As Malia Steps Out, The Obamas Step Back

For the past eight years, the Obamas pushed hard to maintain their eldest daughter’s privacy. Here's how that’s changing now that Malia is an adult and making her own rules.

On her 10th birthday, Malia Obama gave her most in-depth interview yet, to Access Hollywood’s Maria Menounos.

Over happy-family footage, Menounos explained that the Obama progeny “keep it real by dispensing free advice on how to keep daddy cool.” Malia offered a somewhat rambling anecdote about the time her friend, Sam, came to visit. “Daddy has never met Sam before … He’s like ‘Hi,’ and so he shook her hand. And I was like, ‘You know, daddy, you really don’t shake kids’ hands that much. You shake adults’ hands.’ And he’s like, ‘Then what do you do?’ And I was like, ‘You know, you just wave or you say hi.’ So I do that kind of stuff.”

Other details gleaned from the segment told us that Malia liked when her parents showed affection for each other, that her favorite food was — shockingly — ice cream, and that she had a caustic sense of humor. “Let me tell you a very awesome story,” she said sarcastically, as she began telling about a disappointing trip to Six Flags.

Four months later, Barack Obama was the president-elect, and Malia and her younger sister, Sasha, were off-limits to the media except for obligatory appearances with their parents at Thanksgiving turkey pardons and other public events. But in the eight years since she moved into the White House, Malia has turned 18, grown into an elegant young woman idolized by a massive young fanbase, and presented her parents with a dilemma: How do you shield a first daughter who is no longer a child?

Traditionally, firm reminders from the White House have done the trick. It’s a system, sometimes dubbed the “zone of privacy,” that began when the Clintons entered the White House to protect 12-year-old Chelsea from media attention. (That zone extended to Chelsea’s pet cat, Socks, the subject of a stern warning from the president-elect in November 1992 after photographers got too close to Socks.) The Clintons imposed this system on the advice of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, whose attempts to keep toddlers Caroline and John Jr. away from the media were frustrated by her husband: He would invite photographers into the White House while the first lady was traveling.

In 2012, after BuzzFeed published a well-circulated photograph of Malia Obama at a One Direction concert, the White House emailed BuzzFeed about an unwritten yet widely understood policy: not to report on the Obama offspring unless they were at a public event with their parents.

“Would you help us protect Malia’s privacy since she is a minor and wasn’t out with her parents at a public event?” the message from the first lady’s office said.

BuzzFeed agreed, cropping Malia out of the photo, retitling it “Secret Service Agent Does Not Appear to Enjoy One Direction Concert,” and adding an editor’s note explaining the change. BuzzFeed wasn’t alone; even TMZ took down its photo. Two years later, TMZ also reported that the White House got a celebrity news agency to remove photos of Malia at a restaurant in LA. “They went into DEFCON 1 to KILL the photos,” TMZ reported. It said Michelle Obama’s office called the agency, AKM-DSI, and asked that it remove the image from its website and delete it from agency files. The agency did so and sent an email to media outlets under the subject “URGENT SET KILL NOTICE,” TMZ reported.

When Malia was 13, several news organizations deleted, for similar reasons, a French news agency’s story about her spring break vacation in Mexico.

They were ferocious responses to outwardly benign reports and showed the Obamas’ extraordinarily protective, and defensive, nature regarding their daughters. But the Obamas are the first presidential family to have minor children living in the White House since Chelsea Clinton, who was there from 1993 until she started college in 1997. They’ve seen what she went through in the media spotlight, and they saw how conservative critics could seize on their daughters’ holidays or fun outings to bash the family’s values. In March 2013, published the name of a Bahamas resort where the Obama daughters were spending spring break. That prompted a Republican congressman, Steve King of Iowa, to criticize the Obamas for lavish spending at a time of federal belt-tightening.

Now that Malia is an adult, though, the rules seem to have changed. There was no backlash from the president and first lady when video appeared of Malia at this year’s Lollapalooza festival dancing, sticking her tongue out, flashing a lower buttcheek, and laughing at the screaming girls watching her. Few media beyond the tabloid website Radar Online published a separate video taken by a Lollapalooza concertgoer that showed Malia putting something small and cylindrical to her lips. Radar Online’s source for the video said Malia was “smoking pot,” not a cigarette.

The New York Times, the Washington Post, NPR, CNN, MSNBC, and Fox News were among the news outlets that ignored the episode. Others, including BuzzFeed News, only covered the overwhelming “Leave Malia alone” reaction to the video on social media.

If the White House was concerned about the video, it didn’t let on.

That’s not to say the White House has adopted a more hands-off attitude toward the media regarding Malia. Instead, say reporters who have covered the first family, the East Wing simply refuses to talk to the press when it comes to the Obama daughters.

“The East Wing has become really a closed shop,” said Kate Andersen Brower, who reported on Obama’s first term for Bloomberg News and has written two books about life inside the East Wing. Questions about the first lady or her children, even “verification on something very simple,” go unanswered, Brower said. (The White House did not respond to BuzzFeed News’ request for comment on this story.)

Nor have the media adopted a more hands-off attitude toward Malia. They just don’t find her especially newsworthy compared to past presidential children, said one reporter who has covered the administration for several years. “Not to be rude about it, but honestly, who cares?” the correspondent said.

It’s true that Malia Obama’s antics pale in comparison to the behavior exhibited by other first daughters and sons. The Bush daughters faced misdemeanor charges of violating Texas drinking laws. White House staffers regularly moved bongs out of the bedrooms of the Carter sons, Brower reported in her book The Residence. Teddy Roosevelt’s daughter Alice gambled, smoked, and danced on top of cars, and she carried a snake in her purse just to scare people.

But there’s also the issue of access to the president, whose administration has long been accused by the media of being too closed-door. Upsetting Obama by delving into his daughter’s private life could only make things worse.

"I think White House reporters consider it the third rail to do much reporting on the Obama daughters. It's understood that they're given their space,” said Brower. “So it's not only a concern that the White House would shut you out as a reporter, but it's also a concern that the public would consider the story in poor taste."

She said there’s no evidence of a “loosening up” regarding the media and Sasha and Malia. “It certainly seems to be moving in the direction of being harder to get answers,” Brower said.

The reporter who long covered the administration denied that correspondents automatically adhere to White House requests to not cover the daughters. “Any decent journalist would laugh out loud if asked to turn a blind eye to news at the White House just because it involved the Obama daughters. That’s an absurd request,” the reporter said.

Indeed, in 2009, the Associated Press refused the White House’s request to take down a photo of Sasha waving to her father from the White House balcony.

As recent first children go, Malia has led a relatively charmed life in the White House. Despite the Radar Online episode, she does not have a party-girl reputation like the one Jenna Bush Hager earned when she pleaded no contest to an alcohol charge at 19. Malia has not endured cracks about her appearance or demeanor that young Amy Carter suffered during Jimmy Carter’s presidency. Brower attributes this to the press having “more respect now than ever before” for presidential children’s privacy, thanks largely to the memory of Chelsea Clinton going through a puberty so awkward it was parodied on SNL.

“There was a sense with Chelsea Clinton that she was going through that awkward phase and we were all watching for it,” Brower said.

Chelsea was also catapulted to center stage over her parents’ marital turmoil during the Monica Lewinsky scandal. Malia has no such problem. Instead, people make movies about her parents’ love story.

Malia has another thing going for her: an aura of coolness. Without giving a single interview or substantive public statement in her father’s two terms, she has managed to cultivate a following, becoming an avatar for #BlackGirlMagic and #CarefreeBlackGirl. She's a future Harvard freshman whose taste in clothes and music stirs a fan frenzy dubbed “Malia Mania.” She has been declared the “coolest teen,” with Tumblrs devoted to her “gorgeous” style. The downside: Unlike any White House kid before her, she’s the target of racist harassment. Even an innocuous post about her college choice drummed up so much hate that Fox News appeared to close the comments. She has had football players leering at her and GOP aides criticizing her demeanor. In the latter case, though, Elizabeth Lauten, the Hill staffer who posted derogatory comments about the Obama girls’ dress sense, resigned her communications job amid an angry backlash over what she had said.

As smoothly as Malia seems to have navigated growing up in a bubble, this wasn’t accidental. The Obamas learned a harsh lesson from that Access Hollywood interview. Frothy as it was, it generated considerable controversy for Obama, who had previously emphasized his family’s need for privacy and asked that photos of his children not be published. Suddenly, critics said it seemed he was using them as campaign props. Obama later expressed regret for having allowed the girls to join in what Menounos said was supposed to be an interview with the parents only.

Since then, the president and first lady have carefully chosen which parts of their daughter’s life to share with the world, and not surprisingly, they’ve tended to be the parts that present the Obamas like any American family raising a teenager: Malia learning to drive; Malia going to prom; Malia choosing a college. The two bookish lawyers call their daughter lawyerly and bookish, too, characterizing her as acutely aware of domestic affairs. They often invoke her in political contexts — something “no president has really done,” said Carl Sferrazza Anthony, a historian at the National First Ladies' Library.

In 2010, to emphasize that he was focused round the clock on the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, Obama told reporters that Malia had asked him while he was shaving one morning, “Did you plug the hole yet, daddy?” Six years later, in an interview with Stephen Colbert, the first lady described a family dinner in which she and Sasha wanted to talk about Beyoncé’s Lemonade while Malia discussed global warming with her father.

It’s unclear now that Malia is 18 and nearly free of the White House how or whether the media will cover her going forward. What we know definitively about Malia’s future is contained in one sentence: She’ll take a gap year before starting at Harvard in the fall of 2017. We don’t know what she’ll major in, though she’s shown an interest in Hollywood, holding internships on the TV shows Girls and Extant.

When Chelsea Clinton went to Oxford, she overlapped a year with Kate Brower, who recalled seeing Chelsea at the gym one day, alone except for a few Secret Service agents and ignored by others as she worked out. It’s hard today to imagine Malia working out at the Harvard gym without generating tweets and Snapchats from gawkers. After the recent string of leaked photos of Malia on college campuses standing next to beer pong tables or sitting across from bongs, the White House — and Malia — know this surveillance state is unavoidable.

Perhaps this is why, as Brower suggests, Malia chose a gap year — to put more time between her father’s presidency and her college career. Perhaps this is why the White House didn’t have a public meltdown over Lollapalooza, as a means of preparing to release Malia from the White House bubble.

There was a time when first children could be counted on to write memoirs after leaving the White House, said Anthony. Not so much anymore: The last presidential offspring to write a memoir was Ron Reagan, in 2011. Neither the Bush daughters nor Chelsea Clinton has produced one. Anthony theorized that presidential children have become less interested in “fanning the flag on behalf of their fathers’ legacies” and more interested in owning their own lives.

But no matter how far they get from DC, Anthony said, presidential children can’t truly escape White House life if they hope to preserve their fathers legacies. Eventually that preservation — via fundraising and other activities for presidential libraries and museums — becomes a full-time job.

“The president and first lady die and the kids are middle-aged, and they have to carry the mantle,” said Anthony. “At some point, the Obama girls are probably going to be drawn into this.” ●

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