By Emma Austin
Today, the president’s children can’t make one mistake, even a wrong outfit choice, without prompting a media frenzy. However, reporters haven’t always paid such close attention to the first family. This timeline looks back at some of the presidents and their families, beginning with Grover Cleveland, who married a woman 27 years his junior after he was elected to the White House. Continue on to read about how the way media covers presidential families has changed over the past 100 years.
Cleveland entered the White House for his first term in 1885 as a bachelor just a few years shy of 50. People speculated about who would be his bride, and for his first few years in office his sister, Rose Cleveland, acted as first lady.
Oscar Folsom, a law partner and longtime close friend of Cleveland’s, left behind a wife and daughter when he died in 1875 in a carriage accident. Many speculated whether Cleveland would marry his friend’s wife, Emma Folsom, or daughter, Frances Folsom.
“People were pretty convinced there was no way he was going to marry Frances,” said Annette Dunlap, author of Frank: The Story of Frances Folsom Cleveland in a C-SPAN interview. “She was way too young. It had to be Emma.”
Cleveland did in fact marry Frances, a woman 27 years his junior who grew up calling him “Uncle Cleve.”
Grover and Frances Cleveland became the first and only presidential couple to get married in the White House. The wedding was held in the Blue Room with family and Cabinet couples in attendance. Reporters even beat the newlyweds to their honeymoon location, where they waited for the couple, who had been delayed.
“If you think about the 1880s, it was probably the age of newspapers,” Dunlap said. All major cities had multiple newspapers in a constant competition to find the best story that would make the most money first. Some of the newspapers most likely to sell well were the ones who could find out what Frances Cleveland was doing, what she was wearing, who she was seeing, and as Dunlap said, “It didn’t hurt if they made a little bit of it up, either.”
Before he got married or entered the White House, Cleveland dealt with a scandal when newspapers got word of the possibility he fathered an illegitimate child during his political rise in New York. The Chicago Tribune reported widow Maria Halpin’s story in October of 1884, including her statement describing what transpired between herself and Cleveland one evening over 10 years prior in December of 1873:
“I met Grover Cleveland, whose acquaintance I had formed months previous to that time. The said Cleveland asked me to go with him to take dinner, which invitation I declined because of my prior engagement. By persistent requests and urgings he induced me to accompany him to the restaurant at the Ocean House, where we dined. After dinner he accompanied me to my room at Randall’s boarding-house on Swan street, as he had quite frequently done previous to this time, and where my son lived with me. While in my rooms he accomplished my ruin by the use of force and violence and without my consent. After he had accomplished his purpose he told me that he was determined to secure my ruin if it cost him $10,000, or if he was hanged by the neck for it. I then and there told him that I never wanted to see him again, and commanded him to go away, which he did. I never saw him after this until my condition became such that it was necessary for me to send for him, some six weeks later, to inform him of the consequences of his action.”
Halpin continued to say Cleveland responded to her note and made light of the situation but promised to “do what was honorable” and marry her, which he never did.
As the scandal followed him closely during his presidential campaign, Cleveland offered the story admitting to his relationship with Halpin but said that Halpin had similar relationships with several other men, including many of Cleveland’s married friends. As the only bachelor in the group, Cleveland said he claimed paternity even though he wasn’t certain the child was his to protect his friends.
Luckily for Cleveland, the Republican candidate, Sen. James Blaine, had his own scandals to deal with when newspapers shamed him for trading congressional favors for cash, and Cleveland won the election despite the rape allegations.
The Chicago Tribune reported in August 1884 that “The Washington Capital, a Democratic organ, advises Cleveland to get married. By doing so he will satisfy a large section of the party, and will do much to put an end to some of the scandalous stories told about him,” according to the newspaper’s archives.
His marriage to Frances did seem to distract the public from any remnants of Cleveland’s sex scandals prior to taking office. Americans were very interested in the beautiful, young wife of their president. Dunlap said, “she was always a news item” and had to manage the press and its attention on her.
Frances was the first first lady to give birth while her husband was in office. Their first child, Ruth, was born in 1891 in New York City during the time between Cleveland’s two terms. Esther Cleveland was born in 1893, the only child to be born at the White House. The Clevelands later had three more children, a daughter, Marion, and two sons, Richard and Francis.
Theodore Roosevelt was the first president to bring a large family to live with him at the White House, including six children ranging 13 years in age.
Theodore Roosevelt was the first president to bring a large family to live with him at the White House, including six children ranging 13 years in age.
“Never before had the White House been occupied by so many, so young, and so untamed a set of children,” George Juergens writes in his book Theodore Roosevelt and the Press. “Their escapades kept the country enthralled, and ensured that even on slow days, the Roosevelt name would still be featured prominently in the press.”
Theodore Roosevelt is known for welcoming reporters into the White House, even going so far as to have a work room set up off the main lobby for the press when Congress approved a renovation to add the west wing for office space.
While these arrangements seem meant to be helpful to White House correspondents, Juergens points out that Roosevelt’s motives were entirely altruistic.
“His major purpose in bringing the press into the White House, and later institutionalizing the relationship by providing permanent quarters, was to make it easier to generate publicity about himself,” Juergens writes.
While Roosevelt was constantly pursuing publicity and positive press coverage, he refused to exploit the news value of his children, even though they were surely underfoot and around the closely-watched reporters daily. Juergens writes about the children’s games and treatment of the White House as their playground, roller skating and riding bicycles down the hallways, swimming in the fountain, depositing rodents and snakes in the White House furniture, and a favorite pastime: crawling through the air space between the floors and ceilings.
Jeurgens suggests Alice, the oldest child who was 17 years old when her father took office, “was easily the most prolific of the newsmakers” among the Roosevelt children because her age made it more difficult to keep her “escapades” concealed from public view. Her impulsivity and unconventional behavior made her a popular topic for reporters, who saw similarities between her and her father, and the public devoured the stories about Alice.
Reporters described her “romps and rebellion” in vivid detail, according to Politico Magazine, sometimes crowding her father’s accomplishments off the front pages. She smoked, she chewed gum, she wore pants, she placed bets on horses, she sped through D.C. streets often driving alone with male passengers.
Juergens said a friend once asked Roosevelt why he didn’t look after Alice more, to which Roosevelt said, “Listen. I can be President of the United States—or—I can attend to Alice.”
Apparently, he couldn’t do both, so Alice continued to enjoy her freedom while the press followed her closely to get stories that would sell papers.
Although Roosevelt worried Alice might ruin his chances at re-election, the public seemed to have quite an admiration for the carefree teenager in the White House. The press even gave her the title “Princess Alice,” reflecting general American sentiment.
“The importance of the Roosevelt years is not that the process began then, but that modern journalism, together with a newsworthy family, brought it to a new dimension,” Juergens writes. He says one of the explanations of power flow to the White House during the 20th century is the “personalization and glorification” of the president and his family.
“In a sense, Roosevelt’s lively brood did more than help him dominate the news; by being newsworthy, they contributed in their own way to changing the nature of the office he filled.”
If Frances Cleveland and Alice Roosevelt planted the seed for the beginning of the public’s interest in presidents’ families and personal lives, the Kennedys increased public attention to the first family tenfold.
The young, attractive president appeared regularly on television, taking Franklin D. Roosevelt’s fireside chats to a new level as Americans could hear and watch their president speak in their own homes. His wife, Jackie Kennedy, was young and fashionable and became a trendsetter that Americans could follow and idolize.
The press took advantage of this newfound interest in the first family. Kennedy was more than a politician; he was a representation of the American Dream, and his family man depiction was common across the media.
In December of 1960, a LIFE magazine cover page showed him with Jackie and their newborn son at the baby’s christening. Jackie had a newspaper column called “Campaign Wife,” and made herself available to media to support her husband during her pregnancy and his campaign.
After her husband’s election, she continued to make herself available to the press, but she was strict about reporters’ access to her children.
Hillary Clinton wrote in her book It Takes a Village about asking Jackie for tips about first kids, to which “she stressed the importance of giving children as normal a life as possible, of granting them the chance to fight their private battles while protecting them from public exposure.”
Sorenson writes in his book Kennedy that the president “wanted as much privacy as possible for his personal family life, but those were subjects on which the press wanted as much publicity as possible.” Kennedy’s attractive, photogenic family had led to much of the favorable publicity he received both before and during his presidency, Sorenson writes. He did allow reporters and photographers into his office and home in his mindfulness for current and future publicity.
Even during the election, Kennedy knew the value children had in helping him win over his country. Presidential historian Michael Beschloss said in a C-SPAN interview that after Kennedy won the election, he joked to Jackie and his friend’s wife, who was also pregnant, “All right, girls, you can take the pillows out, we’ve won.”
Perhaps more than any previous presidential family, the Clintons tried very hard to protect their daughter’s privacy.
All the Clintons could really do was try to prepare Chelsea, who was 12 years old when her father took office, to deal with the many privacy battles and unkind media attention she would encounter during her father’s presidency.
“We had tried to give [Chelsea] the tools to deal with the hurt from which we could not shield her, and we had to hope that as a resilient young woman, she would know how to use them,” Hillary wrote in “It Takes a Village.”
Newspapers wrote in 1992 about the Clintons’ wariness of bringing their quiet, shy daughter to the White House and ending any semblance of normalcy in her life. By 1993, the Sydney Morning Herald had declared it “open season on ridiculing Chelsea,” writing that a first child “gives the country a licence to do what most people consider themselves pretty adept at: pontificating on how other people are bringing up their children.”
Despite her parents’ attempts at protecting her, Chelsea still faced ruthlessly insensitive attacks from different media outlets and tabloids who took advantage of her awkward teenage years. During the election, USA Today compared Chelsea, for whom the best they could say was that she didn’t reach for her father’s hand when appearing on national television, with the three Gore sisters, “a trio of blonde goddesses, serene and self-possessed.”
Saturday Night Live joked about Chelsea’s frizzy hair and braces, and one tabloid even ran a piece called “Why are the Democrats’ daughters so ugly?”
Both Bill and Hillary Clinton condemned the insensitivity of those making fun of a child.
Chelsea’s difficult life in the public eye began early, just after she turned 12, when Gennifer Flowers publicly alleged her affair with Clinton.
After Clinton told the world about his sexual affair with Monica Lewinsky a few years later, newspapers turned their attention to Chelsea to document her reaction. The Toronto Star reported the same day Chelsea was handling the situation “with surprising maturity” and reported friends close to the family said Chelsea had been “fully aware of all the stories about his adultery.”
In 1997, USA Today reported Chelsea Clinton had “overcome” her growing pains since she arrived in Washington as a “gawky” 12-year-old. Still, the press kept a close eye on her, following her decision to travel to the West Coast for college, far away from the media frenzy soon to come once the Lewinsky scandal would arise.
Now in adulthood, Chelsea Clinton has come to the defense of other first children facing press criticism. She recently defended the privacy of Malia Obama after a video went viral showing Malia blowing smoke rings, tweeting:
Chelsea also defended Donald Trump’s youngest son, Barron, when the Daily Caller targeted the 11-year-old for not dressing up enough on an outing with his parents, and tweeted:
The Bush family followed the Clintons’ example by trying to protect the privacy of their daughters, Barbara and Jenna, as much as they could.
The twin sisters were 19 when their father was elected president in 2000 following his term as Texas governor. George W. and Laura Bush rarely spoke about their daughters in public or in response to questions from reporters.
“I think members of the press, particularly those who have children, understand what it means to be a dad concerned about his daughter,” the president once said, according to San Jose Mercury News.
The twins didn’t often join their parents on the campaign trail before the election and seemed to blend into the background on the occasion they did make a public appearance. They generally kept low profiles, but news networks like the New York Post speculated in December of 2000 that their years of living media free would start to change once they entered the White House.
“In just a few weeks, they’ll be the most youthful and stylish women in the White House since Jackie Kennedy,” one reporter wrote.
Once they came into the spotlight, it wasn’t long before the twins got into trouble. Jenna was cited during summer of 2001 with buying alcohol underage, and again a month later when she and her sister tried using fake IDs to try to order a margarita at a restaurant in Texas.
Jenna and Barbara became the subject of international headlines for their repeated charges of underage drinking like “Jenna and Tonic,” “Double Trouble” and “Busted Again in Margaritaville.” People criticized them for their “bad girl” behavior and questioned the Bushes’ parenting skills.
The constant coverage of the twins and their extracurricular activities brought up the privacy debate; like any president’s children, they hadn’t chosen for themselves a life in the spotlight. Legally, of course, the twins didn’t have any right to privacy regarding an event that occurred in public, but the reporting brought up questions of journalistic ethics, such as not reporting until formal police charges are filed when it’s a minor crime or misdemeanor.
While the children of the presidents have all faced their share of criticism from the media, another common theme in their struggles with publicity is dealing with having even worse things be written about their parents.
The Bush twins wrote a letter to the Obama daughters in January as they prepared to move out of the White House reflecting on this challenge, writing, “Your precious parents were reduced to headlines,” according to The New York Times.
This year after the release of their new book, Sisters First, the sisters reflected together on their time in the spotlight on the radio show “On Point.”
“Seeing those things didn’t feel good,” Jenna said about the news stories. “It’s hard, to remember how bad it felt, but I definitely think it caused anxiousness, and we felt bad for our parents. . . after we called our dad, he apologized to us because he didn’t want to see us splashed over the headlines either. We were 19.”
In 2014, a GOP communications director blasted Barack Obama’s two daughters, Malia and Sasha, after they appeared with their father at the annual Thanksgiving turkey pardon for their attire. She criticized their clothing and facial expressions during the televised event.
While the woman’s comments faced severe backlash, several media outlets also commented on their “bored, exasperated or just…teenager-ly” looks. USA Today For The Win reported “their side eye game was strong,” and Gawker commented on their “TEEN CONTEMPT” toward their father’s jokes at the pardon.
In 2016, a video clip went viral after being posted by Radar Online of Malia smoking what appeared to be marijuana, bringing many to her defense while many others criticized both her and the Obamas’ parenting methods.
The two girls, who were 10 and 7 when Obama took office, continue to be monitored closely by the media even months after their father left office. In August of this year, Sasha was photographed kissing a boy at a summer music festival, which was followed by an onslaught of attacks on her character as well as that of her parents from social media users.
One gossip website wrote about the Lollapalooza incident and said it was “not the first time Barack’s gorgeous teenage daughter has been spotted getting wet and wild with friends,” calling her decision to fraternize with other teenagers and wear a bathing suit while at the beach “bad-girl behavior.” Last year, Malia faced similar backlash for dancing with friends at the same festival.
Bustle cited studies showing women experience slut-shaming at a much higher rate than men and boys to say it’s “hard to believe” double standards of both gender and race have nothing to do with the outrage over seeing Sasha kissing a young man at a music festival.
During an interview with author Roxane Gay this September, Michelle said her daughters sometimes have trouble coping with all the attention they receive from the media, fans and critics alike, People reported.
Malia, who started as a freshman at Harvard this year, recently dealt with another viral video of herself blowing smoke rings. Many social media users came to her defense, telling the media to leave her alone and respect her privacy, including Chelsea Clinton and Ivanka Trump.
College USA Today digital producer Kalina Newman criticized the continuous attention and attacks the two girls have had to face.
“No one deserves to be stalked and exploited like they have,” Newman wrote. “They’re just girls—Sasha is only 16. They haven’t been offered time and space to be themselves and make mistakes.”
Eleven-year-old Barron Trump hasn’t been able to escape occasional media scrutiny, either. In August, a Daily Caller reporter criticized him for wearing a t-shirt and khaki shorts, once again spurring many to once again condemn mean-spirited media coverage of the presidential children, who many say should be off-limits.
Melania Trump’s spokeswoman Stephanie Grisham told the Associated Press in response to the article, “As with all previous administrations, we ask that the media give Barron his privacy. He is a minor child and deserves every opportunity to have a private childhood.”
Chelsea Clinton came to his defense as well through a tweet denouncing the stories about his clothing, saying “It’s high time the media & everyone leave Barron Trump alone & let him have the private childhood he deserves.”
“Barron is A KID. No child should be talked about in the below manner-in real life or online. And for an adult to do so? For shame,” she said in another tweet linking to the Daily Caller article.
This wasn’t the first time people online were unkind to Barron. Following the inauguration ceremony in January, countless Twitter users poked fun at his facial expressions during the parade and ceremony. “Saturday Night Live” writer Katie Rich was suspended from the show indefinitely after she tweeted that “Barron will be this country’s first homeschool shooter,” The Washington Post reported.
The social media age has allowed Barron’s father to tweet his every waking thought, and it allows everyone else to do so as well. Today, anyone can post a meme or make fun of anyone, including the president’s son.