Nobody's Picking On Chelsea Clinton -- Public Sympathy Makes It Uncool

WASHINGTON - They thought it was a perfectly harmless little joke. But when babe-watchers Wayne and Garth of NBC's "Saturday Night Live" turned their stone-washed wit to Chelsea Clinton in a "Wayne's World" sketch, making wisecracks about her appearance, the response was less than excellent.

After hearing boos from the TV community and public criticism from Hillary Rodham Clinton, the show's producers edited out the offending comments when the show was rebroadcast recently. Mike Myers, aka Wayne, also wrote a letter of apology to the Clintons.

"We felt, upon reflection, that if it was in any way hurtful, it wasn't worth it," says executive producer Lorne Michaels. "She's a kid, a kid who didn't choose to be in public life."

It didn't stop them from working over 9-year-old Amy Carter in the late '70s, however, treating her even "a little rougher," to no great public protest, admits Michaels.

But for 13-year-old Chelsea, the first school-age child to live in the White House since the Carter administration, life has been less of a fishbowl and more of a protected pond.

More than most children who have lived in the White House, Chelsea Clinton has been deemed off limits. She has been left alone, largely because of public sympathy for a youngster in adolescence and because of the nearly total White House news blackout concerning the first daughter.

"There does seem to be a shift," says Mark Rozell, the author of books on news coverage of the Carter and Ford presidencies. "The attention paid to Amy Carter was relentless over the full four years."

The Clintons have discouraged coverage of their child and protected her from the public gaze with far more vigilance than the Carters, Fords or Nixons ever did with their children.

Although the president had wanted to bring his daughter and some of her friends to the Tokyo summit this month, the Clintons finally decided against it, White House officials said.

The administration had not forgotten the media mob that swarmed Amy Carter when she traveled to Japan and South Korea with her father in 1979.

Nor had it forgotten the photographs of a forlorn-looking Amy Carter trudging through the snow on her first day of school in Washington.

Determined to avoid a similar scene, Hillary Clinton slipped Chelsea in a back door on her first day at the private Sidwell Friends School.

"The president and first lady have made it very clear they want Chelsea to have as normal a life as possible," says Neel Lattimore, Hillary Clinton's deputy press secretary.

To that end, the press office refuses to answer questions about Chelsea and thus receives very few.

In contrast, Mary Hoyt, Rosalynn Carter's former press secretary, says she received calls about Amy on a daily basis. "We tried to tell people as much as we thought it was appropriate to tell them," she says.

However, the Clintons "used" their daughter for image purposes during the Democratic convention, when Chelsea was often pictured with her parents, especially her mother.

"With all the talk about Hillary's toughness, it was helpful for Americans to learn that she was also a devoted mother," says Barbara Kellerman, author of a book about first families.

Chelsea coverage has mostly been restricted to mention in gossip columns: Chelsea and family at "The Phantom of the Opera" last week, in Georgetown weeks ago with mom buying clothes for summer camp, at a bookstore with dad.

"Chelsea is in a nice niche so far," says Lewis Gould, who teaches a course at the University of Texas on first ladies. "In about three years, when the dating aspect begins to kick in, the level of interest will change. For now, there's a feeling that a 13-year-old, unless she does something outrageous, deserves a pass."