She's just a kid, after all, so let's leave Chelsea alone

MIKE LITTWIN

January 25, 1993|By MIKE LITTWIN

Here's how life has gone lately for the Clinton family. Bill got a big promotion. Hillary got a new hat. Chelsea got braces.

Actually, for Chelsea, getting braces was just the beginning. She also got a new house. It's shaped exactly like a fishbowl. There's more. She was given the opportunity to leave behind in Arkansas every friend she's ever known. She got to choose a new school. That was fun. Particularly when people rushed to brand her as an elitist snob for choosing a private school.

Did I mention she wears braces?

Chelsea Clinton is 12 years old, and it's not her fault. None of it is her fault. As far as I can tell, she's the only blameless person currently residing in Washington.

She's 12 years old, and we ought to lay off. Can we agree on this one? Here's a message to all comics, late-night-TV-talk-show hosts, newspaper columnists and other such reprobates: In the name of Amy Carter, let's give this kid some room to grow up.

Those who poke fun for a living are in an especially dangerous period, which I call the post-Dan-o days. The Quaylester was always there for us. (Did you hear about the folks at the Quayle library? Even as we speak, they're collecting the former veep's papers, scissors and crayons.)

Eventually, someone will fill the gap. Did someone mention Roger Clinton's name?

Zoe Baird is good. "Yes, Senator, we kept slaves. That's a technical violation, isn't it?"

Hillary's hat. Bill's thighs. Tipper's name. Al's dancing. They're all fair game. But Chelsea isn't.

Chelsea didn't ask to be the First Daughter. She didn't ask to move into the White House. She had no more choice in the matter than Socks the cat -- and fewer built-in defenses. The thing you know about cats is that they don't care what you say or do. The thing you know about 12-year-olds is that they care desperately about everything everyone says or does.

Do you remember being 12?

Was there ever a more awkward, less certain time in your life?

It's that in-between age when you don't know what you are, but you suspect that, whatever it is, people are laughing at it behind your back.

It's middle-school age, when the cliques begin, and when you don't know if you're wearing the right clothes, and you have hormones you're pretty sure no one else in the history of the world has ever had to deal with before they glomped on you. We're not even going to mention acne. Or bad-hair days. Or, if you have braces, how you have to make sure you never, ever smile.

I remember middle school, which was then called junior high. I remember when I was all set to go to my first, important, maybe-I-had-a-shot-with-a-girl dance. I had been practicing for weeks up in my room with my little sister, trying to master the intricacies of a dance called the mashed potato. Just when I had it pretty much down, the mashed potato was out and everyone was doing the swim. Or was it the fly?

Whatever it was, I didn't know how to do it. I stayed home.

These memories were touched off by Chelsea's appearance at the MTV inaugural ball when Mom and Dad called her up on stage, and people started chanting her name. She didn't smile (braces, remember). In fact, what she did was begin looking for a hole into which she might dive.

That is the normal reaction, as far as I understand it. When my daughter was 12, she made clear to me that my most important job was to never embarrass her in public. By embarrassing her, she meant, of course, having anything to do with her whatsoever outside the confines of our house, because what if one of her friends saw her . . . talking to her dad?

That's what 12 is like. It's tough. It gets tougher. It gets tougher when "Saturday Night Live" opens its show with Madonna singing -- in Marilyn-Monroe-to-John-Kennedy style -- "Happy Inauguration" to Bill Clinton. As the skit plays out, Clinton thinks Madonna wants to meet him after the show for a date. That part is funny.

But the skit ends with Madonna signaling she doesn't want Bill, she wants Chelsea. Not so funny. Not funny at all.

We can probably do better than pick on little kids who can't defend themselves. Let's say, for Chelsea's sake, the jokes stop here.

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