer Simpson (who some might argue is a more extreme version of Papa in The Berenstain Bears). The upshot of these characters seems to be either that fathers don’t approach parenting much differently from previous generations or that fathers are bumbling idiots only good for a laugh. Many dad-moirs adopt the latter model, perhaps because it’s safer. And dad jokes are a variation on the theme.
One exception springs to mind: Dr. Henry McCord of Madam Secretary. Dr. McCord is undoubtedly modeled after the alpha type, but unlike many contemporary characters he reflects changing attitudes toward fatherhood. One might say that he even raises the bar for what a father might be.
Before he became a professor, Henry McCord was a fighter pilot in the Marines. If that double dose of macho isn’t enough, we learn that he grew up in Pittsburgh, the son of a steel worker. These layers of his character are extreme, but they seem to function as a bridge between toxic masculinity and the progressive message about fatherhood that the show offers. You can be a man’s man and still study Thomas Aquinas. You can find a home, as a champion of the humanities, even in the National War College.
Henry occasionally struggles to communicate with his teenage daughters and typically takes a tough love approach to mentoring his son Jason. But he communicates to all of his children that they are more important than work. He is always there with a cup of coffee, a stack of fresh pancakes, and a listening ear.
At times, Dr. McCord is a little too perfect. Despite his hardscrabble upbringing, he seems to have no lingering class consciousness. He and his wife Elizabeth both came from nothing, and by the time they enter political life they seem to be, if not rich, well enough established that money is never a source of conflict between them. Henry seems to have no ego, no real needs. Just enough libido to be virile (no coincidence that he always wears his Marines shirt to bed), but not too much. And he always keeps a bar of fair-trade chocolate taped to the bottom of his desk for emergencies, though he never seems to eat any of it himself.
Henry weathers major life transitions with little impact on his identity, moving from Georgetown University to the National War College, sometimes assisting U.S. intelligence, serving as an ethics advisor to the President, and finally winding up as FGOTUS (First Guy of the White House). He is a world-renowned scholar, but spends no time actually doing scholarship. And whenever anyone needs a little advice, he’s always ready with a brainy quote from Thomas Aquinas.
But we all have to suspend disbelief while watching television, and I appreciate how Madam Secretary positions Henry as a moral anchor for the story. In one episode, he argues passionately against using artificial intelligence to neutralize a terrorist. Like a good humanist, he sees the big picture, warning of an arms race in which countries produce deadly robots with no sense of responsibility for their actions. Henry is a good example of why Tracy Chou argues that every tech worker ought to have a humanities education.
Above all, I admire Dr. McCord’s adaptability as a character. He can be forceful when necessary, admonishing Elizabeth’s chief of staff to stop advising her as a woman and just let her be President. He manages to be protective without being patronizing and supportive without feeling invisible. If his children are disrespectful or distracted, or if Elizabeth isn’t listening, Henry never takes it personally. He gives his family space, demanding nothing, and they always gravitate back to him. Tim Daly, who plays Henry McCord, says in this clip that men frequently tell him, “Thank God you play someone competent!”
Madam Secretary is a feminist show, and it is perhaps unsurprising for that reason that Henry’s relationship with his son Jason gets short shrift. But if one of the goals of the series is to reimagine American masculinity as compatible with female power, it could do more to show how Henry helps Jason along that path. A common theme among the fathers I know is that they never had a conversation with their own fathers about what it meant to become a dad or how to do it well. Henry, likewise, seems to have had no guidance. Like nearly all of the men before him, he has been left to figure it out on his own. And so it is a pity that even though Jason has an excellent model for fatherhood, he learns nothing directly from Henry about how to carry that legacy forward.
Like Henry McCord, I have two daughters and a son. I try to raise them all to live toward Margaret Fuller’s vision of equality, which could serve as a précis for Madam Secretary.
We would have every arbitrary barrier thrown down. We would have every path laid open to woman as freely as to man. Were this done, and a slight temporary fermentation allowed to subside, we believe that the Divine would ascend into nature to a height unknown in the history of past ages, and nature, thus instructed, would regulate the spheres not only so as to avoid collision, but to bring forth ravishing harmony.
The world we live in is still a long way from the one Fuller imagined and the one that the McCords help us escape into for a time. And I am nowhere near Henry McCord’s equal as a father. But I’m glad to have him to fall back on when I grow weary of reading another book to my kids that either has no father in it or that imagines fathers as little more than overgrown boys learning the hard way not to pee on the electric fence.