Starting at the age of 6, Chelsea had been drilled by her parents on how to survive public life. When I was covering the 1992 presidential campaign for the Washington Post and spending the day with Hillary Clinton on a small jet, hopscotching across South Carolina, she told me, “When I saw we were going to have a primary campaign [for governor] in 1986, Bill and I talked to her at dinner, telling her that sometimes in political campaigns, people say mean things and untrue things about other people. And her eyes got real big, and she said, ‘Like what?’ And I said, ‘Why don’t you pretend to be your daddy.’ She was 6 years old. ‘Why should you be governor?’ And she said, ‘I should be governor because I’ve done a good job.’ And I said, ‘Okay, but somebody running against your daddy will stand up and say, “Bill Clinton has done a terrible job, he doesn’t care about anybody, he’s a bad person.” ’ Her eyes just got huge. And she said, ‘Why would they say that?’ And I said, ‘Because they want people to vote for them.’ ” When I asked if Chelsea was prepared for the brutality of presidential campaigning, Clinton said, “I don’t know if anybody can be prepared.”
Amy Carter’s slumber parties were reported on, as was her reading a book at table during a state dinner—supposedly an insult to the foreign guests—and even how her body was changing as she entered adolescence. The Clintons didn’t want that. “When they first won the White House, they asked Jackie Kennedy for her advice, and Jackie Kennedy had already done a study of presidential children and concluded that the less exposure, the better,” says Wead.
But aside from trying to avoid Amy Carter’s fate, this policy likely stemmed from Hillary’s desire to control the mechanisms of media privacy herself. That’s why when Gennifer Flowers sold the story of her affair with Chelsea’s dad to Star magazine, including tapes of their intimate phone calls, Hillary took her 11-year-old daughter to the supermarket, pointed out the tabloids, and “told her what we heard was going to be in one of them,” because she wanted her “to feel she’s a part of this,” according to Clinton biographer Sally Bedell Smith. Wead said Chelsea’s parents “got a lot of criticism for preparing Chelsea like this. During one of those sessions, she apparently left in tears. Rush Limbaugh said it showed just how ruthless the Clintons were, putting their child through this.” Limbaugh’s concern was disingenuous, of course. On his TV show, he called her “the White House dog.” Wead says, “The Ford children told me they wish they’d had somebody to explain things to them. Instead, they were just thrown upstairs in the White House, with the caveat, ‘And by the way, don’t make a mistake.’ ”
If the press had little discretion for the Clinton marital troubles, perhaps to make up for that, Chelsea was left alone. “It was pretty much an ironclad rule, even when Chelsea was having semi-public moments like her high-school graduation, or when she went on trips with her mom, it was kind of understood that she was off-limits,” says former Clinton White House press secretary Mike McCurry. “It’s interesting, later on, that the press was proud of it. If you’d go to journalism conferences on the role of the press and the presidency, the major editors were generally proud of the fact that they’d given Chelsea space.”
Indeed, during the second Clinton inaugural festivities, on the night of January 20, 1997, when I was part of the White House press pool trailing the Gores from ball to ball, I was surprised to come face-to-face with the then-16-year-old Chelsea, all dolled up in a party dress, when we were led through a VIP holding room on the way to the stage. “Hi, there,” she called out to the press gaggle, which had been too thoroughly conditioned to dare ask her a single question.
Part of what makes Chelsea so compelling is that she is both canny and, thanks to her parents’ making sure that she didn’t star in a sort of reality-TV version of her own young adulthood, not fully processed into a media personality. Which isn’t to say she existed in a political vacuum. After her parents’ 1992 60 Minutes appearance during the New Hampshire primary race, in which they answered questions about their troubled marriage, the campaign trotted out Chelsea’s comment, “I think I’m glad that you’re my parents.” And the 12-year-old appeared in the campaign video shown at the Democratic convention. “What I would like America to know about my parents,” she said, “is that they’re great people.” The family also posed for People, and walked hand in hand as her father accepted the nomination.