My daughter was looking at the online Times of India the other day for a school project and I happened to notice a headline article about Chelsea Clinton, the former First Daughter who is currently visiting the subcontinent. Written in stilted English, the article focused not on Chelsea's graduate degree in international relations from Oxford or the six-figure salary she now earns in her work for a New York consulting company, but on her babealicious sex appeal:
"While walking down the Santushti Complex, Delhi, Chelsea Clinton looks like a Princess of Style. In the city for a personal visit, Bill and Hillary Clinton's daughter is wearing a stylish and sexy look. And like the rest of the world, we too are suitably impressed by the transition of Chelsea into a sex symbol. Even Vanity Fair magazine recently commented on how easily Chelsea Clinton has transformed into the world's sexiest and most flamboyant woman."
I think Chelsea Clinton is lovely, but "the world's sexiest and most flamboyant woman?" Come on. Something tells me the Times of India may not be known for its hard-hitting journalism. Still, I guess such treatment is preferable to the ugly attacks Chelsea had to endure as a young teen living in the White House. In 1993, Rush Limbaugh reached an all-time low when he said the following on his show: "Everyone knows the Clintons have a cat, Socks, in the White House. But did you know there is also a White House dog?" He then held up a picture of Chelsea. Can you imagine how vile a person would have to be to say that about anyone, much less a defenseless 13-year-old girl who was already struggling with typical adolescent concerns about her appearance?
I bet it's no picnic being the child of a president. You didn't ask for any public attention and yet there you are, directly in the line of fire. There are whole websites devoted to making fun of the current White House kids, First Twins Jenna and Barbara Bush. During Bush's first term, his daughters' underage drinking escapades provided endless fodder for the jokesters. Now that they are adults, we haven't heard much of them, thank God, although Barbara is in the news this week as she accompanies her mother on a tour of Africa. The twins seem to be wisely shunning the spotlight as much as they can.
I do believe the children of presidents should be left alone, especially while they are minors. On the other hand, I have to admit that I've always been fascinated by this rarified group. My all-time favorite First Kid was Amy Carter. More than any of the others, she seemed unscathed by her experience in the public eye. My favorite Amy Carter moment was when a reporter asked her if she had any message for the children of America. She looked at the reporter square in the eyes, thought for a few moments, and then gave this brilliant reply:
Remember in 1980, during his only debate with Reagan, when Jimmy Carter summed up an exchange on arms control by saying:
"I had a discussion with my daughter, Amy, the other day before I came here, to ask her what the most important issue was. She said the control of nuclear arms."
Amy was 13 at the time and Carter was widely ridiculed for getting policy advice from a grade-schooler. But who's to say she wasn't right? I admired Carter for deigning to talk about real issues with his youngest child. Amy Carter also had the distinction of being played by the brilliant Lorraine Newman every week on the original "Saturday Night Live"--how cool was that?
Like her dad, Amy went on to have an even better life after the family left the White House. She became a political activist in the 80s and 90s, and now does work for the Carter Center on human rights issues. She illustrated a children's book that her father wrote and the two seem very close. I remember seeing Jimmy Carter tear up when talking about Amy's wedding in 1996. She was barefoot at her ceremony--gotta love that kid!
My next favorite presidential spawn: Ron Reagan Jr. and his sister, Patti Davis. Who would've thunk it? Say what you want about Ronald and Nancy Reagan, they raised two intelligent, free-thinking children
who are not afraid to speak their minds. Ron's speech at the 2004 Democratic Convention condemning the Bush administration's stand on stem-cell research was dead-on. And speaking of "Saturday Night Live," Ron was surprisingly good when he hosted that show--remember the Risky Business spoof he did in his underwear? Patti now regrets a lot of her rebellious activities during her dad's presidency but she still speaks out on issues that are important to her. I was very moved by her book The Long Goodbye, about the waning days of her father's life and the family's reactions to his disease. Patti defended embattled A Million Little Pieces author James Frey the other day in "Newsweek," saying that she was publicly tarred and feathered for the opposite reason years ago for daring to call her first book a novel when people said it was a thinly veiled autobiography. Davis admits her first book wasn't very good and never would have been published had she not been the president's daughter.
Of course Caroline and John Kennedy have always had a special place in my heart, especially since my very first memory was watching Kennedy's funeral on TV with my sobbing mother and seeing John-John (who was almost my exact age) waving goodbye to his dead father. John died just a month after my mother in 1999. Never in a million years would I have imagined that their deaths would be that close. My mother was the receptionist at the Merchandise Mart in Chicago, a building so huge it has its own zip code. Until a few years ago, the Mart was owned by the Kennedy family and my mother was constantly dealing with crazies who would appear in the office with gifts and messages for Caroline and John-John (as they still insisted on calling him). My mother's boss was Chris Kennedy, RFK's look-alike son, and whenever we were visiting from L.A., she would drag my young red-headed daughter into his office, interrupting whatever meeting was taking place, to show him Leah's "Kennedy Irish" hair! Despite all of the traumas and scandals in that family, Caroline Kennedy remains a role model for good citizenship, quietly carrying on the Kennedy legacy of service. She is currently involved in a competition to select "American's Greatest Hometown Hero."
Susan and Steven Ford were in the news this week visiting their ailing father in Rancho Mirage. Hard to believe that Gerald Ford is now 93. Their press was not particularly good during their father's brief presidency but all four of the Ford children seem to be living productive lives today. Remember when Susan Ford was caught having Secret Service men doing her homework? She was the first person to have her Senior Prom in the White House and also had her own column in Seventeen magazine. She later helped her mother establish the Betty Ford clinic and recently wrote a book called Double Exposure: A First Daughter Mystery that provides an insider's view of life in the White House.
I do remember waking up early to watch Tricia Nixon Cox's White House wedding on TV. What was I thinking? And Julie Nixon Eisenhower deserves a special prize for getting two presidential families into her kids' bloodlines.
My favorite would-be/should-be First Children are Kristin Gore and Karenna Gore Schiff. So smart and articulate. Don't you think the Bush twins should voluntarily hand over their White House keys?