Chelsea Clinton is getting married, and we all wish her well on the biggest day of a girl’s life. Bill and Hillary were the focus of scandal and controversy, left, right and in-between, but never the first child. Chelsea’s parents and the press deserve credit for preserving her privacy when she was growing up, first in the governor’s mansion in Little Rock, Ark., and then in the White House. That’s as it should be.
The rest of us were deprived only of gossip and titillation. Oh, for the good old days when Theodore Roosevelt was president and Washington was atwitter with tales of the antics of his daughter Alice. When she was married in the White House, she had no bridesmaids, only male ushers. She didn’t want another woman to attract more attention than the bride. Ordinary cutlery was not good enough to cut the wedding cake. She used a military sword. Her father was a Rough Rider, after all.
Although Alice wore white at her wedding, she was known for her fashionable light blue gowns. “My Sweet Alice Blue Gown” was a popular song in 1919, capitalizing on her antics and madcap notoriety. She was known for her biting wit as well. As an old lady, she kept a pillow on her sofa with the message, “If you don’t have anything nice to say about somebody, come sit by me.” Her half-brother Theodore Jr. never won the presidency he coveted, but as a brigadier general, he landed in the first wave on Utah Beach on D-Day and received the Medal of Honor for his extraordinary organization under fire during the chaos on the beach.
Families of presidents compiled mixed records in both careers and marriages, despite near-unanimous “Great Expectations,” in the phrase in Noemie Emery’s fascinating account of the troubled lives of political families. The children of John and Abigail Adams were told that “to be less than excellent in matters great and small meant that they were ultimately betraying their family.” That’s tough to live up to, and two of their three sons failed miserably. John Quincy became president, but only for one term. He was 29 when his father became the second president of the United States, and it was his good fortune that his father was just a provincial lawyer when he was a boy.
Doors are opened to first children that are shut to mere mortals, but the pressures can be overwhelming, nonetheless. Everything they do is set out in the press, and the power such as they have is exercised for both good and not-so-good. When Theodore Roosevelt the elder, as governor of New York, proposed sending Alice to a prim school for girls in Manhattan, she wrote to him: “If you send me I will humiliate you. I will do something that will shame you. I tell you I will.”
Her father indulged her, as fathers of daughters will. “I can either run the country, or I can attend to Alice,” he famously said, “but I cannot possibly do both.” In return, she fiercely protected his reputation, sometimes being mean about it. She so feared that Franklin D. Roosevelt’s legacy would eclipse her father’s that in 1940 she vowed that if she had the choice, she would “vote for Hitler” instead of FDR. She took mean pleasure in the many scandals constantly popping up in the lives of FDR’s children.
The marriage of Eleanor and FDR was not a happy one; they were “permissive parents” before psychologists coined the term. Their five children went through 19 marriages in a time when divorce still carried a stigma.
Both George W. Bush and Al Gore had fathers who wanted their sons to be president. Only one succeeded. Al Gore never seemed as at ease in politics as in campaigning about climate change, and after retiring from politics, he got the life he probably always wanted, including a Nobel Prize (if not quite the massage he wanted). George W. is thought to have gotten the presidency his father wanted for W.’s brother Jeb, who may still have time to get it sometime after 2012, when George’s legacy, like wine and cheese, improves with age.
Margaret Truman had one of the best relationships with a father who happened to be president. In her published letters from Harry, she wrote that she felt lucky “not so much to be daughter of the president of the United States than to have been his daughter.” When Chelsea walks down the aisle on her father’s arm, here’s a wish for her wedding day that she feels that way, too.
Suzanne Fields is a syndicated columnist.