WASHINGTON -- They thought it was a perfectly harmless little joke. But when babe-watchers Wayne and Garth of NBC's "Saturday Night Live" turned their stone-washed wit to Chelsea Clinton in a "Wayne's World" sketch, making wisecracks about her appearance, the response was less than excellent.
After hearing boos from the TV community and public criticism from Hillary Rodham Clinton, the show's producers edited out the offending comments when the show was rebroadcast recently. Mike Myers, aka Wayne, also wrote a letter of apology to the Clintons.
"We felt, upon reflection, that if it was in any way hurtful, it wasn't worth it," says executive producer Lorne Michaels. "She's a kid, a kid who didn't choose to be in public life."
It didn't stop them from working over 9-year-old Amy Carter in the late '70s, however, treating her even "a little rougher," to no great public protest, admits Mr. Michaels.
But for 13-year-old Chelsea, the first school-age child to live in the White House since the Carter administration, life has been less of a fishbowl and more of a private, protected pond.
More than most children who have lived in the White House, Chelsea Clinton has been deemed off-limits. She has been left alone, largely because of public sympathy for a youngster undergoing adolescence and because of the nearly total White House news blackout concerning the first daughter.
From 1,200 stories to 200
Attention paid to Chelsea already has dropped off precipitously. A computer search turned up more than 1,200 newspaper and magazine stories mentioning the first daughter in January -- compared with about 400 in February, fewer than 300 in April, and fewer than 200 last month.
The disappearing act is no accident. The Clintons have discouraged coverage of their child and protected her from the public gaze with far more vigilance than the Carters, Johnsons, Fords or Nixons ever did with their children.
Although the president wanted to bring his daughter and some of her friends along to the Tokyo summit this week, the Clintons finally decided against it, White House officials said.
"She didn't want to be a big object of press interest," President Clinton said at a luncheon Friday.
The administration had not forgotten the press mob that swarmed around Amy Carter when she traveled to Japan and South Korea with her father in 1979, or whenever she went overseas.
Nor had it forgotten the widely used photographs of a forlorn-looking Amy Carter trudging through the snow on her first day of school in Washington, her head down to escape the mob of lenses.
Determined to avoid a similar scene, Mrs. Clinton slipped Chelsea in a back door on her first day at the private Sidwell Friends School, avoiding media stake-outs at front and side entrances.
"The president and first lady have made it very clear they want Chelsea to have as normal a life as possible," says Neel Lattimore, Mrs. Clinton's deputy press secretary.
Press office refuses questions
To that end, the press office refuses to answer any questions about Chelsea and thus receives very few inquiries about the teen-ager.
In contrast, Mary Hoyt, Rosalynn Carter's former press secretary, says she received calls about Amy on a daily basis -- about the youngster's dog, treehouse, violin lessons. "We tried to tell people as much as we thought it was appropriate to tell them," she says.
The Carters, in fact, "were not shy at all about allowing Amy to be photographed," says Mark Rozell, the author of books on press coverage of the Carter and Ford presidencies. "They understood some of the public relations benefits of having a very young child as part of the presidential family. Though they were protective of her, they were not absolutely insistent that no one get near her at all."
During the 1976 presidential campaign, Jimmy Carter used photos of young freckle-faced Amy selling lemonade for 5-cents a glass in Plains, Ga., along with other images of his family, to help the nation get acquainted with the little-known Southern governor, notes Barbara Kellerman, author of a book about first families.
Chelsea used in campaign
The Clintons similarly "used" their daughter for image purposes during the Democratic convention -- after focus groups pointed out that many Americans didn't know the Clintons had a child -- when Chelsea was frequently pictured with her parents, especially her mother.
"With all the talk about Hillary's toughness, it was helpful for Americans to learn that she was also a devoted mother," says Ms. Kellerman.
Some presidential parents have even provoked scrutiny of their children with their own words. When President Carter said in his 1980 debate that he had discussed nuclear proliferation with 12-year-old Amy, his presidency came to a close with his daughter caught in the joke mill.
Similarly, first lady Betty Ford's comment during a 1975 "60 Minutes" interview that she wouldn't be surprised if her teen-age daughter, Susan, had a premarital "affair" stirred intense interest.
"I felt very besieged by the press," says Susan Ford Bales of her days in the White House. "They knew where I was all the time. They talked to my friends, people who weren't even my friends. They wrote about romances I wasn't having.
"I have scrapbooks full of the stories -- stories that said I was engaged to [rock star] Rod Stewart. I've got it all."
'Devastated' by stories
She says she was "devastated" by some of the stories published xTC about her -- especially one suggesting she would have failed school had her father not been president. "I did take it to heart," she recalls. "It makes you a very tough, very thick-skinned person. And it makes you not very trusting of anybody except your family."
Mrs. Bales and others believe that teen-agers and young adults in the White House, like the Ford children and the Johnson and Nixon girls, not only stir more interest, but also are considered fairer game for the media.
The teen-age antics of Alice Roosevelt Longworth, one of the most famous White House kids, were so heavily chronicled that songs were written about Theodore Roosevelt's feisty daughter.
Chelsea coverage has mostly been restricted to brief mentions in gossip columns: Chelsea and family at "The Phantom of the Opera" last week, in Georgetown weeks ago with Mom buying a bathing suit and clothes for summer camp, at a bookstore with dad, telling fortunes at a school fair.
"Chelsea is in a nice niche so far," says Lewis Gould, who teaches a course at the University of Texas on first ladies. "In about three years, when the dating aspect begins to kick in, the level of interest will change. For now, there's a feeling that a 13-year-old, unless she does something outrageous, deserves a pass."
It is something of a "paradox," says Ms. Kellerman, that while the Clintons' private life has been assiduously explored and exposed, their daughter has been afforded huge measures of privacy.
"Precisely because the press has been bolder taking on issues that heretofore have been private, they have to be careful," says the author. "If they go after Chelsea it would be seen as so nauseatingly obnoxious as to be counterproductive."
Limbaugh had to apologize
Indeed, even mouthy left-basher Rush Limbaugh, whose stock in trade is unapologetically pushing the envelope of good taste, spent two days apologizing in January on both his radio and TV shows after Chelsea's photo accompanied the irrelevant reference to Millie, the former White House dog, on his TV show.
So strong is the "Leave-Chelsea-Alone" sentiment (a slogan emblazoned on T-shirts) that even New York's unsparingly irreverent Spy magazine shelved a prepared piece on "Chelsea-bashing" after it seemed irrelevant.
"When you get right down to it, one reason we haven't written about her is . . . Why? Why would you do it?" says Spy senior editor Larry Doyle. "She's not doing anything. From a satirical point of view, there's no fun to be had."
The Clintons have tried to ensure that there's as little fun to be had at their expense as possible, perhaps learning from the last parents of a young child to live in the White House.
"A lot of people look back and wonder if all the attention paid to Amy Carter wasn't overdone, if she didn't suffer personal problems as a result of the intense scrutiny," says Mr. Rozell, noting that Ms. Carter had a difficult time in college and has completely dropped out of public life.