Leave the poor girl alone!

Mona Charen

November 17, 1992|By Mona Charen

IT had to happen. There were bound to be unflattering references to Chelsea Clinton in the public press. The first offending example appeared in the mischievous guise of a friendly op-ed by a fellow teen-ager.

"I have never seen another politician's child who looks like a true pre-pubescent vision of awkwardness . . .," writes Samantha Shapiro. "The other politicians' kids I see have shiny blond hair perfectly in place . . . and lovely, clear skin and wonderfully tailored Polo outfits." Chelsea is refreshing, this sympathetic teen-ager adds, because she has frizzy hair and braces on her teeth.

Can we put a stop to this kind of thing here and now? How is Chelsea going to feel when she reads that? Did the op-ed editor consider her feelings? What young teen-ager wouldn't be devastated to see herself described in print as unattractive -- even if the ostensible point of the piece was how delightfully refreshing it all is. If Shapiro is envious of Sen. Al Gore's children (she mentions them by name as belonging in the Laura Ashley catalog), she should admit it, preferably in private to those who are interested, and find some less cruel outlet for her feelings.

Scrutiny of presidential candidates is one thing. Even attention to the careers and contacts of candidates' wives is legitimate. But, please, let's have mercy on the kids. They are not asking us to trust them with important decisions about our lives. They do not seek the spotlight. They are innocent bystanders in the path of their parents' march to power and fame.

Children of politicians often suffer from neglect. Chelsea will live in the White House and get her very own Secret Service protection. It may sound glamorous, but how many teen-agers would actually choose to have an adult follow them everywhere? And while being the child of a powerful man may be exciting, how many kids would choose to have so little time with their dads?

This unwelcome attention to the "first child" (let's have a moratorium on that phrase, too) is a consequence of our over-valuation, even monarchization of the presidency. Reports on the comings and goings of the president dominate the nightly news on television. Congress, where the true power of Washington really lies, gets scant attention.

Part of the explanation is laziness on the part of the press. It's easier to cover one person than 535. But the Congress is the true heart of our government -- and its byzantine committee system is the circulatory system. There's a reason all those lobbyists line up outside the door of the Ways and Means Committee and not the Old Executive Office Building.

It isn't just laziness, though. The press began its full-time focus on the presidency with the dawn of the Cold War and the nuclear age. It became a matter of potential urgency to follow the person who never traveled without the "football" containing nuclear launch codes handcuffed to the wrist of a military aide.

Now that the Cold War is over, the press seems more than ready to urge cutbacks in the military, but is it ready to curtail its obsession with the presidency? With the exception of foreign policy, the power of the presidency is mostly hortatory. The president has very little effect upon the daily workings of government.

This relentless focus on the White House has given rise to assumptions that are not healthy for democracy or self-government. People have come to hold presidents responsible for everything from hurricane relief to potholes to farm foreclosures. In the recent blame contest between the White House and Congress over who was responsible for the savings and loan debacle, Congress won easily, because people find it easy to believe that the president pulls the strings of the entire government.

If we cannot break our addiction to presidential news, let's at least permit Chelsea to stay clear of it. It's bad enough that, being the daughter of a Democrat, she will probably have to attend public schools, and thus be robbed of a proper education. Let's not rob her of her privacy, too.

Mona Charen is a syndicated columnist.

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