Barack Obama got a basketball, his first name and ambition from his father. Little else.
The son gave back more than he received: a lifetime of ruminations about the man who abandoned the family, and endless reflections on his own successes and shortcomings as father of Sasha (8) and Malia (10).
In advance of Father’s Day, celebrated in many countries on the third Sunday of June, he’s asking American men to be better fathers.
The father-son presidencies of the George Bushes were bookends on Bill Clinton, whose father drowned in a ditch before he was born and whose stepfather was an abusive alcoholic nicknamed Dude.
A Kenyan goatherder-turned-intellectual who clawed his way to scholarships and Harvard, Barack Obama Sr. left a family behind to get his schooling in the US, where he started another family, then left his second wife and 2-year-old Barack Jr. to return to Africa with another woman.
Obama’s finger-wagging is most pointed when addressing other black men, reflecting years of worry about the fabric of black families and single mothers, but it applies to everyone. Including himself.
“I know I’ve been an imperfect father,” he has said. “I’ve lost count of all the times, over the years, when the demands of work have taken me from the duties of fatherhood.”
His years as a community organiser, Illinois lawmaker, US senator and presidential candidate often kept him apart from family. But he went to great lengths in the 2008 campaign to find time with them, and now sees routine family time as one of the joys of living and working in the White House.
Richard Wolffe’s book, Renegade, recounts strains in his marriage early this decade, arising from his absences and what Michelle Obama apparently considered his selfish careerism at the time.
Obama himself attributed his “fierce ambitions” to his dad while crediting his mother — a loving but frequently absent figure — with giving him the means to pursue them.
Obama was a schoolboy in Hawaii when his father came back to visit. He gave his dad a tie. His father gave him a basketball and African figurines and came to his class to speak about Kenya.
The visit took a sour turn when Obama went to watch How the Grinch Stole Christmas and his father made him shut off the TV, saying he watched too much of it. Obama slammed the bedroom door; a loud argument ensued among grown-ups.
Not the quality time Obama has in mind in asking dads to turn off the TV now.