Growing up in the White House: Trials, tribulations and triumphs

As Malia and Sasha Obama prepare for four more years at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, David Randall investigates the differing destinies of presidential children, and discovers some high jinks along the way

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Those of us who try to do the best for our children might think the following circumstances would represent something of a triumph: no money worries, a 132-room house, round-the-clock protection, resident babysitters, and 18 acres of grounds. But those perks – courtesy of the man of the house being the US President – come at a price; and the ones who could end up paying it are Malia and Sasha Obama, two girls who entered the White House aged seven and 10, and who will leave it at 15 and 18.

Try as their parents might to make life as normal as possible (no shirking of homework, summer camp in New Hampshire, and doing their own laundry), things are not quite as they are for most American girls. It will be a brave teenage lad who asks Malia out on her first date; the girls are followed everywhere by secret service staff, and banned by their parents, on security grounds, from Facebook. And, when their father leaves the White House, in January 2017, they will carry with them for the rest of their lives, not only the stamp of privilege, but the weight of expectation.

This is not a light burden. Surveys of presidential offspring make much of the alcoholics (William Henry Harrison Jr, Andrew Johnson Jr, and several from the Adams clan); the suicides (Kermit Roosevelt, son of Teddy, shot himself on an army base in 1943), or victims of fatal accidents (Benjamin Pierce, killed in a rail crash at the age of 10, or the 16-year-old Calvin Coolidge Jr, who contracted septicaemia after playing tennis barefoot in the White House grounds in 1924). And they often cite George Washington Adams, son of John Quincy Adams, who, having found consolation in drink and made a servant girl pregnant, threw himself over the side of a boat off Long Island.

Added to the litany of deaths are those who bore a less dramatic, but nevertheless permanent, mark. Ronald Reagan's children, and two of Franklin Roosevelt's, became openly hostile to their fathers, and the five Roosevelt children who reached adulthood managed to accumulate 19 marriages between them. Small wonder, he once said: "One of the worst things in the world is being the child of a president. It's a terrible life they lead."

All this misery is enough to make you fear for Malia and Sasha's future, the latest young prisoners of Pennsylvania Avenue. However, most of the tragic First Offspring were adults when their fathers became president, and those who spent their childhood in the White House have fared better.

Abraham Lincoln, saviour of the Union and top of most lists of great presidents, was perhaps the most indulgent White House father. This was understandable, given that his son Tad was doomed to die at 18 of heart failure, had a cleft palate, and his rapid speech was nigh-on indecipherable outside the family. Which, presumably, was why Abe let him burst into meetings, ride his pet goat in the East Room, charge visitors to see his father, and fire his toy cannon at the door of his office when the Cabinet was sitting. The wildest brood in the White House were Teddy Roosevelt's six, aged from three to 16 when he took office. They hid under floorboards, roller-skated through public rooms, and once took a pony up to a bedroom.

Other presidential fathers ranged from the strict (Lyndon Johnson, who rightly refused his daughter Luci Baines's request to have The Beatles brought in to give her a private concert); the exasperated (when Alice Roosevelt, 17 at her father Teddy's swearing-in, got into some scrape, he said: "I can be President of the United States, or I can control Alice. I cannot possibly do both."); the guilt-ridden (Ulysses S Grant, the great military strong man, wept openly after his daughter's White House wedding, saying between sobs that he had missed her growing up); and the protective (the singing career of Harry S Truman's daughter Margaret went passably well until The Washington Post's Paul Hume wrote in a review: "She is flat a good deal of the time. And still cannot sing with anything approaching professional finish." A day or so later, a letter from her father arrived. "I have just read your lousy review buried in the back pages," wrote Margaret's dad. "You sound like a frustrated old man who never made a success, an eight-ulcer man on a four-ulcer job, and all four ulcers working. I never met you, but if I do you'll need a new nose and a supporter below.")

Margaret Truman went on to be a successful writer of mystery stories, one of many First Children who achieved much. Helen Taft became a leading academic and suffragette who changed her father's mind about votes for women; James Webb Hayes was a businessman who founded what would become Union Carbide; and there is John Eisenhower (a respected military historian), Charles Francis Adams (as ambassador to London during the Civil War he did much to prevent Britain giving active help to the Confederacy), and Teddy Roosevelt's eldest son, Theodore, a brigadier-general who led the assault on Utah Beach on D-Day, and who was hailed by General Omar Bradley as the bravest man he knew. Two became presidents (John Quincy Adams and George W Bush), and many have served in Cabinets and in Congress. Robert Taft, son of the only president who later sat on the Supreme Court bench, became a senator often listed as one of the best ever to serve in the upper house.

Of the modern children of the White House, none has met tragedy, save for John F Kennedy Jr, the toddler famously pictured (in his mother's absence, by the way – she certainly would not have allowed him to be photographed for a magazine) crawling under his father's Oval Office desk. He died at 38, when the plane he piloted crashed, the final act in a life of risk-taking that probably had more to do with his Kennedy heritage than the 34 months he spent at the White House.

He left in 1963, and remains the last boy raised there. Someone will someday write a thesis on why all of the subsequent presidents with school-age children have had girls. And these modern First Children have, so far as one can tell, turned out well. Susan Ford, 19 when her father was sworn in, may have said, "I kept thinking, I want to be normal. But I can't be normal … Everyone was watching. It was like living out loud", but the attention can be beneficial. After all, there is probably nothing like having the entire world monitoring your every move for sharpening up your act as a parent.

Jimmy Carter's only daughter, nine-year-old Amy, one of the few First Children not sent to a private school, did not revel in her passing celebrity. Pictures of her plodding off in the morning with her Snoopy backpack, head down, made her look like Little Orphan Annie. No social animal (once, seated next to Mexico's Foreign Minister at a formal dinner, she buried her head in a book throughout the meal), she is now married, has a son, lives in Atlanta and refuses all interview requests.

Chelsea Clinton, a far more out-going presidential child, not only gives interviews but also shows every sign of having inherited her parents' political intelligence. Jenna and Barbara Bush, the first and only White House twins, have long since lived down their much-publicised and isolated brush with the law over underage drinking. Barbara works for her own non-profit health organisation, Jenna is married, teaches, and has worked as a part-time correspondent for NBC. There is no reason Malia and Sasha should not equally be their own people.

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