Chelsea’s tough. She recently sent around an essay by old-line feminist Robin Morgan complaining of women who aren’t avid Hillary supporters (“good-bye to some women letting history pass by while wringing their hands”). Chelsea sent it to friends with the note: “I don’t agree with all the points … but I do believe her thesis is important for us all to confront—I confess that I didn’t entirely get ‘it’ until not only guys stood up and shouted ‘iron my shirts’ but the media reacted with amusement, not outrage …”
At the University of Wisconsin in Madison, she was forced to cope with a sometimes angry audience. One young man asked about Hillary’s 2002 vote to authorize President Bush to conduct U.S. military operations in Iraq. “Has your mother ever shown remorse for her vote that’s cost a million Iraqis their lives?”
Chelsea replied calmly, “She voted for putting the United Nations weapons inspectors back in. That’s what the U.N. wanted to do. That’s what Colin Powell and our military supported us doing. She cast a vote based on the best available evidence. Perhaps you had clairvoyance then, and that’s extraordinary.”
The young man interrupted: “It was a vote to attack Iraq!”
“Well, on that we have a difference,” Chelsea shot back. “I urge you, sir, to listen to the debate and read the transcript … I’m really glad my mom was the first person to write the Pentagon to ask how they were planning to end the war.”
“By funding it?” he demanded.
And so on, until he stood up and walked out as she continued to speak, unfazed.
Next came a middle-aged lady who repeatedly insisted that Chelsea was being “unethical” by lobbying superdelegates on her mother’s behalf.
“Ma’am,” Chelsea answered plaintively, “I’ll talk to as many voters as I can talk to. I’ll talk to anyone who wants to talk to me. They don’t have to talk to me if they don’t want to talk to me.”
“It’s unethical!” the lady repeated.
“Well, I disagree,” Chelsea answered, her voice going up a notch. “I’m so proud of my mom … I hope that your daughters are as proud of you,” Chelsea added in an injured tone, “as I’m proud of my mom.”
The lady’s scoffing objections were drowned out in applause.
One young woman starting sobbing as she recounted to Chelsea how Hillary, twelve years ago, while First Lady, had written a letter to the government of Paraguay that permitted her parents to adopt a baby boy. “I just want to say, tell your mom she gave me the greatest gift,” the woman said, tears streaming. “She wrote a letter. Otherwise, we would never have him. I’m sorry, I’m crying.” Chelsea placed a hand on her shoulder and gently squeezed. “No,” she said consolingly, perfectly—just as her father would have. “Thanks for sharing that.”
By now the no-interview rule is Chelsea’s own decision—a feeling that if she grants one media interview, it will become a slippery slope to a complete loss of privacy. The Clintons take all of this very seriously. In September, a Manhattan Italian-restaurant owner who had the audacity to display a photo of Chelsea, an occasional customer, received a grim letter from the former president’s office demanding that he remove the photo or face possible legal action.
The no-interview rule reflects her exquisite sense of Clintonian parsing, even as she fields all sorts of intrusive questions from the public in front of TV cameras. But she’s still not answering questions from reporters. After another of her town meetings, at a senior-citizen center in Salt Lake City, she marched right up to me with her hand extended. “Hi, I’m Chelsea,” she told me unnecessarily, listening politely with a poker face as I explained my presence.
“You’re really great at this stuff,” I ventured enthusiastically.
“Thank you,” she coolly replied. That was our first and last conversation.
That night at Weber State, as she was schmoozing admirers—including a young woman who gushed, “You’re gorgeous!”—Chelsea’s eyes flashed at me from ten feet away when I asked a traveling campaign aide if she had ever told the Grey’s Anatomy story before. “Her hearing is as good as her mother’s,” the aide advised with a laugh. Minutes later, I walked out of the student union with Chelsea’s entourage, several feet behind her, and she glared at the aide, who sprang up to confer, then deftly slowed me down. “She’s not used to having people in her space,” the aide explained. “By ‘people’ you mean ‘press’?” I asked. “Exactly.” Days later, when I attended several events in Wisconsin, Chelsea looked right through me.
Most people contacted for this piece who knew her simply refused to say anything. The otherwise voluble James Carville said, “My kids think she’s awesome, and very fun. She treats my 12-year-old daughter very much like a contemporary. But, listen, I don’t talk about other people’s children.” Never mind that Chelsea is a grown woman, going in front of television cameras every day in support of her mother’s ambition to be president. “In my mind, she’s still like she’s 13 years old. This is going nowhere fast.” Carville adds, “You can say it’s an inappropriate position, that it’s a stupid position, but it’s my position. I’m not arguing my position, but a position it is.”
Paul Begala says that while Chelsea has political chops, “I don’t presume to tell anybody either to run for office or get married, because I don’t have to wake up with the consequences of that decision … But it strikes me the way her parents are—what Dr. King called ‘other-centered people.’ But there are many self-centered people in politics, too. There are two kinds of politicians—those who want to be somebody and those who want to do something,” and Chelsea would be in the latter category, in Begala’s opinion.
But after all that she’s been through, is it even conceivable that Chelsea would want to embark on anything like a political career? Most children of people who have been battered like the Clintons have been battered would recoil. Still, Chelsea has shown in the last few months that she is, emphatically, a Clinton. She’s a natural politician, stunningly good at it.
Last Thursday, Rae, the superdelegate Chelsea had been working on, “proudly” went for Obama instead. That night, at the debate in Austin, her mother gave what seemed to many to be nearly a pre-concession speech. It was a very poignant moment. As the crowd gave the candidates a standing ovation, Chelsea leaped onstage, looking radiant, young, and very much like the future.