All the Presidents’ Spawn

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The First Objects


Presidents are expected to be made of stronger stuff than the citizens who elect them. They’re supposed to be Ivy-League educated intellects with clean homes, religious devotion and lasting marriages. We hold our leaders to Puritan standards so rigid that the rest of us gave up on them decades, if not centuries, ago. That’s especially evident in the expectations we have for presidential children. Even after America’s sexual revolution, we have asked our leaders to exert a firm control over their offspring: First Children have had their libidos tamped down, lest some stray pheromone jump onto a potential voter and imply that there might be sex in the Lincoln bedroom. It seemed clangingly incongruous when John Kennedy Jr. was named one of People magazine’s Sexiest Men Alive. Little John-John? The son of a late president? But, boy, was he hot. Kennedy, now sadly gone, was just the tip of the frigidity iceberg that presidential children continue to hold a blowtorch to as our expectations about them continue to evolve.
     In fact, they’ve evolved so much that this year, nearly all the president’s spawn (Mary Cheney, please proceed to the White House basement, close the door behind you, enjoy your stay) have been paraded around America’s college campuses, lathering up libidos and hoping that talking young voters into booths can be achieved with roughly the same flirty tactics as talking them into bed. On a national stage at the Republican National Convention in August, the two deftly clad daughters of the American president chided their grandmother, former First Lady Barbara Bush, for thinking that “Sex in the City [sic] was something that married people did!” Little do the Bush twins realize how narrowly they escaped four years of being pinned down, laced up and fitted with chastity belts.
    Consider the presidential daughters of the ’60s. Perhaps the Johnson girls were the last perfectly attractive presidential daughters of the television age. Call Lynda Bird and Lucy Baines the proto-Chelseas: young women thrown in front of the cameras at an unflattering moment. Perhaps it was the Johnson girls’ pale, closed faces that made blond,

The Johnson daughters
Tricia and Julie Nixon

Ron Reagan Jr., in underwear, hosting SNL

Patti Davis

Chelsea Clinton

The Gore girls

Barbara and Jenna Bush

Chris Heinz

Alexandra Kerry

sunny Tricia and Julie Nixon look appealing by comparison. The Nixon girls were physically attractive products of their times: Ann-Margret sexy, kittenish and buttoned down appropriately for the late 1960s. They appealed to imaginations willing to wonder what foundation garments might be living under the sweater sets in the years when other, naughtier daughers were swirling around the country braless. But whatever sweaty imaginative pleasures the Nixon girls may have inspired, they were safely taken and scandal-free: Julie was already married to Dwight Eisenhower’s son David when father became president in 1969, and Tricia wed lawyer Edward Cox in the White House Rose Garden in 1971.
    Amy Carter, a Mia Farrow lookalike who was nine when she entered the White House and thirteen when she left it, was happily too young to register on anyone’s sexual thermostat. Her brand of troublemaking — before she went on to get arrested at Brown University for protesting apartheid — consisted mostly of piping up at the dinner table in front of foreign dignitaries.
    It’s funny how many daughters there are in the executive office. It’s the type of thing you don’t
notice until you consider the Johnson girls, Nixon girls, Gore girls, Bush girls, Kerry girls, not to mention the one-offs: Amy Carter, Chelsea Clinton. But perhaps it’s the attention paid to the hordes of First Daughters that has left television-age presidential sons hungry for whatever individual spotlight they can find. Take Steven Ford, the unfortunately toothy son of Gerald Ford, who is recognizable to fans of 1989’s When Harry Met Sally as Sally’s boyfriend Joe, the one who makes out with her at the airport and never had sex with her on the cold tile floor. It’s a good thing that his father was ten years out of office by the time it was released.
    Ronald Reagan wasn’t so lucky with his heat-seeking son, Ron Reagan Jr., who worked his own brand of disruptive magic in the Reagan family’s 1980s reign by becoming a ballet dancer whose sexual orientation were a favorite source of speculation. Reagan was goofy and affable back then, a son hungry for attention. But even despite the whispered flap about his proclivities, he didn’t present the public with a sense of danger, or of heat.
    But his sister did.
    Patti Davis was pissed off — at her father, at her family, at her mother, at the political situation in America. She flashed her finger at the Great Communicator in every way she could, from publicly resisting the wave of conservatism that washed over the U.S. with his 1980 election, to dabbling in written erotica, writing a damning autobiography about her family and finally posing for Playboy. Patti came off as whip-smart, angry, tough. She represented dissent, renegade power and fury. Patti Davis was the first White House daughter who turned the regressive Puritan expectations for a First Family on their head. But, oddly, all of her outright eroticism and blatant anger leached any of her raw sensuality. If the appeal of the covered-up Nixon brats was their ability to inspire fantasy, Davis left us without much to imagine. She didn’t seduce anyone into electing or re-electing her father; though she was perhaps the only thing that made us feel better about having done so.
    By the time George Bush Sr. made it into the White House, his children were grown enough that they sparked no one’s interest. They had “little brown” children of their own, and one of those, George P. got hot fast, during the Clinton administration. By the time his uncle George was racing against Al Gore in 2000, George P. was being hauled onto the stage of the Republican convention in Philadelphia, put forward as catnip for young female voters. He wasn’t technically a candidate’s offspring, but the decision to use George P. — who was and is one of the most attractive Republicans around — was the first real instance of political strategists trying to squeeze an attractive family member for whatever erotic juice he could offer, instead of trying to sterilize the whole bunch.
    Of course, Clinton had enough rampant sex appeal for his whole family — perhaps for the whole nation — and his daughter, Chelsea, suffered grievously in the crosshairs of a television lens. Saturday Night Live didn’t show a quiver of hesitation about nationally lampooning her braces, freckles, overbite and the most buoyant hair ever seen on a shiksa. Poor Chelsea’s plight was only exacerbated in comparison to the three Gore girls. Disciples of the No Sex Please, We’re Exquisite school of femininity, the Gore sisters were exactly what healthy, athletic American youth should look like: blond and muscular and thin. They were beer drinkers, and the kind of girls who probably smoked some pot and had sex on their parents’ basement sofa in high school. But in the same way parents pretend their kids aren’t fucking in the rec room, a nation could deal with their obvious sexuality. The fact that they looked alike, and frequently stood together giggling, made them fetish objects. When their father ran for president against George Bush, it’s no accident that his major weapon was eldest daughter Karenna. She was married, and a mother, by the time she stumped for Al, but in a family that seemed un-shy about running on lust — remember Al and Tipper’s public make-out sessions? — Karenna presented a slightly more palatable figure of desire.
    This year, there’s no more pussyfooting around. The high-collared rags of Puritan values have been stripped from both sides of the aisle, and we have an out-and-out challenge between John Kerry and George Bush’s sexually viable spawn: it’s about sex and about beauty and bodies and clothes and great smiles and throaty laughs.
    Jenna and Barbara Bush arrived in the world with the oft-fetishized sexual advantage of being twins. Already they were interesting to a certain percentage of the electorate. Mostly invisible during their father’s first presidential bid, the girls have really stepped out during this one. Barbara is a twig who frankly looks like she needs to get laid. Jenna is a bumptious, boisterous blond with a smoky voice and fun-loving air that makes her irresistible, even if you hate her father’s politics. But while the girls are hitting dance clubs and bars so openly that even Patti Davis might be taken aback, its unclear whether Bush himself is scandalized by the flirty silken tops and tight jeans the women favor and his campaign strategists must surely have approved. “I need to put them on leashes,” their father joked in his first debate with his opponent. It’s an old line – one that reminds listeners of the days when women’s sexuality was something that needed to be strapped down and contained by their fathers before it spilled out and ruptured into full-blown womanhood.
    On the opposing team is the world’s first presumptive First Bo-hunk, Chris Heinz. The stepson of Democratic candidate John Kerry, Heinz has a strong jawline, dark curly hair you want to run your hands through, and a good boy’s smile. The youngest of Teresa Heinz Kerry’s three sons with her first husband, the late Republican Senator John Heinz, Chris attended Yale and was a Wall Street money guy before quitting to work full time on his stepfather’s campaign. He favors sweaters, but you know he works out. Heinz has made a name for
himself as something of a playboy — he’s dating models and, some years ago, Gwyneth herself.
    Heinz has been dragged to every college campus, every young people’s benefit concert, every Hamptons baby rally. The theory behind his front-and-center presence in the campaign seems directly proportional to Kerry advisors belief that if you want to touch someone’s abs, you will also be eager to write a check for his stepfather’s presidential bid.
    Then there are Heinz’s stepsisters, filmmaker Alexandra and med-school student Vanessa. The Betty and Veronica of the campaign trail, the Kerry daughters have inherited their father’s equine face but have amazing bodies on which to show it off. They, like their stepbrother, are pretty hot. And if you didn’t think so before, you probably changed your mind about it when stormy brunette Alexandra was photographed in a translucent black dress at the Cannes Film Festival. Perhaps it’s that photo — or, more precisely, Alexandra’s panic-free, self-assured reaction to the flap surrounding it, that makes her the cool, dark winner of the erotic race to the White House. She combines Patti Davis’s permanently bad mood with the peekaboo demureness of the Nixon girls to achieve a desirability that might not make anyone vote for her father – but will probably guarantee her a Playboy spread should she ever decide to give up the film career.
    But the photo didn’t noticeably damage her father’s presidential bid; that’s what really marks this race as a watershed moment in terms of the way First Families are showcased to an American voting public. It’s not simply that the younger generation is busting out, it’s that they’re not being condemned for it.
    Perhaps it’s because the same baby boom that first flouted Puritanical standards for the behavior of proper progeny have now become the progenitors. While Tricia and Julie were fastening their girdles in the late 1960s, the peers that they were pretending didn’t exist were John Kerry and George Bush — a drug-taking, partying generation of kids who were discovering the joys of birth control and sexual experimentation.
    Or maybe it’s that after decades of struggle to come to terms with our own looseness, we are finally living in a country that is more realistic about itself — that doesn’t need to see a fictionalized, whitewashed reflection in its White House. We are, after all, living in a post-blowjob presidential universe. If Chris or Alexandra or Jenna or Barbara is getting lucky, more power to them. At least they’re not married, and not old enough to have interns.
    Whatever the reason, the kids in Washington have been allowed to catch up to the rest of us. They’re allowed to have secondary sexual characteristics; and if they accidentally get shown off to the whole world while on the French Riviera? Well, what are you going to do? Welcome to the new political pantheon. Jack and Emma Claire Edwards, start working out now.  


Jane Ross is a writer in New York.

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©2004 Jane Ross & Nerve.com