Three weeks ago, national media coverage of President Obama’s upcoming Inauguration was briefly distracted when the National Rifle Association referenced the fact that his daughters are protected by Secret Service agents in its 35-second online ad opposing his plan for tougher gun-control laws.
The ad opens with the provocative question, “Are the president’s kids more important than yours? Then why is he skeptical about putting armed security in our schools when his kids are protected by armed guards at their school?”
The White House accurately characterized this politicization of the First Daughters as “repugnant and cowardly” but the media inaccurately reported that the ad represented a new all-time low in presidential politics.
Which school a President’s children attend, how well they do academically, what they do at school besides study and what all of this might translate into politically or socially is just part of life at the White House.
In more recent years, when it was disclosed that President-Elect Bill Clinton’s 12-year old Chelsea Clinton was to begin attending the private school Sidwell Friends, when the family moved to Washington in January of 1993, the decision became fodder for attack from conservative media commentators.
Their target was her parents, not the incoming First Daughter who had previously only attended public schools. Chelsea Clinton’s enrollment in a private school, however, was not a statement on the quality of education in public schools, the new President told the Associated Press in May of that year but because his daughter disliked “a lot of publicity,” and wanted “more control over her destiny.”
Charges of hypocrisy were especially aimed at the incoming First Lady Hillary Clinton, who worked to ensure equality of care and protection for all children, regardless of the family’s economic status. Hillary Clinton made the case that “if she were to go to a public school, the press would never leave her alone.” Having studied the history of First Ladies and First Families before coming to live in the White House, she drew her conclusion accurately.
Sixteen years earlier, in January of 1977, when the new First Daughter nine-year old daughter Amy Carter exited a White House limousine with her mother for her first day of class at the public Thaddeus Stevens School in Washington, she was hit by a barrage of several dozen reporters shouting questions and press photographers snapping hundreds of photographers.
Witnesses to the startling scene that day thought the little girl looked shell-shocked. The Carters consciously chose to make a political statement in their decision to send Amy Carter to public school, using it as the strongest possible personal proof they were fulfilling the candidate’s egalitarian pledge.
It didn’t work.
While the press did calm down after the first day of school, the presence of curious onlookers and stray reporters waiting at the school fence for a glimpse of the First Daughter when she arrived, played in the schoolyard and left proved not only intrusive to her and all the students but was always a potential security threat. The next year, she was enrolled at the same private school Chelsea Clinton would attend: this time, no press was permitted to cover her arrival for her first day of classes.
Way before an Internet or even radio, even if the schooling of Presidential Children was not exploited for political advantage it was always a topic of tremendous national attention and had some consequence. When word got out that Hal Garfield and Jim Garfield were going to Williams College, for example, applications for entrance there multiplied and enrollment increased.
Ranging in age from three years old to fourteen years old when they became the four “First Sons” at the start of their father Theodore Roosevelt’s seven years and four month presidency, they attended both public and private schools over the course of the Administration.
Youngest son Quentin Roosevelt was enrolled in public school at the start of the Administration, trailed there each day by a Secret Service agent and befriending other little boys from all different socioeconomic backgrounds, a habit not encouraged by his mother.
Newspaper photographs of Quentin Roosevelt playing on the White House grounds with his younger friend Roswell Pinckney, son of a White House employee, were presumed to be mirroring the President’s invitation to, and White House luncheon with, African-American educator Booker T. Washington, a symbolic but unprecedented gesture of racial equality.
When eldest son, Ted, Jr. got sick while at boarding school in Groton, Connecticut, his mother rushed there to be with him and ensure his recovery, making national headlines and even causing the Prince of Germany to postpone his scheduled official visit to the United States.
“My children are not freaks,” the President reacted angrily to media stories about them, arguing that their lives were “not a matter of public interest.”
In a private letter to his wife when he first became President, however, Roosevelt was more incredulous than upset when he realized just how intensely the nation took an interest in the education of their children, recognizing the potential for symbolism to be found in the issue, although there is no suggestion he exploited it for his own gain.
Not long after she began boarding at Miss Porter’s School for her high school education, President Grant’s daughter Nellie became desperately homesick and convinced her parents to let her come home to the White House.
The young teen, however, partied so hardy that she neglected her ostensible home-schooling lessons.
It was the First Lady, however, that novelist Henry James attacked for this, finding himself unable to “sufficiently deplore the barbarous conduct of her mother leaving such excellent soil so perfectly untilled.”
A coincidental New York Times story about Mount Holyoke College girls swooning over First Son John Coolidge at Jazz Age college dances which appeared alongside embarrassing reports of the Amherst College student’s faltering grades resulted in the twenty-something’s worst nightmare.
At the order of his father, the President of the United States, there would now be a fifty-year old Secret Service agent assigned to not only keep away any distracting flapper girls but live with him as a roommate in his dormitory.
Not even excellent grades, however, spare the child from publicity and speculation. When Bob Taft graduated first in his class at Yale College, he tried in vain to counteract snide suggestions that the honor was more a matter of his status as “American Prince” than the grades he earned by hard work.
Yet even the private tutoring in the White House of earlier First Sons and First Daughters came in for some harsh judgment by outsiders.
The fact that First Lady Frances Cleveland hired a kindergarten teacher to hold classes in the upstairs Oval Room for her two toddler daughters Ruth Cleveland and Esther Cleveland and the children of other Administration officials was criticized by Republicans on the false premise that public funds and government property were being inappropriately used to benefit only the offspring of Democrats.
Once his tutoring was done for the day, Tad Lincoln became such a pest around the executive offices, even nailing shut the desk top of a clerk, that the President was depicted as weak for coddling the boy at an age when he might be better served in a formal school.
The incident involving politicization of White House children and their school life most analogous to the NRA exploitation of the Obama daughters is one which occurred during the civil rights era of the 1950s.
During the latter part of his Administration, President Dwight Eisenhower‘s son John worked in the West Wing as his father’s personal assistant and his son and three daughters were featured in the media as the “children of the White House,” where they spent most of their family time, doted on by their grandfather President and grandmother, First Lady Mamie Eisenhower.
The President’s son, daughter-in-law and grandchildren lived first in Washington, D.C. and the two eldest, David and Anne, attended public school there, protected by the so-called “Diaper Detail,” of Secret Service agents who spent their days in the grammar school building while the kids were in class.
They relocated to suburban Virginia and Ike’s grand-kids were transferred to a private school there, however, just at the time the President promised that the local Washington school system would be used “to demonstrate to the world how easily and effectively integration would work.”
The remark touched off a firestorm, provoking the avowed racial segregationist Mississippi’s U.S. Senator James O. Eastland to declare, “Eisenhower’s own grandchildren have been removed from a system that permits integrated schools and placed in a private segregated school. Ike’s like all the interracial politicians. He wants it for the other fellow.”
Eastland willfully failed to mention the fact that Ike’s grand-kids attended an integrated Sunday school and that the youngest of them was enrolled in an integrated kindergarten.
Echoing the Obama White House response to the NRA exploitation of the First Daughters on the gun-control issue, President Eisenhower’s Press Secretary James Hagerty angrily snapped back at Eastland: “When you try to get the President’s grandchildren into political, you are reaching a new low.”
Eastland’s use of the Eisenhower grandchildren was an issue that gave pause to a certain young wife of a United States Senator. Before her marriage, she had been working as a new reporter looking for fresh angles to make a name for herself at the time the Eisenhower Administration began.
Only later would this later Washington Times-Herald reporter admit that she had taken inappropriate advantage of an innocent young schoolgirl, stalking the 10-year old outside her local Washington grammar school until the end of the school day; when she left the premises, the reporter engaged her in conversation, getting her to talk about what it felt like to be a “celebrity” now that her uncle had been elected President. The reporter, however, never told the child that her remarks would be printed.
The next day, her story not only appeared in the Times-Herald with quotes from the unsuspecting adolescent Mamie Moore about her uncle, President-Elect Eisenhower, but was accompanied by a cartoon of the girl as a bride with Ike as groom, drawn by the talented scribe.
In a private letter to a New York Times reporter covering the White House, the young reporter even characterized the uproar caused by her story and illustration to be her potential “meal ticket,” hoping it might lead to a book contract about White House children. The newspaper’s editor-in-chief not only got an enraged call from the child’s upset mother Frances Doud Moore but having her young niece ambushed proved to be the seed of permanent mistrust of the girl’s aunt, incoming First Lady Mamie Doud Eisenhower towards the guilty reporter.
A reporter, as it turns out, who would also become her immediate successor.
Her name was Jackie Bouvier.
Always quick to admit her faults and learn from her mistakes, by the time Jacqueline Kennedy was First Lady she devised a plan to protect her three-year old daughter Caroline Kennedy from media and political exploitation.
She created a fully-certified kindergarten in the third-floor solarium of the White House, complete with tables, chairs, blackboard, art supplies, games and several teachers for the nearly two dozen students whom she carefully and specifically invited to attend.
The kids were too small to think of themselves as being privileged or different from other kids just because the big building they called school was an historic site or that one of their schoolmates was the daughter of something called a President.
They had naps, they got dressed in costumes for Halloween, put on Christmas pageants, sang, did finger-paintings, learned to read and even had the presence there for a time of a rabbit they all helped to care for.
It was so typical of what most any other children that age were doing that, for once, there was relatively little media curiosity about it, and certainly no compelling reason for the White House to either publicly release pictures of the class or press releases about its activities.
But, of course, it was not at all like any other American kindergarten class, circa early 60s. It was the White House.
By the spring of 1963, school integration had become the most important challenge being tackled by the Administration.
Always resistant to being drawn into public discourse on any politically contentious matter, Jackie Kennedy would not overtly address the issue.
As later letters and private remarks revealed, however, her support for integration was strong.
Somehow, she intended to suggest that.
At a South Lawn party for First Daughter Caroline Kennedy’s kindergarten school on the last day of class before summer vacation began, the students were gathered with their teachers for a picture.
In having the picture released to the press, Mrs. Kennedy signaled her beliefs, with that subtle touch of subversive gesture that was so often her trademark.
Along with her daughter was Andrew Hatcher, Jr., the son of the assistant White House Press Secretary, who happened to be African-American.
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