Kids in the public eye: Where does the line lie?

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ST. PAUL, Minn. (AP) -- The review was scathing. "She cannot sing very well," it said. "She is flat a good deal of the time." So the singer's father did what any loyal dad might. He put pen to paper and dashed off a blistering nastygram.

"Some day I hope to meet you," he wrote. "When that happens you'll need a new nose, a lot of beefsteak for black eyes, and perhaps a supporter below!"

The year was 1950, and the singer was, it's true, receiving far more scrutiny than some of her colleagues on stage. Because at the time of the review, Margaret Truman's angry dad happened to be the president of the United States.

When the offspring of politicians interact with the public, things can get dicey. And understandably so: There's no human issue more personal, more natural than the parental instinct of "Leave my children alone."

Yet sometimes politicians have invited us in, deliberately or otherwise.

John F. Kennedy's kids became national icons because their parents let the cameras in. LBJ's daughter, Lucy, stumped on the campaign trail at age 16. Julie Nixon married an Eisenhower as the world watched. Chelsea Clinton's parents insisted she was completely off limits - a notion tested when they used her as family-friendly scenery during the Monica Lewinsky scandal.

Now comes Sarah Palin, whose pregnant, unmarried daughter is suddenly dealing with attention that could intimidate even the most paparazzi-weary teen idol. Enough, Republicans say - and they have a point.

Yet even as they make it, they're putting 17-year-old Bristol Palin and her boyfriend on stage to present a portrait of a strong, attractive family - a family, Palin said, with "the same ups and downs as any other."

It's easy for things to get muddy, particularly when campaign strategists are involved. But we're living, too, in a coarser culture, one where celebrities' children are all but stalked for photographs of them eating ice cream. Where does the line lie? More to the point, who decides if it gets crossed?

"When public figures use their own children, I think they have to be very cautious about that," says Jane Dickie, a developmental psychologist and professor of women's studies at Hope College in Holland, Mich.

But, she says, that only goes so far. With children, "We as a society have to be clear and say, `This is not acceptable.' The extraordinary scrutiny and shoving cameras and microphones in children's faces is not OK."

Obviously, one factor is age. However good or bad her singing may have been, Margaret Truman was 26 years old at the time of that review. She was an adult fending for herself, and her dad's spirited defense was redundant, if entertaining.

Young children are different, though campaigns have used them for decades. Carl Sferrazza Anthony, historian for the National First Ladies' Library in Canton, Ohio, says even the sainted Lincolns made sure that early photos of two of their boys, Tad and Willie, were copied and distributed for campaign purposes.

A generation later, candidate Benjamin Harrison's grandson, "Baby McKee," was turned into a virtual brand for the 1888 campaign. The media, fascinated, chronicled what the child ate, what he wore, where he went. "The baby was used by his family to get Benjamin Harrison elected," Anthony says.

In Palin's case, an unusual combination of events is creating a unique circumstance. The McCain campaign and Republican leaders have told media to lay off, yet also put Bristol Palin and her boyfriend front and center. After her mother's acceptance speech Wednesday, they ascended the stage and stood together, waving to the public.

"There's a longstanding precedent of children of the candidates being in the public eye as members of families involved in public service," says Tucker Bounds, John McCain's spokesman. "There is also a longstanding precedent of candidates' children being left out of the hardball politics of campaigning for higher office."

Political leaders, though, are becoming celebrities, and the media's hunger for celebrity rarely stops with the stars themselves. Witness the intense desire for early looks at the newborn twins of Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt. Politicians' kids, too, end up ensnared in a net not of their making.

"They've become a little more fair game, as all celebrities' children have," says John Matviko, a professor at West Liberty State College in West Virginia and editor of "The American President in Popular Culture."

"I don't think it's a good thing," he says, "but I don't think it's something that's going to go away."

Anthony cites Caroline Kennedy as a useful model. Though she became part of the alluring photographic record of her father's administration once he took office, she wasn't made available for photographs during the 1960 campaign.

Growing up is hard enough. But growing up not only in the public eye, but while your parent is being watched, criticized and photographed from every angle? It's almost unimaginable, though Bristol Palin handled it with visible grace on Wednesday night. It fit her mother's compelling narrative of a strong family in all its shiny and blemished glory, ready to help lead America.

"If there is one thing I have learned, it is that it is difficult to establish your identity and independence as the son or daughter of a politician," McCain's daughter, Meghan, wrote on her blog Monday, expressing empathy for the Palin kids and what they're facing.

"It's a rough go," she wrote. "You can't fully understand it unless you have lived it."


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