Clintons can't hide Chelsea from press now

February 08, 1999|By Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover

WASHINGTON -- It is easy to pick out the inconsistencies in the Clintons' expression of concern about their daughter Chelsea's becoming the center of press attention.

The president and first lady have been given high marks for the special efforts they have made to protect the privacy of their daughter. From all accounts, Chelsea has been an outstanding student with many friends and an active social life.

No one would argue that she has had a normal childhood. Most kids don't have Secret Service details following them around. But Chelsea's parents have made a determined effort to make her life as normal as possible for the child of a president.

So it may seem understandable that the Clintons are offended at a People magazine cover story about how Chelsea has been dealing with the crisis of her father's impeachment.

But in other times, candidate Clinton and his wife Hillary were not averse to Chelsea being part of a family picture on another People magazine cover. That was dynamite politics. So complaining now seems selective, at best, and perhaps politically manipulative. There is clearly a lot of popular sympathy for the wife and daughter of a president caught in a sex scandal. And there is very little sympathy for the press.

It also can be argued that if the president was so concerned about his daughter, he shouldn't have become involved with Monica Lewinsky. But that is an argument that has nothing to do with reality. And surely no one would contend that the daughter should be punished for the father's thoughtlessness.

The editors of People didn't have to use these rationalizations, however. They argued that Chelsea is now a de facto adult and as such subject to the press scrutiny that is turned on any celebrity in our society today. There is clearly intense interest in how this young woman has handled the family and national crisis occasioned by her father's behavior.

In other words, a story about the Clinton women is a natural to sell magazines. Indeed, it is quite likely that the Clintons' public complaint about the article will stimulate even higher newsstand sales than otherwise would have been recorded, generating more public interest in her.

If that happens, the White House complaint about People may prove to be counterproductive, although the Clintons clearly hoped it could give pause to other elements of the press.

There already have been countless articles in magazines and newspapers about how Mrs. Clinton has been "coping" with the humiliation of her husband. In a situation like this, the victimized wife is always a focus of interest, and the first lady has dealt with it well.

There is, however, a significant difference between Mrs. Clinton and Chelsea that the press should consider in weighing their right to privacy. Mrs. Clinton is a volunteer, married to the man, for better or for worse. Chelsea has been a child whose life has been controlled by her parents. She is in no way responsible for the situation in which she has been placed.

The bottom line is that Chelsea Clinton is a young woman whose right to privacy has not been surrendered in its entirety by her father's gross behavior. But the Clintons can't justify trying to stifle stories they used to welcome.

Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover write from the Washington Bureau.

Pub Date: 2/08/99

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