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Placed Under a Media Microscope

Chelsea Clinton

By Joanna M. Weiss

MEET THE GORES, the Beautiful People of American politics. Barbie and Ken meet Election '92.

Observe dashing Vice Presidential nominee AI Jr. '69, tall and handsome, the son of a senator. See tipper, bright and confident, with her pug-nose and shellacked hair. And look at their children--blond, glowing, pretty, stylish. The resilient Gore kids overcame adversity to beam and wave on national television. They'll never know the horror of frizzy hair or the burden of Oxy 10.

NOW MEET CHELSEA CLINTON. She's cute--in that awkward 12-year-old way. But the emphasis is on awkward. Her dresses don't fit her quite right. She inherited her father's hair. She looks uncomfortable in the limelight.

You've got to feel for Chelsea. No matter how much her parents try to shield her from the spotlight, the public will continue to scrutinize everything from her hairdo to her clothing to her speech. And if her dad makes it into the White House, things will only get worse. Seventeen will publish a spread on 1600 Pennsylvania avenue's youngest resident; Sassy will run an interview and print every "like" and "um" Chelsea utters. She will be thrust headfirst into the role of American Spokesteen.

A presidential parent, after all, is a springboard to media attention. The Reagan kids used it to their advantage: Ron Jr. gleaned a Hollywood career, albeit short-lived, and his sibling Patti Davis sold a mountain of books. But media coverage isn't always profitable, and is often uncomfortably probing. Reporters followed Amy Carter's exploits even after her father lost his reelection. Paparazzis flooded Caroline Kennedy's wedding. And the watchful, shallow eye of the media spared none of them from harsh scrutiny.

WE AMERICANS are catty. We take perverse interest in appearances and perverse pleasure in gaffes. We support a magazine that annually features a list of the worstdressed celebrities. And we take our comedians mean-spirited, thank you.

As maliciousness grows increasingly appealing, image has grown increasingly important. Public figures don't necessarily have to be attractive--observe Ross Perot--but they do need charisma. And their every move is subject to hyper-examination. Back in the 1960 Presidential debates, Richard M. Nixon drew scorn for his sweat and his misapplied TV makeup. today, pundits overanalyze Barbara Bush's faux pearls. It's all part of the same game: looks first and substance later, if ever.

People remember pictures, and the Clinton campaign has its share of winning images. In a precious film clip, teenaged bill Clinton shakes hands with President Kennedy. Bold Hillary Rodham strides across the Yale Law School library and introduces herself to a gawking fellow student.

It also has its share of images that aren't so picture-perfect. Gennifer Flowers cries foul at a press conference. Bill grasps a joint and attempts to inhale. Poor Chelsea stands stiffly in a polka-dot dress.

THE PICTURES, of course, only skim the surface, and a choice based on image alone is likely to backfire. George Bush learned this lesson in 1988 when he targeted a young, attractive running mate--who unleashes a stream of garbled English every time he opens his mouth. Dan Quayle seemed to follow the recipe for media appeal; he had the hair, the smile and the political family. Despite the calculations, something went awry.

Al Gore's political career won't go the way of Dan Quayle's. Clinton chose the senator for far more than his all-American looks, and his fans in the party applaud his stands on the issues. But amidst the hoopla about his environmentalism and his foreign policy record, people still grasp for pictures. Why else do Democrats quiver in anticipation of a Gore-Quayle debate?

The difference is, Gore asked to be subject to the image mill, and so did Quayle. It's politics as usual for them. But Chelsea Clinton never wanted to be a star. It seems an unfortunate fate for a very normal 12-year-old. As if adolescence weren't wretched enough in solitude, hers is now entertainment for 50 million viewers.

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