The Power of Political Daughters

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Photo: Getty Images

Last week, when Ivanka Trump strode onto the RNC stage with “Here Comes the Sun” playing in the background, I turned to the friend sitting beside me and asked: “Why is she so infinitely more appealing than her brothers are?” Her speech was immaculate and skillfully delivered; so was her brother’s. But whereas she seemed poised, intelligent, and — somehow — likable, even as she pushed for a dangerously authoritarian president, her brother remained repellent. She was the epitome of class and poise; he was another selfish rich guy.

The disparity between the siblings can be explained in many ways. Perhaps Ivanka is, quite simply, better at public appearances than her brother is. Perhaps I was responding to the fact that Ivanka was basically touting progressive liberalism in her speech, while her brother is actually a conservative. (Some right-wingers were downright impressed.) But maybe it also has something to do with the unique power of a political daughter. Last night, Chelsea took the same role that Ivanka held at her father’s convention, providing a warm-up for her mother with an affectionate speech — a role that, in 2012, went to both candidates’ wives. The entire DNC, in fact, has been heavy on the daughter motif, invoking the image of wide-eyed little girls dreaming big and a daughter’s heart beating with her mother’s.

Political daughters specifically seem, for some reason, more likable than their male counterparts. In 2012, Mitt Romney’s clean-cut sons looked dorky, but the lip-syncing Huntsman girls were charming. Sasha and Malia Obama are, of course, beloved; the First Lady’s references to them growing up in the White House brought the house down in Philadelphia. The Bush sisters took heat for their drinking arrests, but both operate today as respected public figures. Compare that to Al Gore III, whose two marijuana arrests — and ensuing retreat from public life — were components in the New York Times’ mournful Gore family assessment, “The End of the Line.” To be fair, we haven’t had young or young adult first sons since the Carter administration. (Dubya and Jeb were themselves already fathers when the senior George Bush took office.) But even the three Carter boys were overshadowed by little sister Amy, who lived in the White House and was the object of frequent media attention.

Chelsea and Ivanka are friendly — they’ve even been on double dates — and they’re near mirror images of each other: rich, successful businesswomen and young mothers who live in Manhattan; 36 and 34 years old, respectively. Both were raised in the public eye and understand implicitly the art of image maintenance. Both married the Jewish sons of public figures — although both men are significantly less famous than their wives. There is so much social and cultural overlap between the two, that I would be willing to bet each goes to the same high-end Manhattan salon to maintain her consistently flawless hair.

And both have, at times, served as diplomats within their own families. Ivanka’s mother has described the middle child as “peacemaker and keeper” between the Trumps. And though I can’t claim to know what transpired between the Clintons when Bill’s sex scandals started to get ugly, who can forget that photograph of Hillary and Bill walking across the South Lawn shortly after the Lewinsky scandal broke, united by their daughter, who had walked between them and reached out to hold each parent’s hand? Or Chelsea’s sweet story about comforting her mother, at age 14, with mother-daughter movie nights after Hillary’s attempt to build a universal-health-care system failed. These are daughters who improve their parents. When Hillary’s inbox appeared on WikiLeaks, onlookers marveled at the seven-page memo Chelsea had sent to her mother — then secretary of State — harshly critiquing the United Nations’ effort.

Clinton’s daughter has always been more low-profile than Trump’s, and her speech was as gentle and heartwarming as can be. But as a champion for her mother, Chelsea has, on occasion, been more aggressive, at one point even drawing scrutiny for going too far. On a panel with Lena Dunham and America Ferrera at Glamour’s Facebook Live DNC panel on Tuesday, Chelsea critiqued the Trumps. She pointed out that the claims in Ivanka’s speech were unsubstantiated by the Trump campaign. When Glamour editor Cindi Leive asked how to “debate” those who chant about imprisoning her mother, Chelsea didn’t flinch: “You use the word ‘debate’ in the question, but I don’t that’s exactly the overarching truth of the conversation. I think in many ways, when that rhetoric is deployed, it’s because the GOP knows they’re not ready for a debate or conversation about what our hardest challenges are.”

Whereas the successes of the rich-and-powerful sons of rich-and-powerful men are boring at best (it’s expected and, at this point, sort of routine) a daughter’s success is still novel enough for the public to pay attention and even cheer — particularly when the rich white man in question has a reputation for treating women questionably. The daughters of America’s most powerful families can now inherit as much power as their brothers do, But — perhaps because the public still doesn’t expect as much from women in general — it’s more impressive to see powerful daughters wielding that power. With their sharp suits and slicked-back hair, Trump’s sons are the exact portrait of a “rigged system.” But Ivanka, with her powder-pink dresses and angelic demeanor, doesn’t reek quite so intensely of entitlement — even though she holds the same title they have at the same company that their father owns, went to the same two colleges that her brothers went to, and is pushing just as hard as they are to assist their father’s presidential bid.

The presence of children on the political trail has long been a tool for humanizing their parents — showing that the stuffed suits can also be nurturing, or war hawks can be gentle, or that a meticulously disciplined type A like Hillary can still be whimsical. (After Chelsea mentioned it in her speech, did you imagine Hillary making goo-goo faces into an iPhone when FaceTiming with a toddler? Me too.) Ivanka and Chelsea do that for their parents, but they also do more: They operate as political surrogates, confidants, and power players at some of the most critical moments of their respective parents’ high-stakes campaigns. For the candidates, their daughters’ amplified presence seem to pay off both in strategy and emotion. In another leaked email, Clinton thanks a diplomat who praised Chelsea’s performance at an overseas Q&A. “As you know,” the then-secretary wrote, “hearing nice things about your children is as good as it gets.”