In the most recent example of media fascination with the lives of first children, British tabloid the Daily Mail published a story Monday with a picture Malia Obama shared on Facebook showing Post-it Notes that described President Trump as “evil.” The piece ended with the observation that her boyfriend hadn’t been seen with her last week in Miami, where the tabloid revealed that Obama, who turns 21 later this year, had been seen drinking rosé.
And then, like the rest of the stories about the children of presidents whose personal lives are probed for gossip, the article was immediately slammed for its lack of editorial value.
“Wait, Malia Obama hates the dude who fueled an 8-year campaign of racist lies claiming her dad wasn’t born in America? Go figure,” wrote the screenwriter Randi Mayem Singer, referring to Trump’s birther conspiracy about Obama.
“OMG Malia Obama is a human with political opinions and also enjoys wine,” mocked conservative commentator Ben Shapiro.
“Malia Obama is a private citizen,” tweeted fellow first daughter Chelsea Clinton, whose comments were seconded by former first daughter Jenna Bush Hager.
Susan Ford Bales, daughter of former president Gerald Ford, said in 2010 that she never got over the constant eyes of the press, but still couldn’t fathom the same scrutiny in the Internet age.
“It’s changed so drastically,” Bales said in an oral history project with the Gerald R. Ford Presidential Foundation. “The White House days then and the White House days now, the press really followed the children, but we didn’t have 24-hour news back then. And today you’ve got this 24/7 stuff, and I cannot imagine being there now. ... I’m sitting there looking at what they are doing with Chelsea Clinton’s wedding. Come on, she’s not in the White House anymore. Please.”
The tendency to delve into the lives of first children has long been seen as faux pas, yet the practice continues. Barron Trump’s T-shirts, for example, managed to slip into the news cycle in 2017, again drawing rebuke from Clinton. Malia and Sasha Obama, coming of age just as social media was on the rise, were frequently the subjects of viral articles, ranging from Malia standing at a beer-pong table to Sasha wearing a bikini on vacation.
The tabloids didn’t need the Internet, however, to turn first children into objects of public fascination more than a century ago. The White House Historical Association notes that Alice Roosevelt Longworth, daughter of President Theodore Roosevelt, became a fawned-over celebrity after the turn of the century as magazines and newspapers obsessed over her fashion choices and rebellious spirit. She made headlines for carrying a snake in her purse named Emily Spinach — “to the delight (and horror) of some White House visitors,” the historical association wrote — and was seen as scandalous for smoking cigarettes. When the president ordered her to stop smoking “under his roof,” she reportedly climbed on top of the roof to smoke there instead.
In later decades, first daughters would be ragged on for everything from report cards to party outfits — and unlike Roosevelt, many did not revel in the sometimes-vile coverage.
Luci Baines Johnson, daughter of President Lyndon B. Johnson, lamented to Newsweek in 1965 that “we don’t get paid, but we sure get criticized,” recounting the time “complete strangers” scolded her for bad grades and then accused her of bragging once the White House shared the news that she was getting B’s.
Physical appearances, over the years, have been a constant source of attention. There was the time when then-17-year-old Bales had to explain to Seventeen magazine why she decided to wear blue jeans the day the family moved into the White House, a wardrobe choice that for some reason shocked the press. “What else would you wear on moving day?” she told Seventeen frankly.
There was the time that conservative radio host Rush Limbaugh called Amy Carter the “most unattractive presidential daughter in the history of the country.” And the other time Limbaugh compared Clinton to a dog. And the time “Saturday Night Live” poked fun at Clinton in a “Wayne’s World” sketch, saying she was “not a babe” and that “adolescence had been unkind” to her, drawing the ire of then-first lady Hillary Clinton.
There was the time Patti Davis, daughter of President Ronald Reagan, said she was singled out by a journalist for being inappropriately dressed at a cocktail party honoring Queen Elizabeth.
Davis shared the memory as an open letter to Sasha and Malia Obama in 2014, after a Republican congressional aide accused the Obama daughters of dressing as if they were going to a bar, telling them to “try showing a little class.”
“While there isn’t anything normal about the life you are living right now, you still can be,” Davis wrote to the Obama daughters. “An adult woman attacking you the way she did is despicable. Take it for what it is and be glad you are the smart and well-adjusted girls you are.”
Like Malia, President George W. Bush’s twin daughters, Jenna and Barbara, both were scrutinized for underage drinking. Police cited the sisters for underage alcohol offenses at a Mexican restaurant in 2001, and that same year Jenna was also seen drinking beer at an Austin nightclub. Tabloids ran headlines like “Double Trouble.”
But that media frenzy also inspired some soul-searching, as some reporters questioned whether it was acceptable.
In 2013, one of the columnists who covered it at the time, Joan Walsh, admitted she “wouldn’t write that column today.”