“For the ’96 convention, I proposed that Chelsea introduce Hillary,” says former Clinton adviser turned professional Clinton hater Dick Morris. Hillary said, “ ‘Don’t even mention that—that’s never gonna happen.’ But in her speech, she must have mentioned Chelsea ten times.”
After their election, the Clintons moved Chelsea from her public school in Little Rock to an elite Washington prep school (Amy Carter went to public school in D.C.). After graduating, she chose to go to Stanford—about as far away from her parents as she could get. There she was immediately famous. “When you get to college, you want to reinvent yourself, and she never had a chance to,” says a friend from school who, like all of her acquaintances and friends, asked not to be named. There’s a sort of Chelsea omertà around her, a cloud of nondisclosure.
At Stanford, efforts to just not talk about her being on campus were so strictly enforced that a reporter for the school newspaper was fired for writing a column about Chelsea (he now works at this magazine). But nobody was that blasé. “There were these girls around her—it was their mission to have Chelsea be their friend,” noted a student who knew her. “The mean girls positioned themselves around Chelsea when everybody was deciding who to live with, and I remember they pushed this sweet girl out of the group. She ended up gaining 25 pounds.”
Chelsea did her best to mimic a normal undergraduate life, even if she had Secret Service living in the dorm room next door. They’d go to class with her and be around when she went on dates. “She was a little annoyed, definitely,” said the friend. “She tried to make her peace with it.”
“I was always really impressed at how prepared she was for class,” said the classmate. “She always had firm opinions when talking about politics and current policy. And she would think about it in a way that was kind of detached and talking about ‘the administration’s policies.’ It wasn’t, ‘Oh, my dad did this.’ ”
But even being in far-off Palo Alto couldn’t protect her from the scandals unfolding in Washington. “During the whole Monica Lewinsky thing, we all made a big effort to be protective of her,” said a school friend. “We made sure not to be on the Internet reading about it in case she walked by and saw us.” A couple of times during the ordeal, she just disappeared, taking a leave of absence from classes. Uncomfortably, Carolyn Starr, the daughter of Kenneth Starr, also went to Stanford. Students joked that the university provided them housing about as far apart as they could get. But then, Chelsea’s skin was thick. How many tweens are made fun of on a Saturday Night Live “Wayne’s World” skit? It invidiously compared her to the daughters of Al and Tipper Gore. “If [the Gore girls] were a president, they’d be Babe-raham Lincoln … Chelsea—well, she’s a babe in development.” The White House reaction prompted a written apology from Mike Myers, and the bit was cut from reruns. “I really find it hilarious when they make fun of me,” Bill Clinton claimed to People in a postelection interview. “But I think you gotta be pretty insensitive to make fun of an adolescent child.” Nevertheless, this year’s presumptive Republican presidential nominee, John McCain, had to apologize for telling this joke at a Washington dinner in 1998: “Why is Chelsea Clinton so ugly? Because Janet Reno is her father.”
“Another person might have gone through the same things and come out extraordinarily bitter,” says Clinton loyalist Paul Begala. “Does she strike you as a woman who got bitter or got better?” McCurry, who served during the height of the Lewinsky scandal, recalled the day Clinton publicly admitted having an inappropriate relationship with the intern. Afterward, the family left to go to Martha’s Vineyard. “I was sitting on the helicopter watching them all walk toward me,” McCurry said. Eighteen-year-old Chelsea was gripping her parents’ hands. “They all looked miserable except Chelsea. Chelsea looked determined. She was determined not to let these two parents that she loved get away with goofing up the marriage.” That fall, Chelsea couldn’t resist reading the Starr report online, including the footnotes. When Bill Clinton learned that she’d read the report, he wept.
Chelsea took off her fall 2000 semester to travel with Hillary on her campaign for Senate. She didn’t say much. When a supporter of her mother’s at an upstate senior-citizen center pleaded with the 20-year-old Chelsea to let the assembled old folks hear her voice, they only got a grudgingly cooperative “Hello.” Then she recoiled from the microphone.