From an outside perspective, The White House sounds like a child’s paradise. According to Business Insider, the presidential residence has its own game room, chocolate shop, bowling alley, and movie theater — a far cry from the solitary toy box and lone video game console we fought our siblings over in our respective childhood homes. But for many kids of first families, life at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue wasn’t an endless ticket to an amusement park.
In fact, Teddy Roosevelt famously said (via Independent), “One of the worst things in the world is being the child of a president. It’s a terrible life they lead.” Granted, that was long before George H.W. Bush’s infamous broccoli ban, which likely made him a hero to children everywhere, but Roosevelt’s sentiment isn’t hard to interpret: You can’t escape the spotlight as a president’s kid, and that public scrutiny is rough. It’s the reason there is an “unwritten rule in Washington” (per CNN) about respecting the “privacy of presidential kids,” but that clearly doesn’t always happen.
And, of course, some of these fortunate sons and daughters just weren’t feeling their relationship to the leader of the free world. From general teenage awkwardness to outright rebellion, these scions of power swiped left hard on life in the Executive Residence. With that framework in mind, let’s examine the worst things about being a kid in the first family.
John Payne Todd was a problem for a Founding Father
Being a parent is hard, even for the genius credited with creating the U.S. government. Yep, we’re talking about James Madison, the statesman whose idea of a strong federal government with a system of checks and balances earned him the nickname “Father of the Constitution” (per History). But he also had a stepson named John Payne Todd, whose middle name was missing a few key words, namely “in the a**.”
Todd was the wild child biological son of the fourth president’s wife, Dolley Madison, and to say he gave his stepdad a hard time is like saying the colonies misbehaved a bit under King George III. Although Todd was 17 when Madison was elected, he spent his formative years “revealing glimpses of his growing rebellious and unruly disposition,” according to Payne Todd: Prodigal Son. Madison reportedly tried everything to get Todd back in line, including “appointing him to serve as a representative with an American peace commission destined for Europe.” The role was to give him a sense of purpose, but Todd didn’t share his father’s patriotic passion. Instead, he racked up $8,000 in debt during two years abroad and returned “unfit for useful life in his own country.”
To his dying day, Madison bailed Todd out, which according to historian William Seale’s account, included “several times for disturbing the peace” while drunkenly handling a gun. “Of all the children of the White House,” Seale concluded, “Payne Todd is remembered most of all as the bad boy.”
The tragic story of John Quincy Adams' son
John Adams II, the son of America’s sixth president, John Quincy Adams, wasn’t exactly a “kid” when he had his worst White House experience. In fact, he was married (to his first cousin Mary Catherine), serving as “his father’s secretary,” and living in the presidential residence with a child of his own when he became disenfranchised with “first kid” life, according to America’s Royalty: All the Presidents’ Children.
The incident occurred during the White House New Year’s Eve party in 1828 when a guest, Russell Jarvis, was allegedly “insulted” by Quincy Adams “in the presence of John II.” As was the norm for the time, Russell wanted to challenge Quincy Adams to a duel, but since he was the president, that wasn’t going to happen. Instead, he challenged John II in a letter, which the president’s son ignored. Jarvis later confronted the apparently conflict-averse secretary in person by “[yanking] John’s nose and [slapping] his face, all standard and approved provocation for a duel.”
At this point, Quincy Adams stepped in, but it was too late. The press got wind of the incident and “had a time” with it, insinuating John II’s cowardice, thus causing him intense humiliation. His mother claimed the whole affair “ruined her son’s career,” as he began heavily drinking soon afterwards. Sadly, John II died six years later, after his unsuccessful attempt at managing the family’s “gristmill.” According to the John Adams Historical Society, his death was attributed to alcoholism.
Alice Roosevelt sounded like she needed a little attention
Having earned the nicknames “Princess Alice” and “the other Washington Monument” (per The White House Historical Association), Teddy Roosevelt’s tempestuous daughter, Alice Roosevelt, earned her own fame (and infamy) while residing in the White House. She was such a wild child that her father infamously declared, “I can be President of the United States or I can control Alice. I cannot possibly do both.”
In addition to being banished to the roof to smoke cigarettes, Alice was also known to ambush visitors with “a small snake [that she carried] in her purse named Emily Spinach.” The Washington Post quoted her as saying, “My father was president, I was without a particle of responsibility other than to enjoy myself, and I was alert for all that came my way.” The same outlet reported that Alice once celebrated Independence Day by setting off “firecrackers from the back platform [of a train],” and also “[shooting her] revolver at the telegraph poles.” Long story short, she seemed bored.
However, according to biographer Carol Felsenthal (via Politico), much of Alice’s rambunctiousness stemmed from her contentious relationship with her stepmother, Edith, with whom Teddy had five children during his presidency. (Edith reportedly referred to Alice as “a guttersnipe.”) Feeling jilted and ignored, Alice perfectly summarized her White House experience in one teen-angst-soaked diary entry: “Father doesn’t care for me … as much as he does for the other children. … I care for nothing except to amuse myself in a charmingly expensive way.”
The Secret Service really cramped Margaret Truman's style
Margaret Truman was a 21-year-old college student when her father, Harry S. Truman, became the 33rd President of the United States on April 12, 1945. You would think her age would have afforded her a bit more autonomy than other, younger kids of first families, but according to “the Boss’ Boss,” as she was affectionately nicknamed by her dad, that wasn’t particularly the case.
According to Inside Edition, Margaret once referred to 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. as a “Great White Jail,” referencing the ever-prying eyes of the Secret Service — even at the end of a romantic date. “There wasn’t much to be done ‘except shake hands, and that’s no way to get engaged,'” she allegedly lamented.
And it wasn’t just romance that got interrupted for Margaret. She “made no new friends” while living in the nation’s capital, primarily out of fear that the friendships wouldn’t be genuine, according to The Washington Post, who also reported that her mother, Bess, shared the same reservations. If it doesn’t sound like Margaret had a particularly great time being a kid in the first family, that’s because she basically didn’t, or as she so succinctly put it: “I wouldn’t call it fun. The only thing I ever missed about the White House was having a car and driver.”
Gerald Ford's son just wanted to be a normal teen
POTUS no. 38’s son, Steve Ford, shared Margaret Truman’s youthful grievances. Also at a formative age when his dad, Gerald Ford, took office, Steve experienced the similarly jarring revelation that he wouldn’t be doing anything without a black-clad bodyguard on standby.
“All of a sudden, we all got 10 Secret Service agents, and life changed,” he reportedly said (via Erenow), Trust me, at 18 years old, that’s not really the group you’re hoping to hang out with.”
He also likened the experience to “living in a museum” — his mom once chided him for putting his feet up on “Jefferson’s table” — and was bummed when the White House staff wouldn’t let him park his “yellow Jeep” wherever he wanted. “Every time I’d come home they would move it around back and kind of hide it,” he lamented, adding, “I’d get frustrated and I’d go down and move it out front again and they’d move it back.”
Ford did share one fond memory of his time as a first kid, recalling an evening when he and his best friend, Kevin Kennedy, “blasted Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven” on a turntable on the roof of the White House.”
Sounds like — wait for it — all that glittered really was gold that night. (Yes, we had to.)
Susan Ford Bales's rebellious streak found her love
Gerald Ford ascended to the Oval Office after Richard Nixon’s resignation. And while that was a shock to many, it was a culture shock to the youngest of President Ford’s four children, Susan Ford Bales. “I felt very besieged by the press. They knew where I was all the time,” she told The Baltimore Sun. “They talked to my friends, people who weren’t even my friends. They wrote about romances I wasn’t having. … I have scrapbooks full of the stories — stories that said I was engaged to [rock star] Rod Stewart. I’ve got it all.”
While that makes it seem like Bales took the intrusion into her privacy in stride, she revealed to the outlet that “some of the stories published about her” left her “devastated.” One that was particularly troubling made the allegation that nepotism was the only reason she made it through school. “I did take it to heart,” Bales said, adding, “It makes you a very tough, very thick-skinned person. And it makes you not very trusting of anybody except your family.”
In the book The Residence: Inside the Private World of the White House (via Erenow), Susan reveals that her rebellious teenage years made her become the first Ford child to receive Secret Service protection. However, there was a silver-lining in Susan being under 24/7 guard – she eventually married a former Secret Service agent who was assigned to her father’s detail.
Ronald Reagan's daughter had bigger issues than her dad's administration
If you thought Teddy Roosevelt’s daughter sounded like a handful, wait until you hear about Ronald Regan’s daughter, Patti Davis, who made Princess Alice sound like a saint by comparison. The Gipper’s girl famously hated her experience being a famous politician’s kid so much, she wrote several books alleging abuse and dysfunction within her family.
According to People, Davis wrote “two fictionalized versions of her childhood” before fully airing the Reagans’ dirty laundry with her autobiography, The Way I See It. Described by the outlet as “the work of an angry daughter with scores still to settle,” the tome addressed everything from her mother’s alleged physical and psychological abuse, to drug use by multiple family members, to neglect from her father when she reached out to him for help. Oof. Not exactly a “shining city upon a hill,” huh?
Things got so bad and so public between Davis and her family, that her siblings stopped speaking for years, and her relationship with her parents was, understandably, rocky. Reagan eventually wrote her a letter in in the early 90s, begging her to reconcile with the family, which eventually did happen later.
Chelsea Clinton's bullying by the media taught her a valuable lesson
There probably isn’t a more famous first daughter in American history than Chelsea Clinton. Her father, Bill Clinton, was already the governor of Arkansas when she was born, and she moved into the White House when she was just 12 — and she dealt with things that no child should have to experience. If having the full spotlight of the media shining down on her parents’ infamous marriage troubles wasn’t enough, right-wight media figures like Rush Limbaugh constantly made fun of her looks, and late-night talk shows and Saturday Night Live made her the butt of jokes (via Chicago Tribune).
But she rose above it and took the high road by choosing not to engage in the same way. “For me, maybe because I’ve had so much vitriol flung at me for as long as I can literally remember people saying awful things to me even as a child, I’ve never found it productive, personally, to engage in that way,” she told The Guardian in 2018. “To retaliate with crass language or insult someone personally — I just don’t think I’m built that way.”
In an interview with The Big Issue, Chelsea said “something clearly hadn’t gone right” in her detractors’ lives for them to bully a child, but it taught her a valuable lesson: “So that helped me understand early in my life that when we’re being verbally abused by other people, it’s not about who we are, it’s all about the bullies.”
Barbara and Jenna Bush: the party animals
The daughters of the 43rd president George W. Bush, twins Barbara and Jenna Bush were just as controversial as their father during the family’s stay in the White House. In his book In the President’s Secret Service: Behind the Scenes With Agents in the Line of Fire and the Presidents They Protect, author Ronald Kessler detailed the girls’ notorious party animal ways.
Although they encouraged Malia and Sasha Obama to enjoy living in the White House because it was such a “magical place, it wasn’t such a fanciful experience for the staff when the Bush twins lived there. “[Jenna] would sometimes purposely try to lose her protection by going through red lights or by jumping in her car without telling agents where she was going,” Kessler wrote. The twins allegedly sparked many impromptu trips, which occurred at massive inconvenience to their security detail. Referencing a time when the girls randomly demanded to “fly to New York,” one agent told Keller, “These guys were prepared to work an evening shit, and all of a sudden they’re going with just the clothes on their backs.”
A few months into their father’s first term, both of the then-19-year olds were also cited for underage drinking in separate incidents in their home state of Texas (via ABC News). In April 2001, Jenna pleaded no contest to a charge of possessing alcohol while underage after getting busted at an Austin nightclub. A mere two months later, both of them caught a misdemeanor charge for purchasing alcohol with a friend’s ID at an Austin restaurant.
Malia and Sasha Obama made sleepovers a problem
Malia and Sasha Obama were 10 and 7, respectively, when their father, Barack Obama, became the 45th President of the United States. According to The Baltimore Sun, Sasha was “the youngest resident of the White House since John F. Kennedy Jr.” in 1961. Because of their age, the girls kept a pretty low profile during their time on 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, but sleepovers with their friends were a problem.
“Imagine having Malia and Sasha come to your house for a sleepover,” their mother Michelle Obama told CBS News. “This is the call: It’s like, ‘Hello. OK, we’re going to need your Social Security number, we’re going to need your date of birth. There are going to be men coming to sweep your house, if you have guns and drugs, just tell them yes because they are going to find them anyway. Don’t lie, they’re not going to take them, they just need to know where they are.”
Once Malia enrolled in college, the tabloids followed her every move. Whether it was making out with her boyfriend at a tailgate and smoking cigarettes, Malia couldn’t be a regular person in peace. But in a plot twist nobody saw coming, the former first daughter unlikely got support from another first daughter — Ivanka Trump. “Malia Obama should be allowed the same privacy as her school-aged peers,” she tweeted, adding, “She is a young adult and private citizen, and should be OFF limits.”
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