Obama girls start school with photographers in tow

LISA TOLIN | 1/5/2009, 3:32 p.m.

President-elect Barack Obama's two daughters were whisked quietly past waiting photographers into their new schools on Mon. Jan. 5. If custom is any guide, the news media will keep their distance now that they have captured 10-year-old Malia in her puffy pink jacket and 7-year-old Sasha with her pigtails, pink camouflage backpack and turquoise Uglydoll. But protecting the privacy of presidential children has always been difficult.
Even if White House photographers are no problem for the Obama€s, there are still the paparazzi to worry about, as illustrated by the beach "beefcake" photos of a shirtless president-elect taken during the Obama family vacation in Hawaii. Then, there's any fourth-grader with a cell phone camera and a Facebook page.

"It is an exaggerated example of what parents face routinely when their kids are online," said Carolyn Jabs, who writes a syndicated column called Growing Up Online. "For the Obama girls, that is a given that it will get out of hand."

Blogs have already critiqued what every member of the family wears. A bad hair day, schoolyard gossip or a manipulated photo can cause problems for any child, Jabs said. Imagine if the greater free world were watching.

"Mean things about them online are going to be problematic," she said. "They're going to have to develop a thicker skin in the way all celebrities do." At Sidwell Friends, children are not allowed cell phones at school, which should keep the girls shielded at least through the school day.

"We do hold students accountable for cyberbehavior," said Associate Head of School Ellis Turner. "I think our students understand that we expect them to be responsible Internet users." The school won't talk about special security precautions but has experience with the Secret Service from former students Chelsea Clinton and Al Gore III, the son of former Vice President Al Gore.

Amy Carter's trips to public school became "a pretty big circus" with photographers lying in wait, said Doug Wead, a former aide to President George H.W. Bush and author of "All the President's Children."

Bill and Hillary Clinton took the advice of Jacqueline Kennedy to establish strict privacy for daughter Chelsea. Those rules have generally held: NBC's "Today" show crew left Sidwell Friends on Monday even before the girls arrived. "The last thing they need is for a camera crew to stand outside their school," reporter Tom Costello said on air. "So we are leaving. Back to you."

In the Clinton era, aides would sometimes call publishers to keep stories about Chelsea under wraps, Wead said. But try that in a time when any child, school employee or curious onlooker can act as his own publishing house.

"It's a new age," Wead said. "Every word is worth money. It's currency. Every photograph is worth money. It'll take a lot of cooperation and the school year's a long time." Still, the girls are likely to be as protected at Sidwell, a private Quaker school with campuses in northwest Washington and Bethesda, Md., as they were at the University of Chicago Laboratory Schools.

"While their situation was unusual, we work hard to guard the privacy and safety of all students, and our entire community cooperates to make that possible," said David Magill, director of the Chicago schools. Ann Stock, who was social secretary in the Clinton White House, said she can't imagine fellow students causing problems online. "Kids are very protective of each other," she said.

"You're talking about a school environment and I generally think that once they start school they become family and friends with each other."
The Obama transition team, acknowledging public interest in the girls, posted photographs of the family getting ready for school on the photo sharing site Flick'r on Monday.

"There will be news stories about them no matter how careful and cooperative the media is and how careful the parents are. Something they say or do will become of great public interest and delight or controversy," Wead said.

The important thing for the Obama€s, Stock said, is to get the girls settled and happy and shield them from any criticism. To her eye, the Obama€s have a good start.
"If you look at the last two years, their life has been as close to normal as can be with your father running for president."

How Sasha and Malia handle the media attention will depend on their parents, Wead said.
"The children will look to their parents for clues: 'Are we victims here or are we having fun?'" he said. "It looks to me that they are communicating 'We're having fun,' so that will make a really big difference for the girls."

Associated Press writer Kamala Lane and photographer Jacquelyn Martin contributed to this report.