FAMILY MAN: The Biography of Dr. James Dobson
Tyndale House Publishers
In the late 1980s I read DR. DOBSON: Turning Hearts Toward Home, by Rolf Zettersten, who at the time was the Executive Vice President for Focus on the Family. While that biography presented Dr. Dobson's life chronologically, Dale Buss, a former reporter for the Wall Street Journal, takes a more creative approach when writing about the life of one of the major evangelical leaders.
The opening chapter of FAMILY MAN begins with the 2004 election season and Dr. Dobson's impact on the outcome. From the initial pages, Buss establishes James Dobson as a person who is impacting the culture and his world each and every day. "Clearly he [Dr. Dobson] played a major role in this election," close friend Chuck Colson says. "More than anyone else, he mobilized the evangelical base." Buss then examines his family background and history, along with his relationship with his cousin, Dr. H.B. London, and his marriage to Shirley Deere. The early influences of his family, his faith and his education continue to play into how Dr. Dobson operates today, predominately through the multifaceted ministry of Focus on the Family.
The remainder of the book touches on different themes in Dr. Dobson's life, such as his roles as an author, broadcaster, advocate for the family, and even his influence in politics. Throughout, Buss mixes personal interviews with careful research and seemingly has wide access to interview Dr. Dobson, his wife and their two children, along with various other family members, friends, and staffers (current and former) at Focus on the Family.
The emerging picture from these pages is a human yet remarkable life. We learn about two health scares that Dr. Dobson had not disclosed before this book. It was interesting to learn how President Ronald Reagan wooed Dr. Dobson for a major role in his administration (which he turned down). After the birth of the Dobsons' first child, Danae, we learn how the couple decided to adopt Ryan. Later in the book, when Ryan struggles in college, a psychologist tells him he has ADHD. Ryan changes his behavior by taking Ritalin. Also, the book reveals the counselor role that Dr. Dobson assumed with John and Patsy Ramsey after the death of their daughter JonBenet.
When a biographer tackles a figure like Dr. Dobson with such massive accomplishments, the tendency is not to reveal the person's warts. But Buss doesn't hesitate to reveal some of Dobson's flaws such as his micromanagement tendencies. "Dobson believed that there was an absolutely sublime purpose for his unapologetic perfectionism: Focus' mission was too important for him to allow someone else to louse it up."
While these stories provide the reader with a realistic picture, the overall effect of this biography is captured toward the end. "Regardless of what direction the institution of the family takes, there is little debate that Dobson has played a monumental role --- perhaps even the greatest individual part --- in whatever vitality the family has retained in the cultural and political realms at the beginning of the twenty-first century."
If you are fascinated with the details of a life well-lived, as I am, then I heartily recommend you read FAMILY MAN. The current events and thematic approach, combined with the author's careful research and mixture of quotations, make it a page-turner.
--- Reviewed by Terry Whalin, writer and editor in Scottsdale, Arizona. His latest book is BOOK PROPOSALS THAT $ELL, 21 SECRETS TO SPEED YOUR SUCCESS (Write Now Publications). http://www.bookproposals.ws.
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