Some people are trying really hard to turn Malia Obama being a regular teenager into a controversial thing, to make her seem more wild (and therefore potentially out of control!) than she is or has any designs on being.
And they can try all they want, but remember the family motto that starts with, “When they go low…”
Barack and Michelle Obama‘s eldest daughter moved into her dorm at Harvard University this week, upon arrival becoming the biggest celebrity at a school that, in addition to producing countless famous alumni has seen its fair share of already-big stars, such Jonathan Taylor Thomas and Natalie Portman, matriculate over the years. (Next year Malia will be joined by Black-ish star Yara Shahidi, who was an advocate for the first lady’s Let Girls Learn program and whose impressive application included a letter of recommendation from FLOTUS herself.)
And while it’s only been a day, we aren’t expecting a rash of rebellion coming from Malia’s corner of Harvard Yard.
It’s not just that the former president and first lady are a couple of class acts—that doesn’t always translate to the offspring. But the Obamas were easily the most involved parents yet to wear the mantle of first couple, so Malia seems to have benefited from her mom and dad’s obvious interest in what she’s up to (and who she’s with, and how late, and who’s driving, and…).
Major scandals among the children of sitting and former presidents are also actually pretty unusual (or were, till now), especially considering the numerous potential pitfalls that await when it’s time for the famous-by-proxy kids to leave the nest. It could be that the 44 men who previously occupied the office just got really lucky, or there is something in the genetic makeup that prompts the kids to ultimately go the dignified route.
Not every first son and daughter lived full-time in the White House. Malia and Sasha Obamaare the first young girls to reside there since Chelsea Clinton, and Barron Trump is the first adolescent son in residence since John F. Kennedy Jr. But for the ones who did, as it is with any child who grows up in extremely abnormal circumstances, no matter how much their parents strive to make it “normal,” it isn’t—and in this day and age, it takes a deliberate retreat from public life to shake the media’s interest once they’re interested. And even if they were already out of the house when their dads became president, at the end of the day any first kid (or teenager) is still human and subject to making mistakes that invariably will draw an oversized amount of attention.
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George W. Bush‘s twins, Jenna and Barbara Bush were already in college by the time he and Laura Bush moved into the White House in 2001—and it was a juicy story when both were cited in Texas for underage drinking in what was the second incident that year for Jenna.
“I think the American people agree with the president that it is his purview, even as president of the United States to have private moments with his family,” White House press secretary Ari Fleischer said at the time. “That includes his two 19-year-old daughters. And like any parent raising a child, they expect the right to talk privately with their children no matter what position they hold in life.”
Ultimately Barbara and Jenna turned out just fine after graduating from Yale and University of Texas, Austin, respectively.
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Same goes for Jimmy Carter‘s daughter, Amy Carter, who was 9 when her dad was elected president in 1976. A decade later, having started at Brown University, she was arrested at University of Massachusetts Amherst while protesting CIA recruitment on campus. She was dismissed a year later from her Ivy League college for academic reasons, but eventually regrouped to graduate from Memphis College of Art and get a master’s degree in history from Tulane.
“One thing Barbara and I constantly [say is], ‘Praise the Lord, yell Hallelujah at the top of our lungs that social media didn’t exist!'” Jenna Bush Hager, now a correspondent for Today, said in a 2016 NBC News segment about preparing for college. “Because we weren’t perfect. And I don’t think kids should be perfect. I think college is really a time, in a safe way, to make mistakes and explore who you are.”
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To be sure, any “mistakes” Malia makes will be magnified even more so because of who her parents are, with Obama’s supporters longing for the comparatively rosy-hued days of his presidency and his critics being glad those days are over. The now 19-year-old Malia also hails from a scandal-free administration as far as personal behavior is concerned.
“I was always deeply aware that I was living in history,” Chelsea Clinton, who was a student at Stanford by the time dad Bill Clinton became engulfed in scandal in 1998 (though Chelsea was still called upon to take a united-family photo strolling across the White House lawn while on a break from school), told Marlo Thomas for the Huffington Post in 2014. “But then I would have dinner with my parents at the kitchen table every night! There was much about my life that also was normal.”
Chelsea herself, now a married mother of two and a member of the board of the Clinton Foundation, has an unusually spotless record of individual behavior, perhaps being extra careful over the years because she never wanted to add to the ever-roiling Clinton conversation.
It’s likely that Malia, though she still travels with a bodyguard, was among the more excited of incoming freshmen at Harvard this year, not least because she’ll be truly charting her own course for the first time since she moved into the White House as an 11-year-old. She also gets to live in a place where she’s expected to act and dress like a teenager after spending years having her outfits criticized and facial expressions over-analyzed after every public appearance.
And she’s hardly alone. Ever since the days of Lincoln, through the first round of Roosevelts and Camelot and right up till this minute, the first kids have always been the subject of scrutiny.
“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,” Lyndon Johnson‘s then 18-year-old daughter Luci Johnson, who was 16 when John F. Kennedy was assassinated and her father became president, told Newsweek—a year after being pinned by her boyfriend resulted in engagement rumors. “I used to have a flippant, rebellious image. Now I’m ready to settle down and marry, they say I’m too young.”
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Her D.C. wedding in 1966 was televised and watched by about 55 million people, answering the question of whether or not the nation was interested in the whole first family. (Though maybe she was too young, as she and Patrick Nugent divorced in 1979. She married her current husband, Ian Turpin, in 1984.)
Chelsea Clinton prompted a thank you from first lady Melania Trump today after she called out a Twitter bully for a comment about 11-year-old Barron—and it wasn’t the first time that the former first daughter had insisted that the president’s little boy should be off-limits in the ongoing war of words being fought 24/7 about the current administration.
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Lorne Michael publicly apologized and Mike Myers sent the family a letter of apology after a “Wayne’s World” sketch on a 1992 episode of Saturday Night Live labeled Chelsea not as hot as Vice President Al Gore‘s daughters, and the often politically charged show has steered clear of minor first kids ever since.
Bill Clinton told People in response to the sketch, “You know, I really find it hilarious when they make fun of me. The Saturday Night Live skit where I was in McDonald’s talking about Somalia—I thought that was hilarious. But I think you gotta be pretty insensitive to make fun of an adolescent child. I think there is something pretty off-center with people who do that. But I’ve determined that I can’t control their behavior, so I’ll just have to control our response to it.”
He said, “It’s tough when you are an adolescent because peer opinion and other people’s opinion become more important. But I think she’ll be OK.”
“I always feel an empathy with anyone who lives at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue,” Luci Johnson Turpin, whose days in the White House preceded not just social media but SNL as well, said in 1984 during a panel discussion at the National Conference on First Ladies. ”We’ve got to be able to empathize with each other, because we’re all we’ve got.”
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“They’re ready to get out, just out from their parents’ house,” President Obama said about both of his daughters in a People interview last December. “The fact that their parents’ house is the White House may add to it. But Malia’s going off to college. She’s a grown woman.”
“She’s still a baby,” Michelle Obama interjected.
The first lady also told People when Malia was first starting high school in 2012 that, in addition to being an avid reader and movie buff, the young teen had shown an interest in filmmaking. “But she’s a freshman, so she also knows she has years in college to explore her interest,” Michelle said.
Five years later, the time has officially flown.
By all appearances Malia is indeed looking to bridge the gap between her brand of fame as a member of the most pop culture-friendly first family to ever occupy the White House and the actual celebrity world of film and TV. When she wasn’t becoming a frequent face on the music festival circuit, she occupied herself with internships in the entertainment industry during her summer breaks and the gap year she took after graduating from Sidwell Friends School in Washington, D.C., last year.
The surplus of interest in her private life may end up serving her well, as far as preparing herself for a future profession in showbiz.
At the same time, Harvard was a good choice not just for its estimable reputation but also for the fact that the school is already packed with high achievers and kids of the rich and successful, which will allow Malia for more of a low-key existence, should she desire one.
And we’re guessing she does.