Making a private life in a public family Clintons shield Chelsea from spotlight

July 06, 1993|By Susan Baer | Susan Baer,Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON -- They thought it was a perfectly harmless little joke. But when babe-watchers Wayne and Garth of NBC's "Saturday Night Live" turned their stone-washed wit to Chelsea Clinton in a "Wayne's World" sketch, making wisecracks about her appearance, the response was less than excellent.

After hearing boos from the TV community and public criticism from Hillary Rodham Clinton, the show's producers edited out the offending comments when the show was rebroadcast recently. Mike Myers, aka Wayne, also wrote a letter of apology to the Clintons.

"We felt, upon reflection, that if it was in any way hurtful, it wasn't worth it," says executive producer Lorne Michaels. "She's a kid, a kid who didn't choose to be in public life."

It didn't stop them from working over 9-year-old Amy Carter in the late '70s, however, treating her even "a little rougher," to no great public protest, admits Mr. Michaels.

But for 13-year-old Chelsea, the first school-age child to live in the White House since the Carter administration, life has been less of a fishbowl and more of a private, protected pond.

More than most children who have lived in the White House, Chelsea Clinton has been deemed off-limits. She has been left alone, largely because of public sympathy for a youngster undergoing adolescence and because of the nearly total White House news blackout concerning the first daughter.

From 1,200 stories to 200

Attention paid to Chelsea already has dropped off precipitously. A computer search turned up more than 1,200 newspaper and magazine stories mentioning the first daughter in January -- compared with about 400 in February, fewer than 300 in April, and fewer than 200 last month.

The disappearing act is no accident. The Clintons have discouraged coverage of their child and protected her from the public gaze with far more vigilance than the Carters, Johnsons, Fords or Nixons ever did with their children.

Although the president wanted to bring his daughter and some of her friends along to the Tokyo summit this week, the Clintons finally decided against it, White House officials said.

"She didn't want to be a big object of press interest," President Clinton said at a luncheon Friday.

The administration had not forgotten the press mob that swarmed around Amy Carter when she traveled to Japan and South Korea with her father in 1979, or whenever she went overseas.

Nor had it forgotten the widely used photographs of a forlorn-looking Amy Carter trudging through the snow on her first day of school in Washington, her head down to escape the mob of lenses.

Determined to avoid a similar scene, Mrs. Clinton slipped Chelsea in a back door on her first day at the private Sidwell Friends School, avoiding media stake-outs at front and side entrances.

"The president and first lady have made it very clear they want Chelsea to have as normal a life as possible," says Neel Lattimore, Mrs. Clinton's deputy press secretary.

Press office refuses questions

To that end, the press office refuses to answer any questions about Chelsea and thus receives very few inquiries about the teen-ager.

In contrast, Mary Hoyt, Rosalynn Carter's former press secretary, says she received calls about Amy on a daily basis -- about the youngster's dog, treehouse, violin lessons. "We tried to tell people as much as we thought it was appropriate to tell them," she says.

The Carters, in fact, "were not shy at all about allowing Amy to be photographed," says Mark Rozell, the author of books on press coverage of the Carter and Ford presidencies. "They understood some of the public relations benefits of having a very young child as part of the presidential family. Though they were protective of her, they were not absolutely insistent that no one get near her at all."

During the 1976 presidential campaign, Jimmy Carter used photos of young freckle-faced Amy selling lemonade for 5-cents a glass in Plains, Ga., along with other images of his family, to help the nation get acquainted with the little-known Southern governor, notes Barbara Kellerman, author of a book about first families.

Chelsea used in campaign

The Clintons similarly "used" their daughter for image purposes during the Democratic convention -- after focus groups pointed out that many Americans didn't know the Clintons had a child -- when Chelsea was frequently pictured with her parents, especially her mother.

"With all the talk about Hillary's toughness, it was helpful for Americans to learn that she was also a devoted mother," says Ms. Kellerman.

Some presidential parents have even provoked scrutiny of their children with their own words. When President Carter said in his 1980 debate that he had discussed nuclear proliferation with 12-year-old Amy, his presidency came to a close with his daughter caught in the joke mill.

Similarly, first lady Betty Ford's comment during a 1975 "60 Minutes" interview that she wouldn't be surprised if her teen-age daughter, Susan, had a premarital "affair" stirred intense interest.

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