Avoiding saying stuff about presidential kids has not been America's strong suit — especially since presidents usually try to keep their children away from spotlight. It's human nature to be curious about the stuff you're told to avert your eyes from.
A century ago, the Leon Reporter came to the same conclusion.
And when presidential kids act up, it becomes even harder not to pay attention. Sasha and Malia's age-appropriate reaction to pardoning a turkey named "Cheese" is not even that exciting.
When Alice Roosevelt carries around a snake at parties, however, it is slightly more understandable if you have something to say about that.
Thomas Mallon wrote of Alice Roosevelt,
Alice, with a love of reading and wordplay but little schooling, developed into what Cordery sees as “a female caricature of her father’s most criticized traits — impetuosity, stubbornness, insensitivity.” When McKinley was shot, Alice experienced “sheer rapture” — her own words — and danced a jig.The new president is said to have remarked to the writer Owen Wister: “I can be president of the United States — or — I can attend to Alice. I cannot possibly do both!” The first daughter chewed gum, smoked in public, carried a snake to parties and ran up debts playing poker and buying clothes. She clamored for the limelight, and she got it, becoming — as the author notes, with her own tendency toward overstatement — “the first female celebrity of the 20th century.”
The gossip about the more interesting young inhabitants of the White House goes back further than that. In 1887, a longtime White House staffer told the Jamestown Weekly Alert about all the presidential children from Abraham Lincoln to Chester A. Arthur.
James Garfield's were undoubtedly the worst.
This was common knowledge. More than a decade later, the Seattle Star affirmed that the Garfield kids were indeed holy terrors.
Others would have argued that the Lincoln boys were the worst presidential children of them all.
Since the 19th century, the attention paid to the details of presidential life have exploded, and the White House has become more and more careful about how it presents itself — especially when presidential children act like teenagers instead of "presidential children."
In 2001, Barbara and Jenna Bush, then 19 years old, ran afoul of Texas liquor laws. The press attention was intense. White House press secretary Ari Fleischer told reporters, ''I would urge all of you to very carefully think through how much you want to pursue this."
Frank Bruni wondered why the event inspired endless coverage from the press.
But even those details did not fully explain the breathless attention to the Jenna and Barbara Bush saga, titled ''Double Trouble'' by The Daily News and ''Jenna and Tonic'' by The New York Post. Looking back, several possible explanations present themselves.Reporters were starved for a White House scandal, even if it had to be about presidential children, who have often been considered unfair game. President Clinton had kept the media sated; President Bush was peddling a lean cuisine. Reporters were also happy to delve into a story that was not scripted by the Bush administration and was immune to its spin.
The same is true of the Obama girls; for partisan players, it can sometimes be hard not to treat the president's family as an extension of himself.
And then there is the bad press that causes outrage. In 1950, Margaret Truman performed with the National Symphony Orchestra at Constitution Hall. A Washington Post critic did not enjoy it much...
...and President Truman got very angry.
The story became infamous.
Chelsea Clinton's time in the White House proved the first big test of how the modern media would handle young presidential children. For the most part, the media left her alone. When they didn't, there was much outrage. As the Washington Post reported in 1996,
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.
In 1999, People Magazine wrote a cover story about Chelsea Clinton. The Clinton family put out a statement denouncing it: "We deeply regret and are profoundly saddened by the decision of People magazine to print a cover story featuring our daughter Chelsea."
Now, of course, Chelsea Clinton has grown up and is now working for the Clinton Foundation -- a role that has led her to several sanctioned magazine stories. Before that, she took a quick detour in the news business her family so often derides, just like fellow presidential daughter Jenna Bush Hager. The media had been waiting for their embrace for so long.
And this latter bit of advice applies to all things -- not just the White House.