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When Dad Is President

updated 06/18/2001 at 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 06/18/2001 01:00AM

In November 1988 Vice President George Bush had just emerged from Ronald Reagan's shadow to become the 41st President of the United States. But in the giddy wake of Bush's resounding electoral victory over Democrat Michael Dukakis, his oldest son and most loyal campaigner, George W., suddenly found himself at loose ends. Unwinding in his office, he was shooting the breeze with assistant Doug Wead when he asked, "So, what happens to me now?" Recalls Wead: "I offered to write something on past Presidents' kids, and he said, 'Sure.' "

Over the next month Wead and his staff set out to learn just how well children of U.S. Presidents fared in life—whether they enjoyed privilege and success, retreated from the spotlight to a relatively average existence, or were doomed to failure by the pressures of high expectations and constant public scrutiny. After extensive interviews and research, Wead delivered a 45-page memo—a copy of which was obtained recently by PEOPLE. If not an exhaustive work of scholarship, it provides an anecdotal guide to the First Sons and Daughters up to 1988, from the likes of John Quincy Adams, who became President and later Secretary of State, to Ruth Cleveland, who died at age 12 and for whom the Baby Ruth candy bar was named, to Reagan daughter Patti Davis, Playboy model and tell-all memoirist.

Wead's conclusions? A decidedly mixed bag. On the dark side, his researchers found a higher than average rate of divorce (FDR's five children accounted for 14 splits), alcoholism (John Adams's son Charles died of it) and premature death, from disease, accident (most recently John F. Kennedy Jr.) or combat injury (Teddy Roosevelt's son Quentin, in World War I). Yet presidential children on the whole have also enjoyed unusually high achievement as public servants, business leaders, educators and authors. Eight have served in Congress; Elizabeth Harrison, daughter of Benjamin, was the founder and publisher of an investment newsletter for women; and Dwight D. Eisenhower's son John wrote several acclaimed histories.

"It seems like those who didn't actually grow up in the White House did better," says Wead, 55, an author and lecturer. Yet all find themselves exposed to harsh judgments and held to higher standards. As Wead's memo points out, "Try something great, and appear grandiose and presumptuous. Try to lead a quiet and normal life, and appear lazy or unambitious." That said, he added, "any success will be credited by some to the family tie."

Bush filed away Wead's findings and instructed aides to keep the memo under wraps—especially last year in the thick of his presidential campaign—because, Wead says, he was extremely sensitive about his family's privacy. But in the wake of the embarrassments that have befallen the twin daughters he hoped to shield from media scrutiny, George W. might do well to remember Wead's conclusion: "Presidential families that stick together have the greatest political success."

Interviews with several of the 27 presidential children alive today bear that out. First Families often circle the wagons in times of crisis; certainly the fiercely self-protective Kennedys did. No presidential children have drawn more public curiosity than Caroline and John Jr., yet their mother, Jacqueline, diligently guarded their privacy. In Gerald Ford's brief stay in the White House, his family too endured trauma—two attempts on the President's life, his wife Betty's battles with breast cancer and addiction, and intense criticism over his 1974 pardon of Richard Nixon.

"I think it united our family in a deeper way when we faced some of those troubles," says Ford's son Steven, now 45 and an actor. In some ways the Fords fended off fame with a kind of middle-class normality. "He still made his own English muffins in the White House," Steve says of his father. "As a kid you went wow, look, Dad worked all day, but he comes home and shows Mom he loves her by rolling up his sleeves and saying, 'Betty, I'm doin' the dishes.' "

Similarly, the Carters pulled together as Jimmy was ground down by four years of inflation, energy crises and the hostage standoff with Iran, not to mention the loose-cannon antics of his brother Billy. "Having your parents in the White House brings your family a lot closer," says Chip Carter, 50, father of two and president of the Friendship Force, an international citizen-exchange program in Atlanta, where he lives with his second wife, Becky, 50. "It really is a fishbowl; anything you say, you're going to hear back somewhere. But you can talk to your family because everybody's going through the same thing."

At least one First Son insists his father's stint at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue scarcely affected the domestic dynamic. "Our family is famously fractious, and it stayed fractious," says Ron Reagan, 42, a former dancer who has hosted various TV shows. Ron came under fire during his father's tenure for seeming to cash in on his parents' fame and for a disarming guest-host gig on Saturday Night Live. (In a skit spoofing the Tom Cruise film Risky Business, he pranced around in his underwear.) "I'm sure it made Nancy more nervous than my father," says Ron, who lives in Seattle with his psychologist wife, Doria, 48, and occasionally visits his parents. Still, he has no regrets: "None at all," he says. "It was fun."

All presidential children share pressures, but the burden may be greatest on those who actually grow up in the White House, like Amy Carter, whose first day of school was covered as a media event, or those who are just beginning to shape their adult lives, such as the Bush twins. Certainly all eyes were on Chelsea Clinton as she walked between her parents, hand in hand as the seeming peacemaker, during the Lewinsky scandal. Historian Gil Troy maintains that the pressures of being a First Child have intensified dramatically over the years. "Today, the scrutiny is relentless," he says. "It started to become obvious in the '60s and '70s, when first the Johnson daughters, Lynda Bird and Luci Baines, and then the Nixon daughters, Tricia and Julie, had to comport themselves as model students." Tricia Nixon Cox, now 56 and involved in several charities, is quick to point out, however, that she and her sister really were good students. "Sure, we were well-behaved, but we didn't deserve any Academy Awards," says Cox, married 30 years to attorney Edward Cox. "There were no lectures about how we were supposed to act."

Luci Baines Johnson was 16 when her father, Lyndon, became President after the assassination of John F. Kennedy. The family moved into the White House on Dec. 7, 1963, and for Luci it was a night to remember. "I had a girlfriend over, and neither one of us knew how to light a fireplace, but we tried anyway," she recalls. "All of a sudden it got out of control and I started throwing fruit-juice glasses of water into the fire. To get rid of the smoke I stood on my desk, opened a window and looked down to see a White House policeman looking up. I was wearing a nightgown. So I'm 16, it's my first night in the White House, I set fire to my room, and I'm standing on the ledge desperately afraid that the President's adolescent daughter has shown herself inappropriately."

Unlike the Clintons, who largely shielded Chelsea from any public role, LBJ pushed his girls out front. "Ours was like a farm family," says Luci, the mother of four from her marriage to Patrick Nugent, which ended in divorce. (Now married to Ian Turpin, 56, she helps run the family real estate and radio businesses.) "The children milk the cows and feed the chickens. We were a political family. I campaigned in 26 states myself [in the 1964 presidential race]. My father said, 'Luci, we're in the campaign of a lifetime. It's a sinking ship, and I'm counting on you to bail, baby, bail!' "

That is a far cry from the approach of more recent White House parents. The Clintons made it clear that Chelsea was off-limits, and the Bushes asked that the same consideration be extended to Jenna and Barbara. Still, the President is the ultimate political celebrity, and the hunger for news of his family is great. "One day you're at the convention like one big happy family and the children are used to show that the parents understand what families go through," says historian Douglas Brinkley. "Then something like [the Bush twins' incident] happens, and now you want us to ignore them—after you've introduced them to the whole world. That's not going to work."

Three years older than her sister, Lynda Johnson Robb is well aware of the difficulty of growing up public property. She anguished as the Vietnam War essentially destroyed her father's Presidency. "I mean, how do you think I felt when there were people marching outside the White House shouting, 'Hey, hey, LBJ, how many kids did you kill today?' " she asks. But she has happy memories as well. "You get to meet an awful lot of interesting people," says Lynda, 57, the mother of three daughters from her 33-year marriage to former U.S. Sen. Chuck Robb. "When Carl Sandburg came to the White House, I was taking a course in American literature, and I got him to sign my grubby textbook."

Private matters were especially challenging. "Dating was a lot more difficult," says Lynda, who briefly went out with actor George Hamilton and whose husband was on a White House Marine detail when they met. "The young man gets besieged with, 'What are your intentions?' Did he want to take Lynda out or did he want to take the President's daughter out?" It wasn't easy for the boys either. "Take your girlfriend out for dinner, and you always have to make a reservation for two tables," says Steve Ford. "I figured the girl had a better deal. If she got tired of me, she had at least two other guys to talk to."

In some ways burdened by their names, many presidential offspring have still been drawn into the family business. Of course, none in recent history has assumed the family mantle more spectacularly than George W Bush. Nor did his brother Jeb, 48, governor of Florida, fall far from the tree. (Siblings Neil, 46, who runs an educational-software company, Marvin, 45, an investment consultant, and Dorothy, 41, a homemaker, remain out of the public eye, though Neil drew unwanted press for alleged conflict of interest during the notorious 1988 savings-and-loan scandal.) Others have run for office but with less success. Maureen Reagan, 60 and currently battling malignant melanoma, failed in her bid for the GOP nomination for a U.S. Senate seat in California in 1982. Dwight Eisenhower's son John—at 78 the oldest living presidential child—never stood for election but rose to the rank of brigadier general in the Army reserve and served as ambassador to Belgium from 1969 to 1971. "Dad seemed to want to go his own way when his father was elected," says his son David, 53, a professor of communications at the University of Pennsylvania married 33 years to Richard Nixon's daughter Julie, 53. But John "found himself gradually drawn into the White House orbit. He wound up as my grandfather's secretary for the last two years of his Presidency."

While she wrote the book on privacy (literally, with Ellen Alderman, 1995's The Right to Privacy), even Caroline Kennedy Schlossberg, 43, a Manhattan attorney and married mother of three, has become increasingly public. Since the deaths of her mother and more extroverted brother, Caroline has raised her profile in support of the Kennedy library, the American Ballet Theatre (one of her mother's causes), the Robin Hood Foundation for disadvantaged children and even the Democratic Party, which she addressed at last summer's presidential convention. "It's a tribute to her mother and father she has turned out so productive," says Richard Goodwin, a former aide to JFK. "She hasn't run away from her heritage."

Still, some presidential children couldn't get far enough away from it. Margaret Truman recalls that back in the 1950s some friends jokingly pooled their money so she could run for Congress. "Just put it back into your pocket," said Truman, now 77 and the widow of journalist Clifton Daniel, with whom she had four sons. "I'm not going back to Washington if I can possibly help it." A former concert singer—her father, Harry, made headlines in 1950 when he threatened to punch an unkind critic in the nose—she has found a new life as a mystery novelist, publishing some 20 books. Patti Davis, 48, daughter of Ronald Reagan, has perhaps strayed farthest from the fold, revealing almost all in a 1994 Playboy spread and venting anger at her parents in two novels and an autobiography, The Way I See It. (Brother Michael Reagan, 56, a California talk radio host, also wrote of his troubled childhood in On the Outside Looking In.)

Susan Ford Bales, 43, is another who never felt the lure of politics. "Absolutely not," she says. "I gave 25 years of my life not having my father around because of politics." A mother of two living in suburban Albuquerque with her second husband, lawyer Vaden Bales, she uses her maiden name only when she speaks on behalf of breast-cancer research. "Stuff like that," she says, "is far more rewarding than getting a paycheck."

Inspired by his father, Chip Carter has brought together people from 56 nations through his Friendship Force. "I am not my father—his footsteps are too big," he says. "But I'm still trying to become a player in the world peace movement." The other Carters are among the many presidential children who have seen the toll taken by public life and shied away from it. Computer consultant Jeff, 49, is a married father of three living in Atlanta. Jack, 53 and the father of four, is a banker living in Bermuda with his second wife.

Of them all, sister Amy, 33—a girl of 8 when her father was elected and the only Carter offspring to live in the White House—was by far the best-known, and her youthful awkwardness, like Chelsea Clinton's, was lampooned on Saturday Night Live. (One reason the Bush twins reportedly showed so little enthusiasm for their father's White House aspirations was their fear that they too might end up parodied on SNL.) Later, Amy became an antiapartheid activist and was three times arrested in protests. Now she lives quietly in Atlanta with her husband, computer consultant James Wentzel, 32, and their 23-month-old son Hugo. "Her privacy," says Chip, "is something she cherishes more than anyone in our family."

Whatever paths their lives have taken, or whatever their fathers' politics, the children of America's Presidents share a singular bond. "Absolutely," says Luci Johnson, who has remained friendly with the Nixon daughters. "Democrats and Republicans, liberals and conservatives—it doesn't matter." Adds Susan Ford Bales: "I know when I run into Luci and Lynda and Julie and we all go, 'And do you remember this?' there's only a few people who realize what it's like." Indeed, being a President's child is as defining as any genetic marker. "Once a President's kid, always a President's kid," says Ron Reagan. "I remember meeting one of Franklin Roosevelt's sons. He was in his 70s, and even at that age he was Franklin Roosevelt's kid. The poor man went through his entire life that way."

Elizabeth McNeil in New York City, Gail Cameron Wescott in Atlanta and Chris Rose in New Orleans

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