WASHINGTON -- As the daughter at the heart of the nation's most-watched family crisis, Chelsea Clinton is increasingly becoming fair game to a media that has long agreed to avoid her as a subject.
"Grace Under Fire," a People magazine cover story that hits newsstands today, is a piece -- largely complimentary -- focusing on Chelsea's relationship with her mother during the family's crisis over the Monica Lewinsky controversy.
The Clintons said Wednesday in a statement that they were "deeply saddened" by the story, which they contend breaks an informal agreement with the media that for six years has kept Chelsea coverage mostly limited to occasional photographs.
The story, which the White House calls the first cover story on Chelsea in a mainstream magazine, purports to be "an intimate look at the deep bond of love that sustains the Clinton women through their painful family ordeal."
People defended the piece, saying Chelsea is "nearly 19 and a poised young adult" whose role in the family makes her newsworthy.
"We feel that because she is an eyewitness to the family drama and historical events unfolding around her she is a valid journalistic subject," Carol Wallace, People managing editor, said in a statement released this week in response to the White House.
Chelsea has appeared on the cover of People before, in a story about the Clinton family ties that was written with the cooperation of the White House. But this piece comes against the first family's will, as the Clintons tried to stop the story before it ran.
"Unfortunately, despite personal appeals with respect to her privacy and her security from her parents, People magazine has chosen to run the story," the Clintons said. "We can only hope that the media will continue its policy of restraint with respect to our daughter."
In the piece, People describes the Stanford University sophomore as "furious" at her father after he revealed his sexual relationship with Lewinsky to her and her mother in August.
But the story shows her putting a brave face to the world.
A friend of the family is quoted saying that on the night of her father's impeachment, she was "so upbeat and teenage." "She came running in and said, 'I've got to run. I'm so late for a party, my friends are going to kill me,' " the friend is quoted as saying.
The story says Chelsea wakes up early and consumes the papers with news of the scandal in the early morning, but shows no hint of hard feelings once her housemates appear.
Beyond the scandal, the article also delves into Chelsea's romantic life, describing her recent breakup with Matthew Pierce, a Stanford swimmer. It also brings up (although downplaying) the tabloid reports that she was sent to the university's health center after suffering a collapse after splitting with that boyfriend of six months.
While Chelsea is not a frequent subject of news stories, she is not invisible.
Just last month, Clinton mentioned Chelsea and the governor's mansion where he helped raise her when he addressed victims of a tornado that ripped through Little Rock. And first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton mentioned Chelsea six times in a 1996 speech at the Democratic National Convention, according to Brookings Institution presidential scholar Stephen Hess.
After arriving at the White House in January 1993 as a 12-year-old in braces, Chelsea had something of a media coming-out two years later when she was photographed with her mother at the Taj Mahal on a trip to India. Over the years, Chelsea went from the girl in ballet slippers in "The Nutcracker" to the teen-ager in a slate gray mini-skirt at the president's second inauguration.
Perhaps the most powerful photograph came in August, when Chelsea walked across the South Lawn holding her mother's and father's hands just after Clinton admitted having an improper relationship with Lewinsky in a speech to the nation.
In that photo, Chelsea appeared as the peacemaker, bridging her parents as they set out for Martha's Vineyard. And she stepped in front of her parents to work the rope line once they reached the island.
Clinton critic Rich Galen, director of GOPAC, a conservative organization that raises money for Republican candidates, said the Clintons' outrage over the People story seems hypocritical.
"They were perfectly happy to use Chelsea in the photo on the South Lawn," he said. "I don't think the White House was horrified at that media coverage."
Yesterday, Marsha Berry, spokeswoman for the first lady, countered that the first family has always fought for Chelsea's privacy and will continue to do so.
"The fact that this story exists at all and is a cover story is very troublesome" to the Clintons, she said.
The Brookings Institution's Hess noted that first daughters have become the subject of news stories in the past: In Jimmy Carter's presidential debate in 1980, he talked about having a conversation about nuclear testing with his young daughter, Amy. Critics accused Carter of using his daughter for his political purposes in that case, and some also suggested he was trying to make a political point by sending Amy to public school in the district during his presidency.
Pub Date: 2/05/99