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, a memoir named "Dreams from My Father," and endless reflections on his own successes and shortcomings as a parent of Sasha, 8, and Malia, 10. As a candidate and now president, he's been telling men what sort of father they should be. It's become his Father's Day ritual and he's not shy about it.
He's asking American men to be better fathers than his own. The president showcased fatherhood in a series of events and a magazine article in advance of Father's Day. He said he came to understand the importance of fatherhood from its absence in his childhood homes -- just as an estimated 24 million Americans today are growing up without a dad.
Fathers run deep in the political culture as they do everywhere else, for better and worse. Michelle Obama has said many times how her late dad, Fraser, is her reference point and rock -- she checks in with him, in her mind, routinely, and at important moments. Obama's presidential rival, John McCain, called his own memoirs "Faith of My Fathers," tracing generations of high-achieving scamps. 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 Hussein Obama Sr left a family behind to get his schooling in the US. He started another family here, then left his second wife and 2-year-old Barack Jr to return to Africa with another woman.
His promise flamed out in Africa after stints working for an oil company and the government; he fell into drink and died in a car crash when his son was 21, a student at Columbia University. "I don't want to be the kind of father I had," the president is quoted as telling a friend in a new book about him. His half-sister, Maya, called his memoirs "part of the process of excavating his father."
Obama now cajoles men to be better fathers -- not the kind who must be unearthed in the soul.
His 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.
Father's Day 2007: "Let's admit to ourselves that there are a lot of men out there that need to stop acting like boys; who need to realize that responsibility does not end at conception; who need to know that what makes you a man is not the ability to have a child but the courage to raise a child."
Father's Day 2008: "Any fool can have a child. That doesn't make you a father. It's the courage to raise a child that makes you a father."
Father's Day 2009: "We need to step out of our own heads and tune in. We need to turn off the television and start talking with our kids, and listening to them, and understanding what's going on in their lives."
He doesn't hold himself out as the ideal dad. No driven politician can.
"I know I have been an imperfect father," he writes in Sunday's Parade magazine. "I know I have made mistakes. I have lost count of all the times, over the years, when the demands of work have taken me from the duties of fatherhood."
He volunteered for those demands, as all people do when they want power. His years as a community organizer, Illinois lawmaker, US senator and presidential candidate often kept him apart from family. At the same time, he went to great lengths in the 2008 campaign to find time with his girls and wife, and now considers the routine family time one of the joys of living and working in the White House.
The new book "Renegade" by Richard Wolffe recounts strains in the marriage early this decade, arising from his absences and from what Michelle Obama apparently considered his selfish careerism at the time. The author interviewed the Obamas, friends and associates. 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.
"Someone once said that every man is trying to either live up to his father's expectations or make up for his father's mistakes," he once wrote, "and I suppose that may explain my particular malady as well as anything else." By malady, he meant the will to achieve. 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. He was an impressive, mysterious figure whom Obama found compelling, volatile and vaguely threatening.
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. 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.