Faith Wong, a retired schoolteacher and Democratic activist in Ogden, Utah, wasn’t expecting too much from Chelsea Clinton’s stump appearance for her mother at Weber State University. In late January, as Hillary’s campaign for the Democratic nomination was losing its inevitability, Chelsea, who’d been sometimes seen but hardly ever heard since she’d moved into the White House as a gawky 12-year-old, was suddenly appearing in a full-on, last-ditch political road show, and Wong was concerned she wasn’t quite up to it. “This is nice of Chelsea to do this for her mother, because I don’t think she’s totally comfortable being in the spotlight,” Wong said as we sat in the front row of a packed student-union hall waiting for Chelsea to appear before the banner reading HILLBLAZERS … OUR VOICE, OUR FUTURE, which referred to the Clinton campaign’s youth corps. “I think she was kind of hesitant at first.”
When Chelsea strode onstage, almost an hour behind schedule, the crowd erupted in applause. She waved and smiled—a full-lipped, camera-ready (Bill) Clintonian grin. She is tall and slim, with darkly mascaraed lashes framing blue-gray eyes, and glamorously straightened blonde hair. Her outfit—shiny black boots with spiky heels, jeans, and faux-military jacket, replete with epaulettes, over a black T-shirt—was appropriately fashionable. She allowed herself a theatrical grimace, punctuated by a comic eye-roll—provoking giggles—when Hillary youth-outreach director Emily Hawkins, Chelsea’s eighth-grade classmate from the Washington private school Sidwell Friends, encouraged the audience to “ask Chelsea whether it was her idea or her mom’s idea that Chelsea go to math camp.” Finally, Hawkins announced, “Heeerre’s Chelsea!”
It was yet another town meeting in a battleground state. As her mother’s new surrogate (second only to the former president himself), she’s been crossing the country, trying to distract the young from the Obama juggernaut. “I’m sorry that we’re late, and thank you for waiting—thank you for being here,” she began. She added that she was ready to answer questions about “whatever is on your mind … I’m happy to talk about anything—even math camp.”
To hear her voice—after so many years in the zone of privacy, under the cone of silence—is a shock: Chelsea speaks! The voice is calm, conversational—none of Hillary’s proclivity to hector—and the delivery is fluent, self-assured, soothing: There’s a trace of the lilt of Little Rock mixed with Manhattan—at once affable and urbane, as befits a not-quite-28-year-old graduate of Stanford and Oxford who likely makes over $200,000 a year crunching numbers for Avenue Capital Group, a hedge fund.
For nearly an hour, Chelsea fielded questions and spoke in dense, well-organized paragraphs packed with detail, nuance, facts, and figures and punctuated by the occasional “y’know”—a verbal tic of her mom’s—and a soft “yeah?” indicating that she was finished.
When a young man in back demanded to know the Clinton campaign’s “new strategy” in view of the “crippling blow” of Ted and Caroline Kennedy’s endorsement of Obama, Chelsea shot him a level gaze. “I don’t think there is a new strategy,” she said. “My mom has been running for the last year, talking about what she thinks our challenges are and what our opportunities are, and why she thinks she’s the most well positioned to deal with our problems in America and to solve things like Social Security or combat global warming or get our economy back on track. There’s no difference today from last week or last month.”
Toward the end of the session, a graying gentleman with an Indian accent asked her to comment on the widespread notion that Senator Clinton is “calculating.” He also asked if her mom has “a funnier side.”
“After this administration, I want a president who’s calculating,” Chelsea answered unhesitatingly, to cheers and whistles. “I want a president who actually calculates what our real challenges are, and what our real solutions look like ... In terms of my mom’s funnier side, I think she’s really funny—for many reasons that I’m not going to share publicly.”
“Come on!” someone egged her on.
“Well,” Chelsea said. “I will tell you that, like so many Americans and so many of my friends, she is completely obsessed with Grey’s Anatomy. And a few years ago, I was sitting at dinner with my boyfriend and my parents—it was my parents’ anniversary—and I noticed that it was 8:40 Sunday night and both my parents were looking very nervously at their watches. Finally I said, ‘Look, am I really that boring?’ I know we’ve established that I’m a numbers dork and work in finance—I’m sure I was prattling on about something. But there’s only one of me. And finally they both confessed that they had to get home to watch Grey’s Anatomy. So then my boyfriend—quietly, calculatingly—explained about TiVo. And TiVo henceforth saved many family dinners.”