Will the real First Daughter step forward?

We've seen her at the Taj Mahal, in the school ballet, on the White House lawn - yet we know almost nothing about Chelsea Clinton.
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The Independent Online

In a week replete with emotive images, the pictures of President Clinton and his daughter, Chelsea, at the Taj Mahal were surely among the most affecting. Hand in hand, arm in arm, the father with a protective arm around his smiling daughter, their whole demeanour bespoke mutual love and devotion. There could be no doubt about Bill Clinton's indulgence towards his 20-year-old daughter, nor her pleasure in his company.

Inevitably, though, other images intruded on the idyll. This was not Chelsea's first visit to the temple of undying love; she was there five years ago with her mother. Then, too, the family closeness shone through: an evident mutual affection and sympathy, along with a mother-and-daughter complicity that made Chelsea seem both older and younger than her years. But again, the family was incomplete. Hillary Clinton is out on the senatorial campaign trail now and rarely travels as First Lady.

Yet other emblematic pictures of Chelsea spring into the frame: the sombre 18 year old walking across the White House lawn towards the helicopter, one hand clinging to her mother, the other to her father. That was the day the unhappy family set off on holiday, just a few hours after Bill had confessed on television to his "inappropriate relationship" with Monica Lewinsky. Later that same day we saw her shaking hands and stooping down to thank the children who had come to greet them at Martha's Vineyard in an amateurish effort to compensate for her parents' distractedness.

We have seen Chelsea on earlier trips - in Turkey, in Italy and in Africa. We have seen her awed at meeting Nelson Mandela. We have seen her in the grounds of the White House, petting her father's dog, Buddy, and playing with the family cat, Socks. We have seen her in her ballet gear on the school platform. We have seen her in what may have been her first ball gown at her father's second inauguration festivities in 1996. And we saw her, brace-toothed and pitifully shy, when he was first elected president and she was just 12.

It is no coincidence that when we talk of Chelsea we think in pictures, for her short life has been charted only in photographs, and selective ones at that. Although she has been legally an adult for two years now, and college is a five-hour flight away from home, she has been shielded from the eyes and pens of the media to great effect.

She may be the most travelled presidential child ever, but when she accompanies her father alone, as she has done twice now, her grandmother (Hillary's mother and Bill's mother-in-law) goes along too, as chaperone. Mrs Dorothy Rodham is a discreet but constant presence, and appears to be a condition of Chelsea's travels with the president. Immediately the father-daughter photo-session at the Taj Mahal was over, Mrs Rodham re-emerged on cue at her granddaughter's side.

And although the First Daughter has clearly been fulfilling some of the duties of First Lady since Mrs Clinton set off campaigning, the White House has steadfastly discouraged the idea of Chelsea as a deputy First Lady. The official line from the start has been that Chelsea is a full-time student. Her trips have mostly been timed to coincide with university vacations. Unlike the First Lady, she does not have a published schedule, nor does she have reporters assigned to her.

The only time Chelsea has spoken extempore before a camera was during her mother's Africa tour. She was asked about America and replied, in a quiet but clear voice, that America too had its problems, which included inner-city poverty, gun violence and racial tension. That, it turned out, was an unplanned and not entirely welcome digression from the official script (which was silence), and she has said nothing of substance in public since.

At the Taj Mahal this week, it was reported, cameramen called out - as they do - "Chelsea, a little to the left". To which she replied, with a teasing smile: "What, do you want me to fall in the water?" That, said the Washington Post's correspondent, "was a coy little statement, but it was remarkable: it may be her only public comment during a week-long visit".

Even the pictures of Chelsea that we have are woefully inadequate as a record of her life and testimony to her character. We can only imagine her in class at the elite, but not too elite, Sidwell Friends school in Washington, where she spent the first five years of her father's presidency. No pictures were released. On school leaving day, her father was invited to give the oration; which he did, on condition that cameras were barred.

We can only imagine Chelsea promenading under the nutmeg trees of Stanford University's paradisal campus. The White House announced that it was she who had chosen Stanford, one of the most prestigious (and expensive) of America's universities. Her mother lamented that she had decided to study so far from home; her father fixed his schedule to include periodic visits to California, with time out for his daughter, and we know, or thought we did, that she was studying medicine.

But when it was rumoured that she was switching courses to major in history, that was not confirmed. We saw pictures of the college swimming champion who was presented as her "first serious boyfriend", but not of the two alone together. We can only imagine her at the wheel of the new Volkswagen Beetle her parents gave her as a graduation present; and no one ever divulged details of her college entrance test scores, though the lack of complaints about privilege (coupled with her parents' transparent intelligence) suggests that she earned her place at Stanford on merit.

The extent to which Chelsea has been protected (and the American media have generally complied) became apparent a year ago, when the popular weekly magazine People published a mother-and-daughter portrait of Hillary and Chelsea in pictures and words. Generally positive in tone, with the occasional snippet of gossip, the article was more Hello! than the Sun, but it elicited a fearsome response from the White House and a stern warning to others not to follow suit. They have not.

The guarding of Chelsea's privacy, indeed her upbringing as a whole, is something that even the most savage detractors of her parents have applauded. But the prevailing impression of the First Daughter that such cocooning has left is of a pleasant and largely unspoilt young woman with slightly goofy (though improving) looks.

The bare bones of her biography show what an unusual life she has led. Chelsea Victoria was born two weeks premature, on 27 February 1980, when her father was already the (exceptionally young) occupant of the governor's mansion in Arkansas. He was voted out later that year, and the family then spent one of the only periods of her life (until the purchase of their house in Chappaqua, New York, last year) in a house they owned. Chelsea was indeed named, it appears, after a fond memory nurtured by her parents of a visit to London.

The Clintons moved back into the governor's mansion two years later, when Bill Clinton was re-elected, and they moved straight from there into the White House in January 1993. Modest by the standards of grand southern houses, the governor's mansion in Little Rock is fondly remembered by Mr Clinton, who pronounced a panegyric to it two years ago after it was damaged by a tornado, which also destroyed a tree-house built for Chelsea.

Hillary Clinton worked with the Rose law firm in Little Rock and Chelsea's daytime care was entrusted to a nanny. But there is no suggestion of anything other than full-time love and devotion from both parents. In his attention and delight in Chelsea, Mr Clinton especially emerges as a father ahead of his time. He is described as enchanted with her from the day she was born, when he realised that in holding her he was experiencing something his own father (who died before he was born) had never been able to do. Something of that first wonder can often be read on his face when he is with her.

For Chelsea, having her father always in the public eye is something she has grown up with. To that extent, the presence - albeit discreet - of her secret service detail wherever she goes may be less of an imposition than for some. How she thinks and reacts, though - including to some of the most lurid allegations and merciless pillorying that any American president has had to endure - is largely a void that can be filled in only with the lean pickings of gossip.

The tempestuous side of Bill and Hillary's marriage - the china-throwing and scolding (hers) and the sheepish absences and tart retorts (his) - must have been a constant of her early years in Arkansas. She was 11 when the allegations about her father's affair with Gennifer Flowers entered the public domain, and she is said to have watched her parents' television interview on the subject with them, and afterwards said she was glad that they were her parents.

The Lewinsky affair, though, which culminated in her father's impeachment by Congress, was of a different order. Not only was Chelsea left to learn of it along with the rest of America, but the relationship had been conducted in the White House and with a woman not so very much older than she was. "Devastated" was clearly too mild a word for her reaction.

It is known that Rev Jesse Jackson was called in, apparently at her request, to counsel and pray with her and her mother. It is reported, though not confirmed, that she broke up with her college boyfriend because he became fed up of her agonising over it, and that she sought treatment from the university medical centre for physical symptoms brought on by anxiety. Her recent travels with her father suggest forgiveness and reconciliation, but who knows at what long-term psychological cost?

Americans have, by and large, treated Chelsea through her White House years with the sort of discretion that they would wish for their own children. They have evinced considerably less curiosity and, dare one say, envy than might be the case in Britain. Yet they also gave themselves an outlet: a parallel Chelsea defined by jokes, that were at once sharper and more cruel than Britons might have permitted themselves.

This Chelsea is "so ugly" because "her father is Janet Reno", the gawky attorney-general; the corpse she had to dissect in her medical classes was Vice-President Al Gore; and the chief complaint she had about her dad was that, on a salary of $200,000 a year, he would not bring his own marijuana when he visited her at Stanford. So long as so much of the real Chelsea remains under wraps, though, the fabrications will go on, as Americans struggle to interpret the loving daughter we saw at the Taj Mahal.