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Clinton and Chelsea in 1997/ap
President Clinton and Chelsea in December 1997 (AP)

Life With Father

By Roxanne Roberts
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, January 27, 1998; Page E01

In the latest sex scandal to hit the White House, there is no subject off-limits, no detail too lurid to examine in graphic detail. But there is one name that causes even the most acerbic pundits to stop and stammer in embarrassed silence: Chelsea Clinton.

"I think everyone feels the worst for her," Kathie Lee Gifford said on her television show yesterday. It is the thought of 17-year-old Chelsea that elevates this scandal from dirty farce to a painful, real-life ordeal. No one, however he feels about the president, can forget that he is also the father of a teenage girl who adores him.

Jesse Jackson was invited to the White House to watch the Super Bowl with the Clintons and a few Cabinet members Sunday and spoke by phone for more than 15 minutes with the president's daughter, at college in California.

"She has an inner strength and a maturity that is beyond her years," Jackson told the Associated Press yesterday. "Their family unit is very strong."

"She grew up in the house of a governor and a president," he said. "She was born and bred in the heat of battle. That contributed mightily to her maturity."

"She's fine," said Marsha Berry, a spokeswoman for the first lady.

From behind the thick veil of privacy that has always surrounded Chelsea, the reports are that she is "very, very strong" and handling the latest news reports surprisingly well. Her father called her last week to say the allegations weren't true; his daughter responded by asking what she could do to help. She's been "very supportive," a source said.

"I hear she's doing fine," said a family friend. "Hillary and Chelsea are really tough."

For the moment, her life is proceeding as normally as possible. She is attending her second quarter of freshman classes at Stanford University and will not be in Washington for the State of the Union address tonight. She turns 18 on Feb. 27. University officials, by longstanding policy, do not give out any information on individual students, but Chelsea has been spotted on campus, seemingly unfazed by the handful of camera crews assembled in Palo Alto.

There has been talk on campus, like every place else in the nation, about former White House intern Monica Lewinsky, 24, and the sensational allegations of her relationship with the president. The student paper, the Stanford Daily, has run daily Associated Press reports on the scandal.

"The discussions on campus are probably like those anywhere else in the country," said Jesse Oxfeld, a former columnist for the Daily who lost that post after writing a column about the First Daughter. The fact that Lewinsky is so young has not gone unnoticed: "She could be someone living down the hall from Chelsea," Oxfeld said.

But there are, he noted, no jokes, no snickering giggles among the students. "Any conversation ends with the disclaimer: 'Wow. This really must be awful for Chelsea.'"

Hearing awful things about your parents is part of the territory for any politician's kid. But few other political offspring have been so well prepared to deal with the slings and arrows of public life.

Chelsea was always a first daughter – there were only two years, when she was very young, when her father wasn't governor or president. Her parents trained her early on to expect people to say mean things about her dad.

When she was only 6, her parents prepared her for a reelection campaign by explaining that people would say terrible things, even lie, in order to win. The Clinton family then took turns in mock debates, attacking and defending as if they were on the campaign trail.

"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 "It Takes a Village." "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. . . . We had tried to give her the tools to deal with the hurt from which we could not shield her, and we had to hope that as a resilient young woman, she would know how to use them."

By all accounts, the lessons were well learned. "I would assume both she and her mother are doing very very well," said Charles Figley, a Florida State University psychologist who studies the children of politicians and celebrities.

The Clinton women, he says, are undoubtedly ready to defend the presidency from yet another attack. "Rather than personalizing it, you are protecting the assets of the company, in effect. Rather than 'I'm defending my father,' it's 'I'm defending the presidency.'"

Figley does worry about other factors in Chelsea's life – students staring at her more in class, more press attention, anything that gets in the way of a normal life: "My concern for her is the jerks."

Considering the enormous pressures of being the only child of the president, Chelsea Clinton has lived a remarkably normal life so far. Her mother sought advice from Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis on bringing up a White House child and was told privacy was the critical factor.

Chelsea moved to Washington when she was a gawky 13 and left last fall a serious, graceful, poised and smart young woman. She managed to get through her teenage years without any embarrassing incidents – the only Clinton family member with an unblemished reputation.

Though it all, she has remained very close to both her parents. The three genuinely enjoy one another's company, say close friends. Clinton is a doting and devoted father; Chelsea's kindness and conscience, the president has told friends, outshine even her intelligence. She is too smart not to understand the gravity of the accusations against her father but too levelheaded, say friends, to let them interfere with her life.

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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