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Even in the White House, kids want to be kids

Young Tad Lincoln herded goats into a White House sitting room. Quentin Roosevelt rammed his wagon into a historic painting. John Kennedy Jr. had to be scooped out of a hiding place in his father's desk. Amy Carter famously brought a book to a state dinner.

And teenager Susan Ford, in a minirevolt, dodged the Secret Service for a brief taste of freedom on the streets of Washington.

Malia Obama turned 10 recently, and her sister, Sasha, is 6. Should their father, Barack, win the election, they'd be the youngest kids in the White House since Amy Carter arrived at age 9. They, too, would become the subjects of anecdotes that wind up in history books.

They'd have challenges that face few children. Their fashion faux pas, the first braces on their teeth, even their first boyfriends might be documented forever. They could even find themselves, like Chelsea Clinton at 13, the subject of an unkind reference on Saturday Night Live about her adolescent looks.

But whether it's the Obama girls or the older children of John McCain — 16-year-old Bridget is the youngest of his seven — the next presidential progeny will also have an unparalleled view of history in the making, and worldly experiences other children can only dream of.

"Sure, maybe a few times I wished my father was just a congressman," Susan Ford Bales, now chairman of the Betty Ford Center, said. "But in fact I wouldn't trade it for anything. The travels, the people you meet. From movie stars to heads of state. It was like, 'Oh my gosh, look who I'm meeting now!' "

Her advice to the next president and his wife: "Keep being a parent. Keep loving your children and keep being available to them." She notes that when she needed something from her parents, she could interrupt them at any time — and did.

She recalled a meeting her dad was having with Henry Kissinger, then secretary of state. "I walked in and said, 'Hi, Mr. Secretary. Dad, I need my allowance and Mom doesn't have any cash.' " The leader of the free world obliged.

Safety comes first

The most pressing issue concerning White House children would surely be security. "Way back into the earliest days, the children of presidents have been targeted," says Doug Wead, a former aide to President George H.W. Bush and author of All the President's Children. Jackie Kennedy, he notes, was so concerned about keeping her kids safe and out of view that she organized kindergarten for Caroline inside the White House. And when President Kennedy allowed those famous photos of Caroline and John in the Oval Office to be taken, Wead says, it was against his wife's edict. Conveniently, she was out of town.

The kids of presidents have constant Secret Service protection. Susan Ford had it as a vice president's daughter after it was discovered the Symbionese Liberation Army, the group that kidnapped newspaper heiress Patty Hearst, had listed her as a target.

One day she popped out of the security bubble. The White House gates were open for her mother to drive in, and Susan whizzed out in her own car, unchaperoned. "Everybody tries it. It becomes a challenge and you want to succeed," she says. She picked up a friend, drove to a supermarket parking lot and called to say she was all right.

But there were plenty of perks. Ford had the unique privilege of holding her senior prom in the East Room. Malia and Sasha Obama have a ways to go before their proms. First, their parents would need to decide: public school, or private?

Jimmy Carter sent Amy to public school. The choice was again debated when Chelsea Clinton came to the White House at 13. What better way, some argued, for the new president to learn about the state of public education than through his daughter? Ultimately, Bill and Hillary Clinton chose an elite private school, Sidwell Friends, where tuition now runs about $27,000.

Malia and Sasha Obama attend the private University of Chicago Laboratory Schools, where Michelle Obama is on the board. The Obamas haven't said where they would send their children should he win. "I try not to be obsessive about it," Michelle Obama said recently on The View when asked what her kids' lives would be like, "because we've got a lot of work before it's a reality."

Until this month, the Obamas haven't been shy about including the girls in their public life. Their photos have been in campaign ads, and they've been on stage for some rallies and speeches. Malia had an especially sanguine answer when asked how she deals with the crowds: "Those people aren't there to see me," she said, according to her mother. "They just think I'm cute. So I just wave and smile, and then I'm out of there." But after a July 4 Access Hollywood interview, which resulted in massive media interest about the children, the Obamas decided to try to keep the children out of the media spotlight.

Trying to stay 'normal'

McCain is reticent about discussing his seven children from two marriages, especially his son Jimmy, a Marine corporal who returned from Iraq this year. The public sees little of the McCain kids except for Meghan, 23, who blogs from the campaign trail on McCain Blogette.

The senator's older three children — two sons of his first wife, Douglas and Andrew, whom he adopted, and a daughter they had together, Sidney — are in their 40s. With Cindy McCain, he has Meghan, Jack, Jimmy and their youngest, Bridget, adopted from Bangladesh as an infant. She told a young reporter for Scholastic News in December that her favorite subject at her private school in Phoenix is history, and that she loves playing sports.

"We are a normal family just like everyone else," she said.

Like McCain, 71, many presidents haven't been young enough to have small children in the White House, and so a young family like the Kennedys or Obamas is rare. "A young family creates a whole different atmosphere," says Betty Monkman, who was a White House curator for 30 years until 2001 and wrote The Living White House.

Monkman remembers Amy Carter having friends over to carve pumpkins on Halloween, playing in her tree house designed by Dad, and collecting money in the White House for the March of Dimes. She also recalls a historical scavenger hunt that her staff designed for Chelsea and her friends on the night of the Clintons' inaugural ball.

"These were normal, active kids," she says of both Amy and Chelsea. "They were able to come and go and have a life." Chelsea, she notes, was active in ballet and with her church youth group, and the media generally left her alone.

Of course, there was the time Mike Myers referred to Chelsea in a sketch on Saturday Night Live as not "a babe," prompting an angry reaction, then an apology by the comedian. And there was a bit of a flap when Amy sat reading at the state dinner. "She didn't attend any formal dinners after that," Monkman notes.

Jenna and Barbara Bush, 19 when their father became president, have been known to chafe at their Secret Service protection. However burdensome, all that security didn't prevent Jenna, now 26 and married, from having brushes with the law for underage drinking.

A mix of mischief

Monkman feels White House children look back fondly on their years there, but Wead, the former Bush aide, sees a down side — what he calls a "crisis of identity," the inability of a president's child to ever escape being defined as just that, no matter what they achieve later in life.

Such considerations are premature for the Obama children. A more current question: Would they become part of the prankster tradition? Early practitioners include Tad Lincoln, who once hitched two goats to a chair and barreled into a sitting room where his unamused mother was giving a tour. Quentin Roosevelt, son of Teddy, ran his toy wagon straight through a priceless painting of a first lady; another time he nearly toppled a 350-pound bust of Martin Van Buren.

John Kennedy Jr. so liked the hiding place in his dad's desk that he had to be removed occasionally by an aide before business could be done. And sister Caroline, now vetting vice presidential prospects for Obama, is clearly much more tightlipped at 50 than she was as a child, when, asked by reporters what her father was doing one day, she replied: "Oh, he's upstairs with his shoes and socks off, not doing anything."

And there was Alice Roosevelt, who got into so many shenanigans that her father, Teddy, seemed to give up.

"I can do one of two things," he was quoted as saying. "I can be president of the United States, or I can control Alice."

Even in the White House, kids want to be kids 07/12/08 [Last modified: Sunday, July 13, 2008 7:36pm]
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