First Girls Go Wild

On Friday, Feb. 13, photographs of First Daughter Barbara Bush flopping like a wet noodle over the arm of Ecuadorian socialite Fabian Basabe at Sette on Seventh Avenue appeared on the front pages of the Daily News .

And into our usual Manhattan morning cup of steamed Schadenfreude fell a few drops of dismay, followed by a stiff chaser of nostalgia: for Amy Carter reading quietly in the Oval Office; for Susan Ford writing a column for Seventeen ; even the quaint courtship of Julie Nixon and David Dwight Eisenhower II.

“Barbara is hot,” Sette owner Bobby Malta excitedly told The Observer . “She’s a great dancer, she loves to party-she’s the perfect guest. I wish she’d come every night!”

“Barbara Bush was the sparkler on the soufflé,” said publicist and society editor R. Couri Hay, who helped organize the party. “It added a lot of pizzazz; it was a special moment. The young social set got a close-up look at Barbara-they all loved her. She’s not boring. She’s not Chelsea Clinton. Although Chelsea is coming into her own right now …. “

You could say that. You could also say: What in God’s name is going on with political progeny these days? The Bush twins have been spinning wildly on the axis of privilege between Kennebunkport, the Crawford ranch and Washington, D.C., ever since they turned up at their father’s inauguration three and a half years ago, sporting knee-high Jimmy Choo boots and matching sullen expressions. Young Ms. Clinton has gone from days of ballet dancing to nights of table-dancing with Mark Wahlberg (at the Shore Club in Miami on Dec. 29)—a true “shark-jumping” moment for a former First Daughter-not to mention table-hopping with the actors Jessica Alba and Jason Biggs at the recent third anniversary of Tao, the trendy pan-Asian restaurant in midtown.

Then there’s Georgina Bloomberg, galumphing gaily on her horse through that Born Rich documentary. And now—move over, Gore girls! Beat it, Bush babes!—ready yourself for Alexandra (Alex) Kerry, 30, the chestnut-haired daughter of the Brahmin Senator and Democratic Presidential front-runner. An actress and aspiring director, Ms. Kerry lives in gaudy Los Angeles—where she attends the American Film Institute—and will appear in the David Mamet movie Spartan , due out March 12, playing a bartender and sexy eye candy opposite Val Kilmer and William H. Macy.

Alex Kerry “has always been a limelight-seeker,” said Letitia Baldrige, former chief of staff to Jackie Kennedy, author of New Manners for New Times and a longtime acquaintance of the Kerry family. “She loves to talk and be seen and be part of the group.”

The elder Kerry sister-there’s also Vanessa, 26, a medical student at Harvard studying economics and public health-has already shared screen time with Alec Baldwin and Sarah Jessica Parker in Mr. Mamet’s State and Main (2000), had a recurring role in Mister Sterling, a mid-season replacement for NBC in 2002, and began directing her own feature film about a Presidential candidate this summer, gathering footage while on her dad’s campaign trail.

“Alex is very dedicated to pursuing a career in acting and in the entertainment profession,” said Jim Jones, Mr. Kerry’s former policy director, who is currently director of the Children’s Defense Fund. “She doesn’t take this career on frivolously.” Other adjectives he used were “open, nice, warm, gregarious, friendly” and “approachable.”

Ms. Kerry declined the chance to chat with The Observer,  which wasn’t surprising.

But the question is: Why? The new generation of political offspring could be doing all kinds of things; why do they seek camera lenses and late-night clubs and the movies? It’s an old tradition: Winston Churchill’s daughter Sarah had a Hollywood career, and Margaret Truman sang, leading her father to challenge The Washington Post ‘s music critic to an alley brawl. Steven Ford acted, Lynda Bird Johnson dated George Hamilton, and Patti Davis took off most of her clothing in Playboy. What is it about the limelight that becomes addictive?

Consider Ms. Clinton, 23, who once seemed headed down a positive garden path of good works, attending Oxford and helping with her mother’s Senate campaign. That was before she moved to a neighborhood of muscle boys, landed a six-figure job with McKinsey and Company, and inked up her social calendar. “Chelsea Clinton-likes the limelight, goes where the press are,” Ms. Baldrige said. “Front row of the Versace show! She’s very confident-she has a lot of self-confidence-and she’s out there. She wants to be.”

And think of Jenna Bush, the blond twin, celebrating her 21st birthday by visiting the Cheers Shot Bar in Austin, Texas—site of her second arrest in four weeks for underage drinking the previous summer. “It smacks of privilege and a sense that you didn’t have to abide by the same rules as other people,” said Ann Gerhart, author of The Perfect Wife, a biography of Laura Bush.

Once a privileged position that came with a certain sense of social responsibility attached, First Child–dom seems increasingly like a greased chute straight down into the celebrity funhouse.

The first modern-era wild girl was Theodore Roosevelt’s daughter, Alice Lee Roosevelt Longworth-dubbed “Princess Alice” by the press in 1905-who smoked on the White House roof and caroused unchaperoned with single men. A flagrant exhibitionist, she graced the cover of Time magazine in 1927 and remained a darling of Washington society until her death in 1980. John F. Kennedy Jr. spent his entire abbreviated adulthood walking a perilous tightrope between glamour and public service. And who can forget Patti Davis?

But in an era when appearing in a sex tape can actually seem like a decent career move for a young woman-note Paris Hilton peering insouciantly in French couture from the cover of Elle this month, interviewed by Kevin Sessums as if she were Catherine Zeta-Jones-the public acting-out seems to have taken on a new intensity, a peculiar fervor. “The Roosevelt children certainly liked to have a good time, but it was kept out of the paper,” Ms. Baldrige said. “Today, it’s not kept out of the papers.”

“It’s a thing,” said Ron Reagan Jr., who parlayed a 1986 appearance in white briefs for a Risky Business sketch on Saturday Night Live into a successful broadcasting career (he’s now on MSNBC). “And you’re never going to be able to get away from that thing. For your entire life, you will know what your obit is going to read. Unless you happen to be George W. Bush, and get elected President, it will read ‘son of’ or ‘daughter of President of the United States.’”

Ms. Clinton’s exhibitionism, the Bush sisters’ blasts and even Ms. Kerry’s nascent film career suggest a pressing need for external validation and attention-a desperate desire to gain and retain currency in a culture oversaturated with images.

Doug Wead, author of All the Presidents’ Children and a former aide to George Bush père , has a theory. “The outrageous behavior is a punishment of the parent for abandonment, and frustration at establishing who they are,” he said. “It’s a pattern of self-destruction. At that age, at that time of our lives, we go through individuation. It’s a difficult process in normal circumstances-but when your dad is the President, he’s everywhere. There’s this public persona that everyone is angry or happy with, and then there’s the private mom and dad. You can feel his whiskers; you can smell her perfume. There’s tremendous conflict. On the one hand, you owe some loyalty. What do you owe to the public set of parents? What do you owe to the real parents? Who are you?”

Mr. Wead invoked an unfamiliar psychological term, dysgradia , that has apparently been kicking around since the early 1970′s. “It’s the phenomenon of how what you get is unrelated to what you do,” he said. “It’s common among children of celebrities and others. If they do something bad, they still get money and friends. It takes a lot of the motivation out of life.”

Dr. Djenane Nakhle is a psychologist who counsels high-school and college-age children from her office on Park Avenue and 75th Street. “Because they’ve lived a certain way of life, they feel comfortable around celebrities,” she said, considering the new generation of political girls gone wild. “They’ve gotten used to this celebrity lifestyle. They’ve been taught how to deal, how to survive and how to cope with these pressures. [And] in many ways they are role models, which adds a certain pressure.”

Over on the Upper West Side, Columbia psychoanalyst Jules Kerman floated the possibility that “Barbara’s lascivious dancing may be some indication of some way that she feels very starved for attention, and very starved for some sort of involvement by somebody or another.

“You could speculate that some of the more notorious behaviors of these kids-who know they’re going to get in the papers-may be a disguised, unconscious form of hostility for the parent,” Dr. Kerman continued. “They have this incredible world of privilege which they have access to, and many opportunities to make connections, and at the same time they have to deal with a terrible lack of self-esteem, because they never quite feel that they’ve done it. There’s an ideal that they set up for themselves that they never can match, which is a narcissistic issue and also a competitive one-a rivalrous one that they sort of feel that they’re bound to lose, because they’ll never match what their parents have done. There are competitive issues and issues of envy.”

Not everyone copes by “busting out” onto the public stage. There are the quiet shadows to the spotlight-seizing siblings: the “good girls,” the blameless angels.

Such as Emma Bloomberg, 24, who toils as an analyst at City Hall.

“You don’t see photographs of me in the newspapers everyday,” Ms. Bloomberg pointed out to The Observer . “I’ve been in the ‘Sightings’ on Page Six once in my life. It seems that you actually do have to work at it a little bit to get coverage. There are some children that want it more and go on to create a career out of that.”

Meanwhile, Karenna Gore Schiff, 30, leads an apparently perfect life on the Upper East Side with her doctor husband, Andrew, their two children, and sweet gigs at the Sanctuary for Families and the Association to Benefit Children. “There are opportunities made available by exposure to the highest levels of political campaigns,” she wrote in an e-mail, “and I have felt extremely privileged.”

And there seems to be hope for the Kerry sisters. On Thursday, Feb. 19, they’ll join the well-adjusted troika of Rebecca Lieberman (daughter of Joseph), Liz Cheney (daughter of Dick) and Corinne Quayle (daughter of Dan) for a Glamour magazine panel at Columbia. The topic: Why young women don’t vote.