- The Washington Times - Sunday, February 22, 2009

Imagine being 7 years old and having your own movie theater, bowling alley and at least 100 people on staff to fulfill your every wish and desire.

Sound like a fairy tale?

Not to Sasha Obama. It’s reality for her and 10-year-old sister, Malia, in their new house, the White House.

But how will they make the living quarters — the second floor — their own? Will there be posters of the Jonas Brothers and White Sox? Soccer balls bouncing down the halls? Piano music littering the third-floor music room? Tap shoes hanging from door knobs?

“We won’t have any details for many years,” says Doug Wead, author of “All the Presidents’ Children: Triumph and Tragedy in the Lives of America’s First Families.”

A spokeswoman for first lady Michelle Obama echoes this notion by offering: “That is just not something we give out.”

But, says Mr. Wead, you can rest assured that if Malia and Sasha even whisper the slightest “I’d like …” it can happen in a jiffy, whether it involves making a PB&J sandwich or changing the actual floor plan of the White House.

“If they want to make changes — even moving walls around — it’s amazing how quickly that can be done,” Mr. Wead says. He would know; he served as a special assistant to President George H.W. Bush.

“One day a wall is there and the next day it’s gone. It’s like magic,” he says.

Robert Ehrlich, former governor of Maryland, knows a little something about being a first family — albeit of a smaller jurisdiction — with small children and what it means for the look and feel of the first residence.

“The kids help transform it from brick and mortar into a home,” Mr. Ehrlich says, remembering how his two young sons occasionally would appear in their jammies at fancy dinners to say good night to their daddy.

“In the governor’s mansion, the second floor is like anyone else’s home — there’s laughter, TV, doing homework,” he says.

Because as a parent — even as, or maybe especially when, the children are afforded luxuries and opportunities beyond most children’s dreams — you have to try to create as much normalcy as possible, he says.

“To us, it was very important that they didn’t become spoiled and that they always used good manners,” he says.

For example, if they wanted something to eat, they were advised by their parents to get it themselves.

In the White House, though, Mr. Wead says, it’s likely that even the smallest snack will be prepared by the kitchen.

“The kids can order food like it’s a hotel,” he says.

But while luxury of service surrounds them, the luxury of privacy doesn’t; and every step the girls take will be monitored and followed by the Secret Service.

So, will the Obama girls be able to join their Sidwell classmates on field trips and sleepovers? Can they spend the afternoon in public, ice skating or shopping and doing what tween girls like to do?

Time will tell. But it won’t be easy, Mr. Wead says.

“[Life in the White House] isn’t going to be ‘normal’ for the girls,” he says. “It is not so much the White House itself, it is the impact of being the daughter of the president. The protection of their daughters is going to be a big issue for the Obamas.”

The Clintons essentially made daughter Chelsea off-limits. By all accounts, Miss Clinton excelled in school, went to ballet practice and graduated from Stanford with nary an interview or a public slip-up.

It is likely the Obama girls will lead a similarly structured life, mostly out of the public view, save for an occasional photo opportunity.

“For the children of the presidents, the stress of the office is like secondhand smoke,” Mr. Wead says. “Most White House children live in the shadow of the White House for the rest of their lives. For all their accomplishments, they are forever defined by something they said or did there.”

The best way to cope with the stress during the White House years seems to be to fly under the radar and make sure the bubble has an airtight seal.

Even within this bubblelike setting, however, you still want to create as much normalcy as you can, Mr. Ehrlich reiterates.

That normalcy includes having the parents be involved in all aspects of the children’s lives, something the Obamas — especially Michelle Obama — have vowed to do.

For Mr. Ehrlich, that meant being an active parent: He often could be seen playing catch in the front yard of the governor’s mansion with his oldest son and going to his football games.

“You just don’t get that 7-year-old’s football game back,” Mr. Ehrlich says.

So, if the White House serves as a funhouse, bubble, fairy tale and so much more for the kids, the kids also serve as something to the White House.

“People like to have kids around,” Mr. Wead says. “It makes it more youthful, more refreshing, more easygoing, more real.”

More real because a child’s words are unscripted and come from the heart in an otherwise very scripted setting.

Like when Malia said to her father before his inauguration — apropos of his being the first black president — that the speech “better be good.”

“That spoke to all of us because it was real,” Mr. Wead says.

Karen Goldberg Goff contributed to this report.

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