Needed: a dose of reality for presidential daughters (and sons)

The Thinker by Rodin

Those of us who watched The West Wing were treated to a fictional, yet likely accurate portrayal of the life of presidential offspring. Viewers best knew the fictional President Bartlet’s daughter Zoey. At the end of Season Four, she was kidnapped on the night of her graduation from Georgetown University. She also prominently dated Bartlet’s very African American personal aid, Charlie Young. Both of these events caused end of season cliffhangers.

From The West Wing we learn that the gilded life is not necessarily easy for presidential offspring. The Secret Service is omnipresent, making it very difficult to maintain privacy and the semblance of a personal life. There is also the ever-curious press corps, who likes to read into the president defects they detect in their offspring. Like modern day princes, these presidential sons and daughters are thrust into a role not of their choosing. Moreover, once their famous parent leaves office, they often become curiosities. Like Amy Carter, sometime they are banished to obscurity. However, if they are particularly smart, good-looking and their parents are well connected they can end up earning six figures right out of college.

Chelsea Clinton has a new job, the Associated Press reports. The 26-year-old former first daughter recently started working for Avenue Capital Group, a New York-based hedge fund that handles about $12 billion in assets.

Clinton had been working as a consultant for McKinsey & Co., the international consulting firm, since 2003, reportedly for a six-figure salary. She received her master’s degree from Oxford University after graduating from Stanford in 2001.

Federal campaign records indicate that Avenue Capital founders Marc Lasry and Sonia Gardner have donated thousands of dollars to Democratic lawmakers, including Chelsea Clinton’s mother, New York Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, as well as to various Democratic campaign committees. There was no word late yesterday from Avenue Capital, any of the Clintons or their reps.

Arguably, Chelsea was simply astute enough to turn the detriment of being a presidential daughter into an asset. If you Google Chelsea’s name, you will find that she has been a busy daughter in the six years since her father left office. After finishing high school at the exclusive Sidwell Friends School in Washington, she received a bachelor’s degree in history from Stanford, where she commendably graduated with highest honors. She recently received a degree in international relations from Oxford University, which her father also attended. Ironically, she now lives in the Chelsea neighborhood of Manhattan. It is just a bit north of the current residence of another presidential daughter: Barbara Pierce Bush, who lives in Greenwich Village. I have to wonder if they occasionally get together for cappuccinos at Starbucks.

Granted, the cost of living is very high in New York City. Even so, Chelsea Clinton’s six-figure salary, given that she is a 26-year-old woman with a master’s degree and is not a lawyer is virtually unheard of. Bill Clinton earned only $30,000 a year as the governor of Arkansas, and that was after spending some time as a professor at the University of Arkansas and unsuccessfully running for Congress. It does not take much to infer that Chelsea’s comfortable salary was due in large part to her parental connections. It also does not hurt that she is a very attractive woman. Presumably, she carries a premium for both her good looks and parental connections. I assume this was the reasoning behind McKinsey & Co. offering her such an inflated salary. Reports suggest she has the Clinton charisma. She may be the next generation of a future Clinton political dynasty.

Like Chelsea, President Bush’s twin daughters Jenna and Barbara are also cute and attractive. Unlike Chelsea, they never properly lived at the White House. Both were 18 when Bush was elected and just beginning college. After graduating from the University of Texas at Austin, Jenna laudably spent some time teaching in public schools in the District of Columbia. Her twin sister Barbara chose to attend Yale, which her father and grandfather attended. Perhaps this was done in part to keep the Bush legacy at Yale alive for another generation.

However, both Bush daughters have had their issues with the law. Barbara and Jenna were charged with being a minor in possession of alcohol at a Mexican restaurant in May 2001. Jenna had a similar incident at an Austin bar a month earlier. In addition, The Washington Post reported in 2002 that the Bush girls were spotted (but not cited for) drinking at a Washington DC nightclub. Having spent some time recently pondering genograms, I have to wonder if the Bush twins have been channeling their father’s issues with alcohol and parental authority. Time will tell. While nominally Republican, both act more like Democrats.

Of Jack and Jackie Kennedy’s children, John Jr. became a glamorous assistant attorney in New York. He attracted a lot of press, but never became a politician. Perhaps this was because, like his father, he died young. He died in 1999 at age 39 (along with his wife and sister-in-law) when he piloted a piper cub into the Atlantic. The crash was thought to be due to his inexperience piloting aircraft. Caroline, the sole surviving child of the Kennedy marriage and now technically an orphan, is politically active in a few of her father’s causes. She is one of the founders of the Profiles in Courage Award. She is a graduate of both Harvard and the Columbia Law School. Her modest life seems a sensible response to her family’s tragic tendencies.

What is true about all these people is that it was difficult for them to encounter the real world. Chelsea Clinton probably enjoyed the most freedom, until her father ran for president. All have enjoyed both the perquisites and the detriments of being offspring to the president of the United States. Their lives were changed forever.

For me this background makes the case of Amy Carter so interesting. I have already confessed my admiration for Jimmy Carter. There was no cushy private school for Amy when the Carters were in the White House; she went to D.C. public schools. Her relatively normal entry into adulthood was perhaps assisted by the public’s general disdain for her father. The Carters were determined not to give their daughter any special favor. Amy fell into obscurity.

The last of the Carter’s three children (her two brothers were 15-20 years older, so they were adults when Carter was in office), Amy’s post White House life was frightfully ordinary. She too went to college, but to “ordinary” colleges like the Memphis College of Art and Tulane University. After her collegiate experience, she was left to fend for herself. As I recall from press reports, she worked in a bookstore to make ends meet. However, she has been politically active. She participated in various sit-ins on issues including apartheid in South Africa and the Reagan Administrations policies in Central America. She dallied on her way to the altar, not marrying until she was 29. She refused to be “given away” at her wedding, and has retained her maiden name. She is currently raising one son with her husband, and is avoiding the limelight.

I suspect over time that some of these presidential offspring will be running for higher office too. Perhaps it is in their blood, or they picked up the expectation watching their parents. I can sense thirty years from now there may be another Senator Clinton in the Senate. However, I am leery about all of these glamorous and often pampered next generation politicians running future ships of state. Our current president perhaps demonstrates that political dynasties tend to be bad ideas. Those who run the ship of state should be people grounded in real life. Arguably, because George W. Bush was not, it contributed to his singular view of the world and the disaster that now is Iraq. Iraq would have never have happened on Bill Clinton’s watch. Bill Clinton certainly came with many faults. He is also quite brilliant and has an amazingly flexible mind. I personally was thrilled at his election. Any man who took at much joy in a burger and fries from Burger King as he did could get my vote. For my money, he was grounded in the real world. He may have come from trailer park trash, but this and his intelligence gave him the insight to deal effectively with people. It may also be one of the reasons he was so despised. The same is true with Jimmy Carter. Both rose above their modest circumstances and in so doing, became very effective politicians.

So if we must have political dynasties, I am keeping one finger crossed behind my back. It is not crossed for a future Senator or President Chelsea Clinton, but instead for a future Senator or President Amy Carter. Amy’s life at least was grounded in some reality, despite being the president’s daughter. It appears that there are no coattails from her father’s term in office on which to run. However, I would rest easier with her steering the ship of state.

I bet Amy enjoys a burger with fries too.

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