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Sweet Sixteen : Chelsea Clinton is growing up--and somehow, she's doing most of it out of the limelight. The ungainly girl is now a poised teenager. And don't tell anyone, but she's dating.

February 28, 1996|GREGG ZOROYA | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

In her best-selling book, Hillary Rodham Clinton describes the night she and her husband began role-playing exercises designed to prepare their child for a world of hostile politics. Chelsea was 6.

As her father pretended to be a politician viciously castigating Bill Clinton, Chelsea began to cry. But the parents continued the exercise for hours until the little girl "gradually gained mastery over her emotions and some insight into the situations that might arise."

The indoctrination has continued ever since, with Hillary Clinton never quite certain of her only child's capacity to withstand the glare of public scrutiny.

"Each time she went out into the world I ached, afraid of what or whom she might encounter," writes Hillary Clinton in "It Takes a Village, and Other Lessons Children Teach Us" (Simon & Schuster).

The end result of this effort to at once toughen and shelter a little girl cannot be known with certainty. But it was a confidant Chelsea Victoria Clinton who appeared as a kind of political debutante at her mother's side during the annual State of the Union speech, poised and dignified in a navy blue tailored suit.

Gone were the braces, the riotous hair, the physical ungainliness of girlhood painfully evident when her father took office and she was just 12. For Chelsea, whose Sweet 16 birthday was Tuesday, the waning phases of adolescence are at hand.

"She certainly understands about turning 16 and all the sort of trappings it brings," says first lady spokesman Neel Lattimore. "It is an exciting time for her."

It also may mark a gradual, if still limited, period of emergence.

The high school junior's appearance at the State of the Union speech was, after all, her idea: She sought permission to attend, even calling the White House office seeking a ticket, to bolster her studies in American history.

When Chelsea accompanied her mother on a widely covered trip to Asia last year, it was seen by some as a kind of "coming-out party." She figures prominently in her mom's book. And Hillary Clinton recently revealed a secret about Chelsea to Regis and Kathie Lee: "She dates, but don't tell anybody I told you that."

While modest, such exposure is surprising given her parents' severe strictures on media coverage of their only child. If her father wins reelection this year, Chelsea could spend her entire adolescence in the White House, yet she has been less commented upon, photographed and chronicled than any other presidential offspring in contemporary history.

Susan Ford Bales, one of the last teenagers to inhabit the White House, remembers breaking up with a boyfriend and later reading about it in the newspaper. "I would also read in the paper about boys I had dated who in fact I had not dated," she says.

Not so with Chelsea.

"There are places where Bill and I draw the line," Hillary Clinton writes. "We have actively shielded Chelsea from the press, for example, believing that children deserve their childhood and cannot have it in the public limelight. It isn't fair to let them be defined by the media before they have the chance to define themselves."

As a result, says UPI reporter Helen Thomas, dean of the White House press corps: "We have not laid a glove on Chelsea."

Only glimpses into the personality and character of the first child--whose name was reportedly taken from the song, "Chelsea Morning" by Joni Mitchell--have managed to eke out:

Chelsea likes to poke fun at her dad when he's doing something "not cool or appropriate" and sees her mom as overprotective.

She skipped third grade, loves science and history, prefers Chicken McNuggets to hamburgers and hot dogs, and is reportedly a sci-fi nut.

She wears Birkenstocks and passed on piercing her ears at age 13; has been assisted with her math homework by none other than economist Alan Blinder, former Fed vice-chairman; and she enjoys playing pinochle with her parents.

She nettled her dad by giving up team sports like soccer and softball for ballet, and has performed three straight years in "The Nutcracker" at the Washington School of Ballet, where she regularly attends classes.

Last year, according to media reports, Chelsea impressed Pakistani Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto with her knowledge of Islamic history and the Koran, and was photographed riding an elephant in Nepal's royal Chitwan National Park.

Her parents joke about the nervousness of new young escorts.

"We have seen more speechless boys," Hillary Clinton says. And they talk with pride of their daughter's social conscience, self-discipline, strong grasp of reality and "big heart."

Observers see the Clintons' efforts at shoe-horning a normal childhood into the bewildering environs of the White House as perhaps their most complete success.

"It seems like everything they've done with regard to their parenting behavior is great," says Charles Figley, a family scholar at Florida State University who studies the children of politicians and celebrities.

Certainly this wasn't anticipated.

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