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Is Chelsea fair game?

Although journalists generally agree that our new president and his wife are fair targets for lampooning, the rules of engagement are less definitive when it comes to first daughter Chelsea. Those who do pick on her should be forewarned that they risk running afoul of a protective public. Just ask Thomas Plate, editorial page editor at the Los Angeles Times.

A week before Bill Clinton took office, cartoonist Roman Genn submitted a drawing of 13-year-old Chelsea to illustrate a batch of letters to the editor concerning the Clintons' choice of a private school for their daughter. The profile grossly distorted Chelsea's lips, nose and mane of curly hair, but Plate says he approved it because "it didn't strike anybody" on the editorial staff as unusual. "It was in the style that he does [someone like] Golda Meir. Our mistake was that a 13-year-old is not Golda Meir."

(Genn says he was surprised by the response to the drawing, but that he still believes Chelsea is fair game. "She is and her cat is. Why not? Besides, I didn't do any nasty details as I usually do with politicians. I did a caricature, and when I can exaggerate, I do.")

After the drawing appeared, at least 100 Times readers phoned and nearly 400 wrote to express their disapproval. "The public reaction puts everyone here on notice that she needs to be left alone," Plate says.

The view that the first daughter should be treated with kid gloves is shared by Jim Borgman, editorial cartoonist at the Cincinnati Enquirer. Borgman says that if circumstances call for Chelsea to appear in a cartoon, he'll make a conscious effort not to portray her with malice. "Most cartoonists tend to side with the underdog," he says. "I'd be surprised to see anyone use an easy caricature for a quick laugh."

Sympathy toward Chelsea may stem in part from recollections of the barbs aimed at the last adolescent to live in the White House, Amy Carter. Borgman, who was just getting started as a cartoonist in the late 1970s, admits his treatment of Amy may not have been "particularly mature.... If I had it to do over again, I would probably leave her out of it."

While the Carter family tried to keep Amy from the public eye, President Carter inadvertently made his daughter a punch line during the 1980 campaign when he mentioned that he had discussed nuclear proliferation with her. Cartoonists and satirists had a field day with the idea of the president soliciting advice about such a complex issue from his youngest child.

Chelsea already has been lampooned in skits on NBC's "Saturday Night Live." When People magazine asked President Clinton about one skit, which ridiculed Chelsea's hair and braces, he replied angrily, "You gotta be pretty insensitive to make fun of an adolescent child. There is something pretty off-center about people who do that."

A second skit that implied that guest star Madonna wanted to sleep with her prompted Washington Post columnist Donna Britt to question the notion that Chelsea can be lampooned simply because she is the child of prominent parents. "While media types are experts at pretending adults have no feelings worth considering, we all know how badly kids hurt," wrote Britt, who has an 11-year-old son. Plate agrees, noting that everyone looks awkward during puberty.

Even the editors at Spy, known for its biting satire, say they have no plans to make Chelsea the butt of any jokes. "Picking on someone's child isn't up to our usual standards," sniffs National Editor Jamie Malanowski.

Lambasting someone's brother, however, is another matter. When it comes to Roger Clinton, Malanowski says, "all bets are off."
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Title Annotation:Chelsea Clinton and the press
Author:Gramling, Alex
Publication:American Journalism Review
Date:Mar 1, 1993
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