Chelsea delivered this homey anecdote expertly, poking fun at herself in ways her parents seem utterly incapable of.
“One thing I do want to share about my mom that I think says a lot,” Chelsea continued. “When my dad ran for office in ’91 and ’92, in the thirteen months that he was running, there were only three nights when one or both of my parents weren’t with me, and there were maybe a handful of Sundays that we didn’t spend together,” she said. “People often ask me, ‘Do you have the privilege to believe that quality is more important than quantity in family time?’ No, I don’t have to—because my parents were always around … I am really blessed. That’s why I’m here.”
Then Chelsea descended gracefully from the stage to sign autographs, pose for cell-phone-camera grip-and-grins, and tell anyone within earshot, “I hope you’ll vote for my mom.” Faith Wong sought me out. “Scratch everything I just told you,” she said. “I was totally wrong. She owned the stage. I had to wonder if we were not looking at a future presidential candidate.”
Chelsea is in many ways the ideal amalgam of her parents’ political talents—as Bill Clinton himself put it once, “She has her mother’s character and her father’s energy.” Somehow, this product of two of the most adored and loathed politicians in recent history turned out well-adjusted and yet also incredibly, unmistakably like her parents. Like her father, Chelsea is, in fact, a big flirt (not something her mother is known for). Approached by a tall model-handsome college jock at the University of Utah, she literally batted her eyelashes at him. “Hell-o!” she said in a Mae West tone before posing for a snapshot with him.
Far from being “pimped out”—MSNBC correspondent David Shuster’s ill-considered formulation that resulted in his suspension—she is orchestrating her own transformation from unwitting victim to willing agent in her parents’ dreams of power and restoration, taking a leave of absence from her job to campaign full time. It was Chelsea’s idea to take on a public-speaking role in her mother’s campaign after last month’s New Hampshire primary, answering questions from voters in open-press venues—knowing full well that such a high-profile performance could jeopardize her rabidly guarded private life.
Chelsea still won’t talk to the press. It’s a position that seems increasingly ridiculous given who, and what, she has grown into, and the extensive role she’s taking in the campaign. In the past few weeks, Chelsea has become perhaps her mother’s most effective and mistake-free surrogate, sometimes even drawing bigger crowds than her father, whose ability to attract attention, sometimes for the wrong reasons, is decidedly a mixed blessing for his wife. “She’s out there playing for her mom, as hard as any surrogate,” Obama press secretary Bill Burton says respectfully. Since January, she has crisscrossed the country, flying coach with a couple of traveling staff, holding town-hall meetings for mostly college crowds—nearly 40 campuses in two dozen states—to plant the flag in states like Utah and Hawaii, and headlining fund-raisers geared toward young professionals. In transit in the back seat of an SUV, logging more than 3,000 miles on the highways alone, Chelsea dutifully dials through a call list that includes as many as 60 names a day, thanking supporters, phoning the panelists on The View, and lobbying superdelegates.
“She’s extremely smart and really dedicated to her family,” says Wisconsin superdelegate Jason Rae, a 21-year-old junior at Marquette University who had breakfast with Chelsea recently in Milwaukee. She, along with her father, had been courting him since the Nevada caucuses (Madeleine Albright called, too), putting in calls to his cell phone to trade political gossip. “It really seemed like she was enjoying being out on the campaign trail. We’ve discussed financial aid for college students, health care a little bit, general electability. It’s nice that she and I are pretty much in the same generation and able to connect a little more because of that. And it has always been a soft sell. I have never felt any pressure from her.”
Chelsea Clinton turns 28 in a few days—around the same age her father was when he ventured into electoral politics for the first time, in 1974, waging an unsuccessful campaign for a congressional seat in Arkansas—and she is, at long last, plunging into the family business, moving from prop to propagandist. The crucible of her upbringing, including watching the media turn her family’s private humiliations into public entertainment, has left her worldly, scarred, and tough. “Chelsea has the joy and the burden of loving two very hated and beloved figures in public life. No one, not even her own parents, knows what that must feel like,” says former Republican White House staffer Doug Wead, who chronicled the often troubled lives of presidential offspring in his book All the Presidents’ Children. “I’m sure she’s been exposed to things that you and I have never seen mentioned.”