On the morning of the Father of the Year Awards Luncheon, I ran out of bread enough to even make cinnamon toast for my children, and I ended up serving them some Chocolate Chex and the last apple in the house. Not that I was going there to win Father of the Year. I was merely going to watch.

While I was trying to get ready to go out the door to the Father of the Year Awards Luncheon, my younger son, the three-year-old, with magic marker scrawled all over his arms, pleaded, “Let’s first play superheroes. Let’s first play superheroes, OK, Dad?” He got distracted by something else before we ended up playing superheroes.

Dad. Chopping the second syllable off “Daddy” was a unilateral decision by the three-year-old. “Dad” is what I called my own father when I was growing up, mostly, although his later years we would both turn to the more gruffly silly and hence more tender “Pa.”

In the world at large, “Dad” operates as a cheery low-grade putdown, which seems fine to me—both as a mark of the overall erosion of patriarchal authority and as a personal measure of the credential I’ve been allowed to claim for just over eight years now. Dad is the old guy in the young office, who has cranky opinions and skips after-work drinks. Dad is carrying a few extra pounds around the middle. Dad enjoys the music and the sneakers that were cool half his lifetime ago but which are now comfortable.

The headliner at the Father of the Year Awards Luncheon was going to be George W. Bush. That is how far the currency has been devalued—George Walker Bush, the definitive little son of a bigger father, so incapable of embodying traditional masculine authority that he had to delegate the work of being old and serious-seeming to Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld. Who were feckless idiots themselves, as it turned out, but gray-haired and slow-moving ones. The appearance of gravity. The Dad of the 21st Century: Bush slackfaced behind The Pet Goat, with no idea how to handle either these kids or the real grown-up business that had just landed on him.

If there was any one moment I particularly felt the weight of the office I had attained, it was when my older son was quite little and we were riding on an airplane with a group of members of the military—terribly young ones, their faces above their BDUs still blotchy and fuzzy with unfinished adolescence. Suddenly, though I was still only in my 30s, I realized that these representatives of our fighting forces, committed to an open-ended set of wars, were closer in age to my child than they were to me. My tiny child, wide-eyed, still in his diaper. This was the world I had brought him into.

Outside the Hilton, where the Father of the Year Awards Luncheon would be, there were four women holding signs denouncing Bush as a war criminal. How could a war criminal be Father of the Year? A fifth woman showed up and joined them. They had some extra signs ready.

The Father of the Year Awards are given out by the National Father’s Day Committee, which is part of the Father’s Day Mother’s Day Council Inc. The organization, according to its press handout, was founded as the Father’s Day Council in 1931 “by businessmen, civic leaders and concerned citizens....with the initial objective to achieve universal observance of the then little known holiday—Father’s Day.” Some other sources give the date as 1938. Other sources also emphasize the fact that the group that had created the Father’s Day Council was the Associated Men’s Wear Retailers of New York City, a bit of paternity unmentioned in the handout.

The Council began distributing Father of the Year awards in 1942, and in 1978—six years after Congress and President Richard Nixon had fulfilled the Council’s formative goal and made Father’s Day a permanent national holiday—the Council branched out into broader philanthropy. This year’s luncheon, for instance, was dedicated to raising funds for Save the Children.

Nineteen seventy-eight was also, the press handout recounts, the year that

the Father’s Day Council, in order to achieve a more universal approach to the important role parents play in the family unit, formed the National Mother’s Day Council by purchasing the National Committee for the Observance of Mother’s Day.

This unabashed paternalism suggested that the Father of the Year Awards were oriented perhaps toward an older culture of fatherhood. The third floor of the Hilton, where the luncheon would be, was full of men in suits—real suits, some with pinstripes or chalk stripes. Dad though I was, I had merely chosen to wear an unlined blazer, over a button-down shirt and tie. Also I had been issued a hanging badge that read MEDIA in white letters, though Gawker had officially been denied press entry and had paid $750 for a ticket. Everyone else in sight was a GUEST or STAFF.

There were two cocktail receptions, one for the general attendees (and MEDIA) and one for VIPs. A staffer stood near the place where the curtain between the two spaces gapped open a little. Sometimes a dad or possible dad would get a long-necked beer from the open bar, possibly shrouding the label with a napkin. The bartenders also were pouring sparkling wine. I did not see, in the brief time I studied the matter, any of them reach for the liquors behind them, but it was before noon. More and more suited dads packed the room, as well as somehow dad- or apparel-industry-adjacent women and young men, till it became necessary to skirt the whole mass to get from one side to the other. I flipped through my phone and looked at a few photographs of my kids.

At the far end of the general-admission reception stood Robert Reid, one of the 2014 Fathers of the Year. Other fathers of that year were Chris Christie, Curtis Martin, and the CEOs of Bloomingdale’s and the footwear-and-apparel Camuto Group. Fathers of the Year come in groups of three to five. The list of past honorees was broken down into nearly two dozen categories, including Stage (Peter Ustinov, 1958); National (Douglas MacArthur, 1942); Labor (Albert Shanker, 1977); Music (L.L. Cool J, 2006); Literature (Tom Clancy, 1987); and Sports (Luis Tiant and Dave DeBusschere, both 1976).

Dad is obviously a status that transcends boundaries of class and profession, but since 2005, that principle has been codified by the inclusion of the Ashok C. Sani All-Star Dad, selected from the broader non-famous public through an essay contest. (The normal guy: a “Dad” in the “Father of the Year” slate.) Reid, a vice president of a medical-device company in Massachusetts, had been the Ashok C. Sani All-Star Dad. One of his daughters submitted the essay without his knowledge, he said, and he got the phone call telling him he had won right after attending her college graduation. “He thought I was playing a joke on him,” said Marissa Mediate, his fiancee.

The dad is often, in our culture, the butt of a joke; Father’s Day itself struggled to overcome or co-opt public derision, as the historian Leigh Eric Schmidt wrote:

Father’s Day promotions were regularly unmasked and mocked, even by merchants themselves, but it nonetheless got progressively harder for consumers simply to leave the event unheeded and unobserved.

I ducked out into the hallway to look for people coming or going from the VIP reception and was rewarded with a glimpse of Mark Shriver, a 2008 Father of the Year winner (“Humanitarians”) who now emcees the events. He headed in the door with a flash of white Kennedy teeth and the big Kennedy walk, which I briefly thought of as his patrimony till I remembered they’d come down his maternal line.

In the sleekly appointed men’s room outside the reception, in the handicapped-accessible stall, a gray plastic diapering table hung open.

Plates of roast chicken and cold shrimp and grilled vegetables—squash, eggplant, eat-your-vegetables vegetables—were waiting in the banquet hall. Also waiting at every seat was a copy of 41: A Portrait of My Father, the biography of George H.W. Bush of which George W. Bush is the author of record. Even as a Father of the Year, he was still a son.

The guests of honor entered from the right, and there was George W. Bush. The last time I’d seen him in person—no, wait, it must have been the 2004 Republican National Convention. Before that, though, was 2002, on the South Lawn of the White House, where he was sweating through a blue shirt, presiding over a tee-ball game with Cal Ripken, Jr. I was five years away from being a dad then. The presidential tee-ball initiative had been announced in the spring of 2001, part of Bush’s first 100 days, setting the tone of the administration’s goals and priorities for the next eight years.

Did he look any different now? A little thicker, maybe, and his hair all gray but still boyishly full and wavy. He cocked his arm and gave a jaunty little wave from the elbow as he walked onto the dais. The suited dads gave him a standing ovation.

The New Amsterdam Boys & Girls Choir sang the National Anthem, with a backdrop of corporate logos behind them. Bush put his hand firmly over not his heart but his solar plexus and held it there with a practiced unwaveringness.

“Helloooooo, good afternoon,” Shriver said, exhorting the crowd. He launched into reminiscences about the many prior charitable occasions on which he’d worked with the Bush family. At one, in Houston, Shriver said, a man in the elevator, wearing a cowboy hat, had asked him if anyone had ever told him he looked like a Kennedy. Shriver had allowed as to how yes, people had told him that. “That must make you so mad,” the man had said.

“That’s actually a true story,” Shriver said. Dads tell stories. A dad is not necessarily epistemologically reliable, in this storytelling.

Shriver encouraged the attendees to make donations to Save the Children via cell phone. Text messages with dollar amounts began appearing on the screen behind him.

The saving of the children underway, it was time to start in on the dads. Howard Mittman, the publisher of GQ, which administers the Ashok C. Sani All-Star Dad essay contest, introduced the 2015 All-Star Dad, David Gonzales, an HVAC technician from Jacksonville, Florida.

First, his daughter Marissa read her winning essay: “My dad and I met when I was three,” she said. He had fallen in love with her mother and the family that came along. “He took me and accepted me as his own,” She told how Gonzales had worked extra jobs on the weekend to support them. More important than any of the formal life lessons he might try to impart, she said, was the example he set of unconditional love. (Even as a source of wisdom, a dad is on some level endearingly clueless.).

Gonzales, a compact man with a pink necktie, received his Father of the Year trophy, which looked more like an Academy Award statuette than awards are generally allowed to look. He apologized for not being a “great public speaker”: “I passed out during my best friend’s wedding, giving a speech,” he said. Warm and reassuring applause. He returned his daughter’s praises. “I hadn’t even remembered that I wasn’t your biological father until I read this essay,” he said. The sentiment read as awkward jotted down in black and white, but in context, between these two particular people, father and daughter, it was sweet.

The next Father of the Year was Morris Goldfarb, the president of the G-III Apparel Group. The program listed G-III as a Presidential sponsor of the event, the highest tier. There was a certain implicit and occasionally explicit tension between the celebration of an industry-leading businessman and the celebration of a Father of the Year. Here was a man whose work had meant years of overseas travel, lining up manufacturers. “When he was home,” his grown daughter said, “he was there 100 percent.”

Goldfarb, tall and stooped, opened his own remarks by reciting figures on the sad fates of the fatherless—disproportionately represented among homeless and runaways, dropouts, the incarcerated. Then he offered a roast of his own credentials. Five years ago, he said, he had been proposed for the award. His family’s responses: “Why you, Dad? What did you do to deserve the title?” “I don’t get it, Dad. Maybe you could be Granddad of the Year, but not Father.” “A good father, fine, but why Father of the Year?”

So, he said, he resolved to do better. He began making sure to show up on “family trips to our home in St. Barth.” It was not clear whether this was meant as humor. His next bit, about giving his wife more money to spend, was clearly a joke. But later on, when he talked about his annual bonding ritual with his son of “going to Super Bowl games together,” it was earnest, just a thing that a father and a son do.

Everyone’s lives and families are different, as a holiday dedicated to universal fatherhood reminds us. Every generation is different. Goldfarb spoke of his own father, a Holocaust survivor, who emigrated to Israel, then moved on to the United States and built a prosperous business—a man with a “tough outer shell.” He spoke of his son: “If his seven-year-old daughter...is on stage for 30 seconds, Jeff is there.” It was conceived as praise, but in a room full of people who’d succeeded in the industry themselves, the change from the founding generation to the inheriting one didn’t quite make a convincing parable of progress.

The donations were at $14,000 as Shriver introduced Barbara Bush, the former first daughter. “I grew up thinking everyone’s grandfather was president,” she said. Three days before, her Uncle Jeb had announced his candidacy for the 2016 presidential election with a speech attacking “the pampered elites of Washington.” Fifteen years earlier, her father had declared “I don’t have a lot of the things that come with Washington,” as he accepted the Republican presidential nomination with his own father, the ex-president and former CIA director, in the audience.

Here now too was a recitation of her father’s accomplishments, sounding little different than it had so many years before, the presidency no more convincing than his stint in the Air National Guard or his foray into business. “And now he is a world-renowned artist,” Barbara Bush said. A substantial fraction of what any Bush says in public is nastily barbed—a moment before, Barbara had been talking about her and her sister, Jenna’s, work in “global health, education, and [subtle, knife-twisting pause] now the Today Show, for my sister”—but on the subject of her father’s painting, she sounded sincere.

Before the end of the introduction, in fact, Barbara Bush was choking up. At this routine midday banquet, built around a second-rate knockoff of a fourth-rate holiday, after a lifetime of watching her father collect accolades, it was near incomprehensible.

There was no such wobble from her father (“a man my sister and I lovingly call ‘Popsicle’”). “I deserve to win,” George Bush said, “only because I raised two great girls.” He was as loud and blurty as ever, the old macho aggression performing the social role of humor. He spoke of Barbara (“I guess an overused word in the global health space is ‘amazing’”) and Jenna (continuing “the warm relations I’ve always had with NBC”) and his grandson (“the smartest grandchild in America—this kid speaks Mandarin!”).

Then he turned his attention to Mark Shriver: “You know what really irritates me? Someone’s got a famous family name.” It was shaped like a joke, and the audience laughed, but it was hard to find an angle from which there was anything really funny about it.

Now: fatherhood. If not for being a father, Bush said, “I don’t think I would have quit drinking.” Consider the counterfactual history. “Fatherhood meant sobriety from 1986 on.”

After that confession, and a quick meditation of his own on unconditional love—”one of the greatest gifts a dad can give a child”—it was time to turn to the book everyone had received. This “may be confusing” to his critics, Bush said: “Not only can I read, I can write.”

“By the way,” he said, “it’s not an excuse not to go buy another one.” So the founding spirit of Father’s Day, the moving of merchandise, carried on. The rest was a reading: George H.W. Bush insulted his son’s paint-spattered pants. George H.W. Bush jumped from an airplane on his 90th birthday.

George W. Bush discharged his oratorical duties, got the standing ovation, shot out a stiff-arm of a wave, and headed for the exit arm in arm with his daughter. Between the gate and the phone donations, someone announced, the event had raised $1.3 million for charity.

“Hug and kiss your children,” an official said, by way of farewell. The protesters outside the hotel had gone away. One of my shoes was starting to come apart at the seam and it was too muggy for the blazer, so I detoured back home to change. “Hello!” I called out as I came in the door. The babysitter shushed me. The three-year-old was asleep.