Presidential families can bring relatively major embarrassments

January 20, 1993|By John Fairhall | John Fairhall,Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON — Washington--As Bill and Hillary Clinton have already learned, it's not only enemies who can embarrass a first family.

Mrs. Clinton's brothers, Hugh and Tony Rodham, had the family squirming last week when it was reported they were soliciting $10,000 contributions from corporations to pay for inaugural parties. Chagrined, the Clintons put an end to it.

But the Clintons will be fortunate if this is the only familial indiscretion they suffer. History is full of examples of relatives who discomfit the president and first lady: Just ask George Bush about the pain caused by his son Neil's involvement in the savings and loan scandal or Ronald and Nancy Reagan's endurement of biting personal criticism from daughter Patti Davis.

Already some journalists are looking at Mr. Clinton's half brother, Roger, a recovering drug addict who served a prison term on cocaine distribution and conspiracy charges while Bill Clinton was governor of Arkansas, as a potential Billy Carter, who worked for the Libyan government, made seemingly anti-Semitic statements and lived up to his billing as a self-styled redneck.

The comparison angers the 36-year-old Clinton sibling, but he is starting down a similar path. Just as Billy Carter tried to cash in on his brother Jimmy's election -- remember Billy Beer? -- Roger Clinton is seizing the opportunity to make big bucks.

Atlantic Records, which paid the would-be singer no attention while he was Roger Nobody, has signed him to a $200,000 recording contract. He'll start making an album at the beginning of next month, taking timely advantage of the exposure he is scheduled to receive tonight by performing at the MTV Rock and Roll Inaugural Ball.

Time magazine reported he has signed with the Greater Talent Network to give speeches, for as much as $10,000 each, on the "triumph of the human spirit," the story of his battle against drugs and his life growing up with an abusive father and an overachieving brother. And he reportedly is peddling a proposal for a book called "My Life With Big Brother," and asking for a $300,000 advance.

No other Clinton relative has sought the spotlight quite like Roger, although much attention has been focused on their extroverted mother, Virginia Kelley, 69, who may remind people of another straight-talking, quotable first mom: Miss Lillian, matriarch of the Carter clan.

Like her sons, Mrs. Kelley is a devoted fan of Elvis Presley. She also loves the racetrack and doesn't mind putting a bit of flamboyance in her fashion. During the campaign she sported large Clinton-for-president earrings, a bold white streak in the middle of her dark hair and a ring made up of a gold horseshoe circling a horse's head.

On Hillary's side, parents Hugh and Dorothy seem publicity-shy. Her brothers, Tony, 38, a private investigator in Miami, and Hugh, 42, a public defender in the same city, are described as fun-loving, but aside from their aborted fund-raising they have done nothing to get into the news.

The Rodham brothers' brush with bad publicity has made Bill and Hillary Clinton more sensitive to the problems that can befall their families. "We really know that they have some pitfalls ahead of them, and we're going to try and do everything we can to try to help them understand what happens when they're in the spotlight," Mrs. Clinton said in an interview this week on the NBC Nightly News. "And I think they've learned some good lessons the last couple of weeks."

"A lot of our family members, you know, never really did politics before," the president-elect said in the same interview. ". . . They are good people and I think they'll do fine."

But Roger Clinton's opportunism puts him in the company of presidential relatives who have tried to use their unearned celebrity as a springboard in a non-political field. In this category, Johns Hopkins University political scientist Benjamin Ginsberg recalls a famous Life magazine photograph of Margaret Truman sitting at a piano "with a proud Harry trying to plug her career."

Mr. Ginsberg says there are two other categories of presidential relatives. One includes people like President John F. Kennedy's brothers, Robert and Edward, and President Lyndon B. Johnson's son-in-law, Virginia Sen. Charles Robb, who promoted their own political careers.

The other group is relatives who don't seek any advantage and may not need any. Milton Eisenhower, who was president of Johns Hopkins University while his brother Dwight was in the White House, "had a very eminent career in his own right," Mr. Ginsberg notes.

But President Eisenhower worried about other relatives and wrote them cautionary letters, says Hopkins history professor Louis Galambos, editor of the Dwight D. Eisenhower papers. "He knew, even in the '50s, the media would land on the family . . ."

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