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16 Candles for Chelsea

By Roxanne Roberts
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, February 27, 1996; Page D01

She's sweet, she's 16, and she's the only child of the president of the United States.

But don't hold your breath waiting for Chelsea Clinton to blow out her candles in front of the media, or coyly flash a driver's license, or celebrate her birthday today with any public fanfare. There will be a private party, of course, but no interviews, no pictures and no details about the first teenager.

"It's the request of the president and Mrs. Clinton that Chelsea be allowed to have as normal a childhood as possible while living at the White House," said Neel Lattimore, the first lady's spokesman.

And, remarkably, she has.

For the past three years, Chelsea has gone to school, church, parties and, yes, even on dates without the white-hot spotlight following her every move. The Clintons made Chelsea's life a top priority when they arrived in Washington, and even their loudest detractors concede that they are careful, loving parents.

The president, whose own father died before he was born, tries to have breakfast with her almost every morning; her mother interrupts her schedule to chat when Chelsea arrives home from school; and the family has dinner together most nights. But they have steadfastly refused to allow Chelsea into the public eye as proof of their "family values." The media, in turn, have adopted a protective, hands-off policy toward Chelsea.

As a result, Chelsea has blossomed, by all accounts, into a smart, charming, funny, normal 16-year-old. Which is pretty extraordinary, given the circumstances.

Shortly before last month's State of the Union address, Chelsea asked her parents if she could attend the speech in person. They said yes -- and so she called the president's secretary to see if there were any tickets left. She found a seat -- right next to her mother. (Well, there are some perks to being the president's kid.)

It was a rare appearance before the cameras, one carefully watched by Charles Figley, a psychologist at Florida State University who studies famous families.

"There is very little to know about her, and I think that's a positive: Kids this age are tremendously private," says Figley. "It basically means that her parents are allowing her to be a teenager. She has her own friends and her own world apart from them."

Chelsea is a junior (she skipped third grade) in the upper school at Sidwell Friends, a school so private it would not even comment on what grade she was in. "The school does not provide any information on any of the students," a spokesman said. She is reportedly a good student with a special interest in history, math and science.

There was the predictable flap when the Clintons decided to send their daughter to a private school, but the decision has provided her with a veil of privacy, and with classmates who come from prominent Washington families. Chelsea's Secret Service detail has learned how to blend unobtrusively -- how to, in other words, not embarrass infinitely embarrassable teenagers. Although the students at Sidwell have not been officially instructed by the school not to give interviews, they have nonetheless pulled an unofficial curtain of silence around their most famous classmate.

The same consideration is extended to her at Foundry United Methodist Church, where Chelsea meets with a youth group every Sunday morning. The group of 25 teenagers explores their faith, religious and philosophical questions, and contemporary issues: dating, parents, friendship. The group hosts parent-teen round tables, which the Clintons have attended, and service activities at local shelters and in Appalachia.

"They are, I have to say, terrific kids," said one of the group's adult leaders. "They are thoughtful, intelligent and a lot of fun to be around. They're concerned about other people. And they love to learn things." Chelsea, she says, "is a terrific kid, just like all the other kids. Everybody is an equal in the group."

The school and church have yielded a wide circle of friends here. Chelsea has been spotted with a gang of buddies more than once at the Planet Hollywood restaurant, and she is asked and allowed to sleep over at friends' homes frequently. (Yes, the Secret Service is around . . . somewhere.) And she reciprocates, which gives your average slumber party an added kick: Not every party ends with breakfast with the president.

Her passion, so far, is dance. Her father was disappointed when Chelsea gave up soccer and softball for ballet, Hillary Rodham Clinton writes in "It Takes a Village," but he faithfully attends his daughter's performances. Chelsea is a student at the Washington School of Ballet, and has performed for two years in the company's "Nutcracker" in a small role. The Clintons, like any other parents, were there; unlike most parents, they had a national wire service proclaim her performance "graceful."

Most times, Chelsea appears in news reports only when she is with her parents. Her father gave her a driving lesson at Camp David last fall; when asked how it went, Chelsea told her mother, "I think he learned a few things."

Occasionally other bits of gossip leak out.

In her first weeks at school, Chelsea needed permission to receive an aspirin. It was widely reported that she told the nurse, "Call my dad; my mom's too busy." The story delighted those yelping that Hillary Clinton was already running the White House. The truth was much less interesting: Chelsea really told the nurse, "Call my dad. My mom's out of town today."

And a few parents couldn't resist talking about Chelsea's donation to Sidwell's fund-raising auction last year. The entry read: "Take your time. Relax and enjoy an evening out on the town while this Sidwell Friends student baby-sits your children -- Chelsea Clinton."

She offered, in fact, not one but two nights of baby-sitting for the highest bidders. Two families paid "several hundred" dollars each; Chelsea's Secret Service agents came along at no extra charge.

It Started at Birth

One could say Chelsea is uniquely equipped to tackle the job of first daughter. Her father was governor of Arkansas when she was born; she has never known a time when her family wasn't in the spotlight.

When she was 6 -- old enough to comprehend some of the rhetoric of politics -- her parents prepared her for the upcoming reelection fight by re-creating some of the nasty debates over the dinner table.

"Our role-playing helped Chelsea to experience, in the privacy of our home, the feelings of any person who sees someone she loves being personally attacked," writes Hillary Clinton in her book. "As we continued the exercise over a few dinners, she gradually gained mastery over her emotions and some insight into the situations that might arise."

Chelsea, says Charles Figley, is "second-generation celebrity. What that does is equip them with an extra layer of skin. You see your parents deal with notoriety, character assassination, and therefore you can visualize yourself in that situation and plan accordingly. And I think they have a greater ability to spring back."

Still, Chelsea was kept well in the background during the early phases of the 1992 presidential election. Many voters outside Arkansas didn't realize the Clintons had a daughter until the Democratic convention. Chelsea was, for all intents and purposes, off-limits for political purposes.

"My concern is just giving her the chance to have her own life, to be able to grow up as normally as possible if she's living in the White House," said Hillary Clinton before the election. "And that's what I'm going to be focused on."

The transition, it was thought, might be especially difficult because of Chelsea's adolescence and because she is an only child. Children of other presidents were adults or much younger when their fathers entered the White House (9-year-old Amy Carter was the closest to Chelsea's age); most had siblings to share the burden.

The "Chelsea question" was debated in print. There were those who believed her appearance and clothes were fair game as a member of the very public first family. Most came to the conclusion that her age exempted her from public scrutiny.

Still, "Saturday Night Live" saw fit to air a sketch that compared Chelsea, then 13, unfavorably with Vice President Gore's daughter. The first lady was furious about that, and even angrier when Rush Limbaugh took this shot: "Everyone knows the Clintons have a cat," said Limbaugh. "Socks is the White House cat. But did you know there is also a White House dog?" And he held up a picture of Chelsea.

Chelsea, it appears, has emerged from her awkward stage: the braces are off, the hair tamed, the clothes stylish. "All grown up and looking good," pronounced the entertainment show "Extra" after the State of the Union appearance.

Still, she is a convenient target. Last year, a tape of songs surfaced -- allegedly recorded by Chelsea -- and took on a life of its own. Among the lyrics: a "Let's inhale" ditty and swipes at Tipper Gore, Boris Yeltsin and Paula Jones. Radio stations played the songs, a Canadian newspaper wrote about them and a lawyer for Jones has tried to get a copy.

The tape turned out to be a hoax by freelance writer Tom Gogola. White House press secretary Mike McCurry finally stepped in. "It's not that we don't have a sense of humor," he told The Washington Post at the time. "It has some wickedly funny lines that can't be reprinted in a family newspaper. But we had to be stick-in-the-muds in this case to make sure nobody was under the false impression this had actually happened."

Gogola's response? "None of it had to do with being mean to Chelsea. Satire is satire."

Stepping Out

During her spring break last year, Chelsea accompanied her mother on a 12-day trip to South Asia. On other trips with her parents, Chelsea has been allowed to bring along a friend. But this trip, she decided to travel only with her mother and White House staff.

This was her debut, of sorts, and reporters who previously had little contact with Chelsea were struck not only by the fact that this teenage girl actually seemed to enjoy her mother's company, but also by Chelsea's gentle poise and intelligence.

On the trip to India and Pakistan, she was at her mother's side for almost every public event. Local officials offered her a program of events -- puppet shows and schools -- but Chelsea asked instead to attend the same tours and appearances as the first lady: Mother Teresa's orphanage, a village square in Pakistan, a lunch hosted by Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, a visit to the Taj Mahal.

Reporters followed closely, with strict instructions about coverage of Chelsea. When she was with her mother, the press could write about her. Any independent activity was off-limits. Chelsea, said the White House, doesn't give interviews, doesn't answer questions and would not be quoted in the media.

It was at the Taj Mahal that she was allowed her first public comment: "When I was little, this was sort of the embodiment of the fairy-tale palace for me. I would see pictures of it and would dream I was a princess or whatever. Now that I'm here, it's spectacular."

Now, if we could only hear what she thinks about the White House . . . .

© Copyright 1996 The Washington Post Company

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