brief histories

A Brief History of Teenage First Daughters

Malia Obama greets Justin Bieber onstage during Christmas in Washington 2011 at the National Building Museum on December 11, 2011 in Washington, DC.
Malia Obama greets Justin Bieber onstage during Christmas in Washington 2011 at the National Building Museum on December 11, 2011 in Washington, DC. Photo: Theo Wargo/WireImage

It has been nearly six months since Malia Obama turned 13. That is an eternity for a teenager, even if you don’t live in the White House. Already, since then, a lot has happened. She has been turned into a fashion plate. Her remarkable growth spurt and newly grown-up looks have been deemed a natural occurrence. She was photographed with official teen dreamboat Justin Bieber. Her father indirectly referenced her and little sister Sasha when his administration blocked making emergency birth control available over the counter.  There were probably other events that loomed much larger for Malia, but those are the ones we, the eager grown-up public, have noticed. We have noticed because suddenly, Malia is old enough to be thought of as an independent being, rather than a cute appendage of her parents.

She is, in short, an emblem of the frequently maligned American Teenager, generally considered to be a social construction that sprang up in the latter half of the twentieth century. Our culture’s been obsessed with them ever since. Teenage girls, especially, have long been lightning rods for society’s angst about sexuality and propriety —  they’ve been growing up “too fast” for decades now — and so Malia Obama finds herself in the unfortunate position of being America’s First Teenager. Though, of course, she’s not the first girl in recent memory to find herself in that awkward spot. (Modern presidents seem, oddly, to disproportionately be fathers of daughters.) They have all been objects of fascination, mostly because their lives have been so carefully kept from the public eye — except, of course, when the president finds it politically useful to play up his paternal role, as Obama seems somewhat willing to do.

The most striking exception to that cloistering, though not a purposeful one, was the case of the Bush twins. They were on the opposite end of the teenage age-spectrum from the Obama girls: 19 when their father took office. And they were on the opposite end of the behavior spectrum, too: Jenna and Barbara weren’t quietly mooning over teenybopper idols, they were getting busted for underage boozing and generally exuding a wild-child air. The Bush twins didn’t seem so much mysterious as they did obvious –of course that blonde sorority girl from Texas liked to evade her Secret Service protection – but the People-reading people of American like a rebellious teen as much as we like a nice one, if not more so. The twins were old enough that late-night hosts and Internet wags and political opponents could take aim without seeming truly insensitive. George W. Bush, for his part, pushed back very hard against anyone who tried to bring his daughters into the political sphere. It was both an admirable act of fatherly protection and a self-protective one. After all, their behavior provided a convenient example for anyone who wanted to take a potshot at the president’s own boozy past, or to remind voters that the man trying to legislate morality in their homes seemingly wasn’t doing much to regulate it in his own.

Crueler things were said about Chelsea Clinton, of course, who had the bad luck to be thrust into the public eye at 14 and during the height of her awkwardness. John McCain famously made a nasty joke at her expense, and Rush Limbaugh referred to her as the White House dog. The Clintons worked very hard after the campaign to keep her out of the spotlight – no big public Sweet Sixteen for Chelsea.

It wasn’t until her mother’s campaign for president years later, in fact, that she opened up at all to interviews, and then only on a very limited basis. From the safe distance of her twenties, Chelsea let her mother — again,  in search of that jolt of relatability that tales from the parenting trenches can bring politicians — tell the story of how Chelsea had worn a surprise, too-short skirt to her father’s second inauguration, and how the Secret Service had chaperoned her dates. But the Clintons weren’t above using Chelsea for political purposes: In an iconic photograph taken in the wake of the Monica Lewinsky scandal, the couple is pictured strolling on the White House lawn, not touching each other, but both hand-in-hand with their 18-year-old daughter – a probably choreographed reminder that they were good, caring parents to a still-young daughter, no matter what the headlines contained.

The last really young teenage girl in the White House was Amy Carter, who was 9 years old when her father took office,  and she mostly remained in our consciousness as a little kid with a teddy bear collection. Now in her forties, Carter’s Wikipedia page still shows her as a child clutching her cat. But during her father’s presidency, Carter showed some flashes of the teenage rebellion that would come into full flower a few years later, when, as a Brown student, she was arrested for protesting various political causes. Once, a reporter asked Amy if she had a message for the children of America. She stared him down, and said, “No,” the perfect, sullen encapsulation of the youth culture of the Carter years.

She might not have been willing to exude happy-go-lucky teen by that point, but her father still found a way to bring Amy into the conversation. In a 1980 debate against Reagan, he was roundly mocked for citing his by-then 13-year-old daughter’s worry about nuclear weapons in the midst of a policy debate over arms control.

Amy’s predecessor, Susan Ford, was more than willing to play the All-American Girl. She sparked controversy for wearing jeans in the White House – has there ever been a more anodyne act of rebellion? – and cheerily hosted her senior prom at the White House at age 18. Her alcohol-filled yacht pre-party on the Potomac that night got a write-up in People: “Being nothing if not a traditional girl, Susan and Billy were driven in a White House car to a friend’s suburban home for a wee hours party of champagne, cake, music and a pre-dawn dip in the pool,” the magazine reported. “Was Susan given any instructions by her parents before they left? “They told me,” she said, “to be good.” 

And yet Susan was the First Daughter who became most controversial subject of a national debate on teenage sexuality though no fault of her own. Her famously frank mother, Betty, said during a television interview with Morley Safer that she wouldn’t be shocked at all if her daughter were sexually active:

MORLEY SAFER: What if Susan Ford came to you and said, Mother I’m having an affair.

BETTY FORD: Well I wouldn’t be surprised, I’d think she was a perfectly normal human being like all young girls if she wanted to continue, I would certainly counsel and advise her on the subject.

Susan was so embarrassed by her mother’s comments that she issued a public denial.

The love lives of the White House’s teenage girls have always been a subject to scrutiny. Perhaps no one was more fascinating in that respect than Lyndon Johnson’s younger daughter, Luci, who seemed willing to play along with the press. She was 16 when her father took office, three years younger than her older sister Lynda.  Their father once described them thus (with no apparent thought for sibling rivalry or feminist ire): “Lynda Bird is so smart she will always be able to make a living for herself. And Luci Baines is so appealing and feminine there will always be some man around wanting to make a living for her.” Luci unapologetically played the part of the the popular teenage girl, garnering a Secret Service nickname of Venus.  The New York Times concluded: “Luci Johnson is an emotional, nonintellectual, tender-hearted, often introspective and even mystical little person.” Luci  played the part, too. She grabbed national headlines when she was “pinned” by a boy at 17 — did it mean she was engaged? And when she, of old Episcopal stock, converted to Catholicism shortly thereafter. And then, most of all, when she became a young and very glamorous teenage bride — and declined Congress’s offer of a wedding gift. (When she announced to the Times that she intended to live off her betrothed’s salary, she fulfilled her father’s prediction.)

But even Luci complained of the fishbowl. At 18, she said to Newsweek, ‘When my grades weren’t so good, complete strangers scolded me, and when they got better and we sort of leaked the news about my B average, people said I was bragging. … I used to have a flippant, rebellious image. Now I’m ready to settle down and marry, they say I’m too young. ” The virtue stakes are brutally high, in short, and a misstep in any direction is much-discussed.

Years later, in the eighties, when a few grown-up former First Daughters gathered for a panel on the subject, it wasn’t just the glare of that publicity they bonded over. It was the more private stuff, too:

All of the first daughters told of resentment they had felt toward their mothers because they thought they were not receiving enough parental attention in the White House. For [Luci Johnson] it occurred whenever she would go to her mother’s room and find a pillow hanging on the doorknob that said, ”I want to be alone.”

[Susan Ford] said that moving to the White House often means that old friends draw away because they no longer know how to treat a first daughter and that new people may want to become friends ”not because you’re Susan, but because you’re the daughter of the President.” […]

”Sometimes I would walk into my father’s office with a very short gentleman and say, ‘We’re engaged and are going to be married,’ ” said Susan Ford Vance. ”Or I would walk into Cabinet meetings and ask for my allowance, saying my mother didn’t have any money. These were the kind of things that helped you make it through every day.”

Surely the Obama girls are getting up to similar mischief and getting similarly angry about the compromises they’re forced to make , but we’ll only hear about it in carefully doled-out tidbits, and probably not for years, if ever. But that’s a good thing — part of being a teenage girl, after all, is getting to have at least a few secrets.

A Brief History of Teenage First Daughters