`First Kid' in America's Fishbowl

Clintons seek normal life for daughter Chelsea, but history shows that may be difficult

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

SHE will dance in "The Nutcracker" this Christmas season. She plays third base on a softball team. And, all tinsel-toothed giggles and blushes, she talks on the phone for hours.

Basically, insist those who know her, she's your ordinary 12-year-old American girl.

"Not!" says anyone observing the coterie of Secret Service agents, press, and general gawkers who, for at least the next four years, will be Chelsea Clinton's constant companions in public.

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Living in the White House is not your usual backdrop for American adolescence.

As Bill Clinton moves into the seat of world power and onto the pages of history, Chelsea - happily or not - will be living the biggest civics assignment a kid could get.

Perhaps none of the Clinton team's public policy is as fiercely staked out as its policy on first family matters. Reporters talking to aides and close friends of the Clintons can't scribble fast enough to get the endless bubbling of folksy detail on Bill and Hillary. But they're in danger of getting their noses caught in slamming doors when they ask about Chelsea - where even good news is bad news for handlers charged with keeping her life "normal."

For the first time since Amy Carter - another daughter of the South - there will be a child living at 1200 Pennsylvania Avenue. Though it won't exactly be the pitter-patter of little feet (more likely the patter of Hammer, a rap favorite of her friends), Chelsea's presence there will definitely add a new dimension to White House politics, say those who have been in her shoes in previous administrations and those who study such things. Being like royalty

It will be a tender side of politics for what amounts to an innocent bystander being swept into a not totally incidental role in national affairs, they say. But it is politics, nonetheless.

"We don't have a royal family," says Barbara Kellerman, a leadership consultant and former political science professor who wrote the book "All the President's Kin." "But this man and those closest to him are the focus of all the intellectual, spiritual, and political energies [for the nation].... The lines between political, rock, and Hollywood star roles are blurred, and the first family takes on the vestments of political stardom."

Her book contends that virtually all close relations of the president play some kind of political role, and so have a political impact on the presidency. Children's roles range from symbolically capturing and channeling the insatiable public curiosity about them, to performing real political jobs, she suggests.

For example, Julie Nixon Eisenhower, who met with reporters on behalf of her father during the Watergate scandal, was a visible, fiercely defensive, moral support to President Richard Nixon. The "blatant use" of Amy Carter as a "decorative" political symbol, says Ms. Kellerman, was captured in photographs of her selling lemonade in Plains, Ga.

Already, Kellerman observes, Chelsea "may have made more of an impression for [Hillary] than for [Bill].

"Hillary needs softening, she's such a powerful lady, and as a first couple it's very helpful politically to be seen as a family. It was no accident that at the end of the campaign they all were photographed for the cover of People."

Just by sending Chelsea to school - public or private - the Clintons will be making a very political statement in this troubled city that has a less-than-stellar school system.

The alternately bitter and happy experiences of Chelsea's most recent predecessors in the Washington fishbowl - the perky, bouffanted Johnson girls, the long-suffering Nixon girls, the cool Ford kids, the bespectacled Amy Carter - are instructive about what is to come for the new first daughter.

Susan Ford Bales, youngest child of former President Gerald Ford, says that overall, her teen years at the White House were a "wonderful" whirlwind of meeting heads of state and movie stars, and having a senior prom at the White House. Learning to `sneak'

But she says she had to "learn to sneak" to avoid the sting of media attention that generally caused "criticism for just being yourself - like wearing blue jeans."

The No. 1 lesson is that public fascination with Chelsea won't disappear, though it will not remain as intense as during the first year, Kellerman suggests.

"The President's family is as close to the royal family as we have in this country," says Mrs. Bales, recalling that she shared the national curiosity about the first family, wondering what it would be like to live in the White House, not too long before she took up residence there.

But the mantra of Clinton staff and friends is that they want to preserve for Chelsea - who has lived only two years of her life outside the Arkansas governor's mansion - "as normal a life as she can have."

"Chelsea is not newsworthy," says Bill Trice, a Little Rock attorney and a Clinton family friend whose son has been close to Chelsea since preschool: "Even positive press is, in a way, an intrusion into living a normal life."

A spokesperson for Mrs. Clinton won't even confirm that Chelsea gets good grades. (Mr. and Mrs. Clinton recently made a public visit to see their daughter inducted into her public junior high school's Beta Club, which requires a B average or better.)

Whether handlers choose to help define Chelsea's public persona or not, the press - and, perhaps more embarrassing for Chelsea, a Saturday Night Live skit - is likely to do it for them by cobbling together scraps of information.

Already, Clinton press aides complain that Time magazine falsely reported that Chelsea sought counsel from Amy Carter. Also, the recent Socks imbroglio - in which press photographers used catnip to lure Chelsea's cat into a photo session - reportedly hurt her feelings.

For anyone to suggest Chelsea is not newsworthy is "unrealistic," says James S. Rosebush, who was chief of staff for Nancy Reagan for five years.

"They're trying to do the same thing I was when I was appointed," Mr. Rosebush says. "But this is the American way: People want to identify, they want to know what [the first family] ate for dinner, who they talked to, that they are like the average American family.

"Do they deserve a private life? Everyone would say `yes,' " he says.

However uncomfortable it may be when the press pursues family details as minute as the color of the first lady's hose instead of "grand plans and policy shifts, he says, it is all those nuances that are part of the substance that says `This is a Reagan presidency' or `This is a Clinton presidency.' "

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