America has watched with fascination as children navigated life in the White House. John F. Kennedy Jr. was born two weeks after his father was elected president. Amy Carter went to a DC public school and played in a treehouse built for her on the South Lawn.
Growing up in the historic mansion would seem to be a dream come true. There’s a pool, a bowling alley, a movie theater, tennis courts, gardens, butlers, a kitchen stocked with favorite foods, and lots of celebrity guests. “Amy Carter would meet anyone from Mickey Mouse to the Pope,” says John Riley of the White House Historical Association.
But with all the fun and privilege comes living in a fishbowl. One reaction: We’ve seen less and less of the children themselves.
The Kennedy era was the presidency closely watched on television, Harvard University historian Barbara Kellerman says. Who could resist such a photogenic family? “Everyone got in the habit, through that presidency, of photographing everyone,” she adds.
Within the White House there were battles over public-relations strategy between the First Lady and Pierre Salinger, Kennedy’s press secretary, says Letitia Baldrige, who served as Jackie Kennedy’s social secretary.
“Pierre wanted the press to have access to the children because they were the greatest vote-getters, the greatest Kennedy-lover mechanisms that you could imagine,” she recalls. Jackie rebuffed these requests, but when she was away, Salinger would sometimes ignore her wishes, says Baldrige. The famous “John-John under the desk” photo by Stanley Tretick had not been approved by the First Lady.
“Jackie was angry about that,” says Baldrige. “But not too angry because it was a photograph that hit every newspaper and magazine in the world and made people love the Kennedys.”
Some of the adoring throngs would wait at the bottom of the South Lawn just to catch a glimpse of the children leaving the White House and frolicking toward a part of the lawn where swings, jungle gyms, and a trampoline were.
Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter didn’t hide their daughter, Amy, behind bushes and trees as the Kennedys had. Before the Carter family took up residence in Washington, reporters visiting Plains, Georgia, to cover the nominee would find the eight-year-old manning a lemonade stand, selling drinks and tuna-fish sandwiches. She rented her Frisbee to waiting journalists for a quarter an hour.
The youngest of the Carters’ four children, Amy attended DC public schools, first Stevens Elementary, which closed last summer, and later Hardy Middle School. On Amy’s first day at Stevens, there was such a crush of spectators and journalists that “some children had trouble getting through to the school’s front door,” the Washington Post reported. Newspapers quoted several Stevens students about their new classmate:
“I showed her a newspaper picture of her, and she just said, ‘So.’ ”
“She’s bratty, and she’s spoiled. We’re not allowed to talk in class when the teacher is talking. But when Amy does, the teacher stops and listens.”
“Whenever people give her attention, she doesn’t want it. But if people don’t give her attention, she does want it.”
A 1977 Washington Post article noted that Amy greeted the president of Mexico when he visited DC.
“Did you speak to him in Spanish?” her teacher asked.
“Oh yes,” Amy said. “I asked him, ‘Como se llama? [What is your name?]’ ”
On Chelsea Clinton’s first day at Sidwell Friends, the private school the Obama girls will attend, she slipped into a back entrance before reporters even knew she was nearby. Comments about her from fellow students never surfaced in the press.
During the first years of the Clinton presidency, tiny bits of information about Chelsea leaked to press: that she’d invited friends for a White House sleepover in eighth grade, that she held her 13th-birthday party at the Cheesecake Factory, that she took ballet lessons. Chelsea uttered not a peep.
Bill and Hillary Rodham Clinton made clear to the press that their daughter was not a story, period. But the demand for details never trailed off entirely, says Lisa Caputo, Hillary Clinton’s press secretary in the first term.
People wanted to know “everything from what she was doing for her birthday to who are her friends to what does she do in her free time,” says Caputo. “There was always interest in Chelsea, but I think the press really respected the Clinton family wish.”
The First Lady’s office would try to quash stories about Chelsea. “Whenever we would hear of things, we made a very proactive effort,” says Caputo.
To this day, Chelsea rarely elects to speak with reporters. Same with Amy Carter.
As for the latest presidential children, we know that Malia Obama was born on Independence Day, that she likes the Jonas Brothers, and that ice cream is her favorite food, that both girls like it when their parents hold hands and are romantic, that their parents hate it when they whine and argue, and that they enjoy camp because, as Sasha said in an Access Hollywood interview, “there’s like ‘crazy hair day’ and ‘old school day.’ ”
If the Obama future is anything like the Clinton past, that’s a mouthful.