They’re not show-business kids with spoiled egos and agents. They’re not famous for their talents or accomplishments. They’re famous merely because their dad lives in the White House and, among other things, knows the nuclear codes that could make the planet go up in one giant mushroom cloud.
They don’t have Facebook pages; mom Michelle won’t allow it. But they do have smartphones, and at Monday’s presidential inauguration the first children were caught, live on television, mugging it up for each other’s camera. (Try finding that photo on the Internet.) CNN loved them: they wiggled and danced; they snapped pics; they looked bored once or twice; and — oh, my gosh — they seemed altogether normal.
A 14-year-old and an 11-year-old, though surrounded by stuffy adults and Secret Service agents, acting as if they were sisters hanging out with friends outside the movie theater.
What a (fishbowl) life.
Since our nation’s audacious beginning, presidential children have existed as a sort of pseudo-royalty in America. We have no kings, queens or princesses, but we do have first children. Whether male or female, these White House offspring, as author Doug Wead, an authority on presidential families, has explained, have been subjected to public expectations that often are both uncompromising and unfair.
As such, the list of presidential kids who’ve brought various states of negativity to first families is derisorily long.
George Washington was biologically childless, but his stepson attempted to cheat the president on a business deal. He died at 27.
Thomas Jefferson’s son died after birth and went nameless.
James Monroe’s son didn’t see his second birthday.
James Madison’s stepson was a keeper: A womanizer, gambler and drunk.
James Adams II, William Henry Harrison Jr. and Andrew Johnson Jr. all were alcoholics, and all died young.
Andrew Jackson Jr. perished in a hunting accident.
Martin Van Buren Jr. died of tuberculosis in Paris.
Marshall Polk, the ward of James K. Polk, was kicked out of college and “ended his life in prison.”
Calvin Coolidge Jr. perished after developing blood poisoning from a foot blister caused by playing tennis without wearing socks at the White House courts. (Really.) He was but 16.
Wead’s book, All the President’s Children: Triumph and Tragedy in the Lives of America’s First Families, lays out that information in excruciating detail, as if being born into a presidential family is more nuisance than good fortune.
Wead writes, “Even those who lived full lives seemed cursed. John Tyler Jr. was an alcoholic for the last decades of his life. Ulysses S. Grant Jr. was accused of bribery. Chester A. Arthur Jr. was a disreputable playboy, whose antics were used by parents as object lessons on how not to live one’s life.”
Yet, Wead is careful — as we should be — to say that presidential children aren’t impossibly destined for disappointment. From James Hayes to Robert Todd Lincoln, from Helen Taft Manning to Margaret Truman, from Susan Ford Bales to Chelsea Clinton, the list of successful presidential children is just as expansive.
Problem is, in the public’s eye, dysfunction always trumps the boredom of success.
By the time the Obamas leave the White House, their girls will have endured the unique experience of growing up in front of the nation. We’re watching them become young women. Malia will be 18 and Sasha will be 15 on their father’s final day as president in 2017. They will have spent eight years as the nation’s first children. Proms, first dates, high school dances, learning to drive, the turbulent teenage years — Can you be grounded in the White House? Is there a curfew? — all there in the unrelenting glare of D.C.
Wead, the author, marvels at the fact that the Obama first family is, well, so normal, so routine. No scandals, nothing that lands them in the tabloids or TMZ.com. “That’s practically unheard of,” he told USA Today. “First families by their nature are dysfunctional.”
Raising children is the ultimate job; there is no manual or do-over. Doing it in a normal setting is maddeningly hard. But imagine raising children in a mansion that’s not yours, in a setting where you get zero privacy, in a life in which you can go nowhere without armed security.
Makes you wonder: Who has it easier in the first families, the children or the parents? Malia and Sasha Obama, who America has for four more years, are making normal the new cool.
Phillip Tutor — firstname.lastname@example.org — is The Star’s commentary editor. Follow him at Twitter.com/PTutor_Star.