Could golden girl Chelsea Clinton run the White House?
From gawky teen to clever and polished young woman. Chelsea Clinton could run for the White House, writes Lauren Sandler. But observers doubt she has 'electability'. Her 'robotic' public persona is ridiculed as being 'dull'. Could her indisputable talent be channelled elsewhere?
Will Chelsea Clinton run for the White House one day? Media speculation went into overdrive last week over the former first daughter's pregnancy news – and her political intentions. Her father says she'd make a great president. Does Clinton, who says she had to defend her opinions at the dinner table from the age of four, have what it takes?
Last week, publications across the world raced first to cover Chelsea Clinton's declaration to US business magazine Fast Company that she would, in certain circumstances, consider running for public office, and then her announcement that she and her husband Marc Mezvinsky are expecting their first child.
The former is not really news; she has said this many times before, to many interviewers, yet each time she articulates her openness to run – always using exactly the same carefully prepared language – press reaction is huge, particularly in the US, where there is an obsessional interest in all things Clinton.
After three decades of shirking press attention, Clinton seems to be everywhere. Now 34, she recently told interviewers that she seeks to lead what she describes as a "purposely public life". Last week, Of Many, a documentary about the friendship between a rabbi and imam, on which she was executive producer, premiered at the Tribeca film festival. She bounced between the red carpet and her office at the Clinton Foundation where she is vice chair, between chat shows and her duties chairing the multifaith leadership centre that she founded at NYU. Other days, she's teaching classes in public health at Columbia University or filing her reports as a special correspondent at NBC News.
Walking through the Arizona State University campus in March – I am here to see Clinton speak at the annual Clinton Global Initiative University (CGIU) event – past clusters of students in flip-flops and ill-fitting cut-offs, a contrast presents itself. When the then first daughter stepped out as a student on to the Stanford campus, from the cool darkness of a motorcade, she had 250 journalists trailing behind her. She rarely left her bulletproof dorm room without full makeup, ready to be photographed and scrutinised on her way to the library, with a phalanx of secret service lumbering beside her, dressed in student drag.
Clinton came of age in such incongruous cloisters, pitied or pilloried (or both) on a very public stage. She subsequently retreated so definitively into privacy that on the campaign trail with her mother in 2008, she even refused to answer a question from a fourth grade kid reporter in Cedar Rapids, Michigan. "I'm sorry, I don't talk to the press and that applies to you, unfortunately," she primly demurred.
These days, she finds herself constantly fielding questions, not just about whether her mother will run for office but, if she will, too. "Very few days go by when people don't ask me," she told Jimmy Fallon on his late night chat show last month.
At the end of 2013, there had been speculation that she might run her mother's presidential campaign; tea leaves that yielded nothing but hot water. Rumours buzzed earlier this year about how she might stand for a congressional seat on Long Island, but nothing came of that either. The assumption among professional Clinton-watchers was that the seat was too small a job for the scion of the closest thing the US has to royalty.
The three Clintons have invited 1,200 student "change-makers" from around the world to the Arizona campus. This annual university conference is a small part of what the Clinton Foundation does, but Chelsea's press secretary says she considers it one of the most important: a weekend of seminars and panel discussions. The foundation is a big NGO focusing on global health, climate change, development in Africa and Haiti and women's progress worldwide, with the sort of funding and partnerships you'd expect only from those with the Clintons' reach.
The Global Initiative, which Bill Clinton founded in 2005, operates as an arm of the foundation, devoted to discussing problem-solving and, as Bill and his press materials like to say, turning "ideas into action".
Outside Arizona's Gammage Auditorium, the student participants are upbeat, anxious and gawky. They all have the same thing to say about Chelsea Clinton: "She's awesome." No doubt they mean it; as the millennial vice chair of the Clinton Foundation, she is leading crucial development and aid work around the world.
Chelsea's press secretary initially granted me an interview with her months ago, but as my deadline approached he told me that she was not, after all, available. Journalists and pundits who have followed Chelsea and her family for years shrink from my inquiries, a few willing to go on record only with quotes about their admiration for Hillary. To violate the protected code around Chelsea, for those who actually know her or have covered her, who actually have more than a distant opinion to share, is to risk exclusion from the potential next administration.
Lloyd Grove, a reporter who has covered the Clintons on and off for two decades, has commented before on "a sort of Chelsea omerta ... a cloud of non-disclosure". At Stanford, he has pointed out, a columnist for the school paper was fired for daring to write about her. In the press row of the auditorium, we talk about how little we know about her – then we all wonder if there's actually anything much to know.
Case in point: at the CGIU one evening, chat show host Jimmy Kimmel takes the stage with the Clintons. "I can't imagine the three of you doing anything frivolous," he says. It's a scripted opportunity. And what we get are the revelations that Hillary occasionally watches decorating shows. Chelsea admits to watching the sequel to 300 with her husband recently. "It's important to have humour." They like to take walks and do jigsaw puzzles. "Silly things," they insist. Jigsaw puzzles.
Of course, Chelsea came of age in the public eye as she was being shaded from it. When she was three, her father was elected governor of Arkansas. She lived out her spectacularly ungainly tween and teen years in the White House. The public horror of puberty – the skin, the hair, the features growing at different rates, the awful not-a-girl-not-yet-a-woman fashion choices – resonated with many of us and we still guard her for it. Within her first year in Washington, the conservative talkshow host Rush Limbaugh cracked to the camera: "You may know that the Clintons have a cat, Socks, in the White House. They also have a dog." Then there was a cut to a picture of the 12-year-old girl at her apex of crushing awkwardness.
She spent her schooldays at the prestigious and expensive Sidwell Friends school and reckoning with her father's impeachment for his affair with White House intern Monica Lewinsky. (Seeing the three Clintons on stage at CGIU, it's hard not to think of the picture, the first after the revelations broke, of the family walking across the south lawn, Chelsea grasping her parents' hands like a bridge connecting them.) We know from Hillary's memoir that Chelsea was involved in the conversation about how the president would admit his affair to the world.
No wonder then that Clinton escaped to Stanford, the furthest top-ranking college from Washington, and even further to Oxford afterwards for her master's degree. No wonder she ran from her parents' model of public service deep into the private sector, where she first joined McKinsey, the consulting company, and then moved on to work as an investment analyst at a hedge fund.
In 2010, under a no-fly zone in Rhinebeck, New York, she married a guy she knew from her high school days, Marc Mezvinsky, who is the son of a scandal-plagued elected official himself. Both of Chelsea's in-laws are former members of Congress; her father-in-law was jailed for swindling cash from investors. The couple recently traded up – perhaps in anticipation of starting a family – to a $10.5m Manhattan apartment with four bedrooms, a home office and a den, where they live with their dog, Soren.
One wonders if Chelsea might actually be happiest crunching numbers – as she did at her hedge fund – behind the scenes at the Clinton Foundation, rather than playing political protagonist. "It's frustrating as a kid to realise you care about what your parents care about," she says on stage at CGIU. "I tried to care about things like money. I just didn't. My metric of success is the same as theirs."
This morning, Clinton stands behind a podium, her perfect blow-dry – the corrective to all those years of photographed frizzy humiliation – gleaming under the bright lights. She introduces the panel she is about to moderate. She talks about the post-earthquake devastation in Haiti, about the unsanitary conditions, details the higher risk of sexual assault in its aftermath. Her recall for statistics is stunning. But what's also notable is an unsettling flatness of tone to the laundry list of horrors. I notice that a Siberian Fulbright student who remarked on Chelsea's "awesomeness" is scrolling through her Facebook feed within minutes.
Later that day, Bill Clinton strides on to the same stage in a black polo shirt and blazer and commences to lecture on national debt and tax policy. It's hardly the topic he's billed to discuss. The students are entirely in his thrall, making notes in bullet points. It's worth emphasising that he enraptured these students while discussing tax policy. This is how we ended up here, with the Clintons replacing the Kennedys as the preeminent American dynasty. This inarguable charisma, this unsinkable leadership, this intellectual agility, this drive to shape hearts and minds, policy and diplomacy. All this married to Hillary's pragmatism, focus and steadfastness. At CGIU that evening, Chelsea tells the crowd that at dinner every night in the kitchen, she was expected to present her opinions and defend them. This began, she says, aged four. Around the time she started reading the newspaper.
The flagship enterprise of Chelsea's new public presence has been her special correspondent position at NBC News. Her team mandated that her work there would be to cover "only good news, no politics". In truth, it's a stretch to call it journalism. She has presided over a series of do-gooder stories, such as one about a programme in New Mexico where cash-strapped families eat a provided dinner in a school gym while doing homework together. There may be a story there, but in her "only good news" hands, it's a puff piece.
Not that a designer profile demands Frost/Nixon tension, but the segment with designer Stella McCartney reads as carefully calibrated public relations. "I've been aware my entire life of the benefits and challenges of having parents in the public eye," says Special Correspondent Clinton.
"Should we get a drink after this? For a week? Just talk about it?" gushes McCartney. "Let's have therapy together. I can help you, you can help me."
"Yes, let's have therapy together," replies Clinton, a wooden counterpart to her breathless subject.
"I couldn't even answer that question to you," says McCartney. "I feel like we just need to look in each other's eyes and we're done."
A critic at the Baltimore Sun devoted several columns to his claim that Clinton was so abominable as a reporter that her hiring and continued presence on screen constituted a "journalistically bankrupt decision by NBC News". New York Magazine ran the headline: "Chelsea Clinton at NBC: When Nepotism Goes Wrong"; The Week rounded up the "5 reasons Chelsea Clinton is bombing at NBC News". Her chief of staff seemed to think that asserting Clinton's desire to be a journalist is what would make the public think she was a good one. "In a way, I think we failed her," she told Vogue, "because we didn't put out to the world that Chelsea Clinton didn't wake up one day and say, I want to be a journalist. She woke up over a series of days, months and years and said, 'I want to use my voice to tell other people's stories'".
Still, her stint late last year on Newshour, a radio show from the BBC World Service, was very different from Clinton's televised flackery. On radio, she was a brilliant, articulate woman exposing stories about maternal health and the global ivory trade – full of ideas and information. As part of the show's 100 Women series, she produced an hour of compelling programming, and sat down for an interview with host Razia Iqbal that revealed her to be an informed and committed advocate for progress. In her nascent journalism career, Chelsea has clearly demonstrated in which form her talents lie. In other words, the one that requires less flash, less direct engagement, frankly, less charisma.
During Clinton's 'Coming in Second' panel in Arizona, someone asks a question via Twitter about what the panellists have learned from past failures. Every person on stage replies but Clinton herself.
She maintains distance. She all but disappears. It's this sort of performance that has led commentators such as the Washington Post's Hank Stuever to wonder if "this woman is one of the most boring ... of her era". In a New Republic article dissecting her robotic public personality, Noreen Malone described her simply as "exceedingly, eyes-glazing-over-ly, admirably dull".
The next morning, the students are bussed to a community garden to plant vegetables for the annual CGIU 'day of service'. Journalists are cordoned off in a pen, as a security measure, we are told, while the students roam freely. In a T-shirt and sunglasses, Clinton tries to rally the crowd. I'm aching to grab a hold of some aspect of her, connect in some way. "This is a crowd that really likes enthusiasm," she says, attempting to muster some enthusiasm in her own voice as the crowd whoops.
At Hillary's confirmation hearing for secretary of state, her daughter sat behind her, where the secretary's wife would usually sit. Chelsea claimed that same allotted space, standing by her mother's side, after she was confirmed. With Hillary as president, her daughter might retain that role by her side as first lady, focusing on global health, committing her remarkable mind and executive capabilities to change-making from one of the highest positions of unelected leadership.
Recently, Piers Morgan asked Bill Clinton who would make a better president – Hillary or Chelsea. It's a question he'd clearly been preparing to answer. "Day after tomorrow, my wife, because she's had more experience. Over the long run, Chelsea. She knows more than we do about everything." Knowledge, sure. But electability is another metric.
At CGIU, Bill suggests the problem with kids today is they don't run for office. Passionately, sternly, like a parent scolding a child, he tells the crowd that one must seize politics and act. "It doesn't amount to a hill of beans if you sit on the sidelines," he lectures. "We have to be on the field and playing. That is the ultimate lesson I've learned in an incredibly long life."
This is Bill's sermon on the mount. It is the Clinton family faith. And, for better or for worse, Chelsea is the sole inheritor. How far she'll follow a public life in a public sector is still no more than press conjecture. Certainly, her parents forged new paths for a new generation, and when she announced her pregnancy she said, "I feel all the better whether it's a boy or a girl that she or he will grow up in a world full of so many strong, young female leaders." Whether she will be one of them remains to be seen.
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