Sunday, December 28, 2008

NEW YORK | They’re only 10 and 7, but already designers are angling to dress them. They’ve been on the cover of People and Us Weekly. And there’s that standing invitation - unlikely though it is to be redeemed - to the set of “Hannah Montana.”

Malia and Sasha Obama are unquestionably the world’s most famous tweens, and they haven’t even moved into the White House yet. When they arrive, do they have even a chance at the normal existence their parents have often said they want for them?

A look at history suggests that the media, at least, will keep their distance. Chelsea Clinton, 13 when she entered the White House, was largely left alone at the request of her parents. Amy Carter, who came at age 9, was allowed to live a fairly normal life. And the much younger Kennedy kids were kept from the public glare by their mother, Jackie, who even set up a school for Caroline at the White House.

But this is a different world, one where photos and video can be snapped not just by mainstream photographers but by anyone with a cellular phone, and uploaded to the Web within minutes. It’s also a world where kids, now a powerful consumer force, eagerly devour news about celebrities close to their own age: Miley Cyrus, for example, or the “High School Musical” bunch.

Are the Obama girls celebrities in their own right?

“If you’re talking about people who fascinate the public, then yes, absolutely,” says Larry Hackett, managing editor of People, which has featured the Obama family on its cover three times. “But if you mean celebrity in the sense that we can cover their every move, then no. These are kids.”

Figuring out just how public the Obama girls can and should be, Mr. Hackett says, will be a tricky process not just for the media but for the Obama family.

“I think the Obamas are clearly aware there’s a fascination with the girls and how they’re going to lead their lives,” Mr. Hackett says. “They’re going to try to chart a course.”

Though the Obama girls weren’t constant fixtures on the campaign trail, they were hardly invisible, either. They occasionally appeared at rallies, spoke onstage to a video image of their father at the Democratic convention, and, with their parents, gave an interview to “Access Hollywood,” a move Mr. Obama later said he regretted.

“I think that we got carried away in the moment,” he said. “We wouldn’t do it again.”

Yet the girls, who captured many hearts with their poised, joyful, color-coordinated appearance on election night in Chicago, were clearly an asset to their father’s candidacy, says Janice Min, editor of Us Weekly.

“These images of the Obama kids have been incredibly heartwarming,” she said. “No one could doubt that these were great parents, and that they have great girls.”

But now, says Ms. Min, “it’s time for business, and I expect there will be far fewer pictures.” Except, of course, for the inauguration - “everybody wants to see them in something super-cute” - and perhaps a flurry when their hotly awaited puppy arrives.

Once in the White House, the girls will be well protected and nurtured, says Ann Stock, who was White House social secretary during the Clinton administration.

“Will there be the occasional photo? I’m sure. But the people around these girls are going to work very hard to let them go about their routines,” says Ms. Stock, now at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts.

Former White House curator Betty Monkman recalls Amy Carter, famous for once reading a book at a state dinner, engaging in the normal activities of childhood - like hanging out in a tree house designed by her dad, or carving pumpkins with friends.

“I think they had enjoyable lives,” said Ms. Monkman of Amy and the other White House children she came to know during 30 years there. “Their families worked hard at it. Their fathers were there probably more than before.”

One author on presidential children has a somewhat more pessimistic view. In “All the President’s Children,” Doug Wead, a former aide to President Bush, details the various difficulties he says White House children have experienced later in their lives, particularly an identity crisis.

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

If that’s true, it could be one reason why many White House children decline now to speak to the media, Miss Carter and Miss Clinton among them. But it’s not a problem the Obama girls will face any time soon.

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