Clintons as First Parents: Waltons of White House

Chelsea Clinton is one aspect of her parents' lives that even vociferous critics rarely fault

When Chelsea Clinton was a little girl in Arkansas, and daddy was governor, he would drive her to elementary school every morning. Once a week, he'd have lunch in the cafeteria with the kids, friends from Little Rock say. At night, Hillary Rodham Clinton has said, she'd sometimes find Bill had fallen asleep while reading Chelsea bedtime stories. And through all the years of dance lessons and school events, the Clintons have moved heaven and appointments to avoid missing a performance.

By all accounts, the Clintons are devoted parents, and Chelsea is a poised young lady who has negotiated the shoals of adolescence remarkably well for a child who had to grow up in the national fishbowl called the White House.

Now, as Chelsea prepares to graduate tomorrow from high school and head off to Stanford University this fall, the spotlight is on the Clintons' only child - perhaps the single aspect of their lives even their worst political foes don't fault. If nothing else, Chelsea provides an antidote to the Clintons' public-image woes born of Whitewater, Paula Jones, and fund-raising flaps.

The Clintons' friends have nothing but admiration for their child-rearing skills. "They're done such a lovely job with her - it's going to be tough for them when she goes off to school," says Lenora Steinkamp, a friend from Little Rock who now lives in Washington.

Before Bill Clinton's first inauguration, Mrs. Clinton worked hard to prepare for parenting at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. She consulted with former first lady Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, who stressed the importance of providing children with as normal a life as possible, Clinton writes in her book "It Takes a Village."

By definition, growing up with Secret Service agents in tow is anything but normal. But Mrs. Clinton says some of the parenting challenges are universal, such as knowing when to jump in and protect your children and when to stand back.

"Much as we want to keep our children from harm, we won't always be there for them, and sometimes the most sympathetic thing we can do is to let them tough it out for themselves," she writes in her book.

Laying down the law

Mrs. Clinton did lay down the law early with the press: Chelsea was to be left alone (and to the press's credit, that wish has largely been honored). The first lady's close-knit office erected an absolute wall of silence around the first daughter. There are no comments on her activities. And there are certainly no interviews. Her exclusive private school, Sidwell Friends, has also been on guard against intrusions. Mr. Clinton will be delivering the commencement address there tomorrow.

Of course, Chelsea hasn't given the press much to run with, beyond the occasional ballet recital, or public sighting at the theater, or this week's senior prom. When one of Vice President Al Gore's daughters was caught at a high-school beer blast a couple of years ago, it made the news.

On occasion, under her mother's watchful eye, Chelsea has stepped out before the public and been allowed near reporters (though not for on-camera comments).

On a tour of the Indian subcontinent two years ago with Mrs. Clinton, Chelsea impressed the traveling press with her comments. She called the Taj Mahal "the embodiment of the fairy-tale palace."

At Sidwell, she has been a good student, with nary a hint she was accepted at Stanford just because of her pedigree. She's strong in math and science, and reportedly has her eye on a career in medicine.

Some observers say that just because Chelsea has grown up well, it doesn't mean her parents deserve all the credit.

"Part of being a parent is the example you set for your children, and if you look at the Clintons' public life and the problems in their marriage, it all looks fairly dubious," says Danielle Crittenden, editor of The Women's Quarterly journal. "There are children who go through horrendous parental situations and come out as stoic, noble, responsible people despite all odds."

Effective parenting

But Alan Davidson, a writer on child-rearing and no fan of Clinton as president, says it's an inescapable conclusion that the Clintons do deserve credit for parenting well under difficult conditions, including the fact that she's an only child with no sibling to share this unusual experience.

In his book "How Good Parents Raise Great Kids: The Six Habits of Highly Effective Parents," Dr. Davidson gives the Clintons high marks for encouraging her intellectual development - taking her on trips to interesting places, for example - and for helping her develop socially. On family vacations, Chelsea has often been allowed to bring a friend along for companionship.

College, of course, will be a whole new village for Chelsea. The gaze of Secret Service agents will still be part of her life, but Mom and Dad will be 3,000 miles away. This fall will be her true coming out.

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