Hillary's girl: Reinvention of a president's daughter

Her teenage years were overshadowed by her father's presidency. Now she's popping up on her mother's campaign trail. But there is a new assurance about Chelsea Clinton this time, and she is increasingly being seen as a political secret weapon. David Usborne reports
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When Hillary Clinton swept on to the stage at her own election party in a Manhattan ballroom on the night of Super Tuesday she was not alone. Skipping at a hurried pace just behind were immediate family members, her husband Bill, the former president, and their daughter, Chelsea. Just as quickly, husband and child were gone, though not out of sight. They lingered just below the stage to watch and listen.

Not a few watching the spectacle may have done a double take. There was nothing surprising about seeing Bill and his silver mane beside her and we are all familiar by now with the large and often controversial role he has been playing in his wife's campaign. Rather it was Chelsea, who stood out in a flattering dress of black and white panels that was vaguely Coco Chanel. Look at her, all grown up.

Fairly much ever since Bill surrendered the White House to George Bush in the first days of 2001, we have all been gripped by the family sequel that has been all about Hillary. She announced plans to run for the Senate in New York and she won not once but twice. All this time later, the possibility – Barack Obama notwithstanding – that Hillary might become president herself is still titillating all our imaginations.

But Chelsea's story is no less remarkable. Her little bit of history-in-the-making (maybe) could be that she will become the first American to be "first child" not once but twice.

Is it a prospect that thrills her? Not all her memories of calling the White House home the first time around are happy ones. As much as her parents tried to protect their daughter – just 12 when Bill took his first oath of office – she was nonetheless the target of occasional mockery in the media and even in high political circles in Washington. (We will get to what John McCain once said of her later.)

Now, though, Chelsea is 27 years old, a resident of the Gramercy Park neighbourhood of New York with a tight clan of friends, a steady boyfriend whom, some say, she may soon marry, and a six-figure job with a financial hedge-fund company. In other words, if Hillary overcomes the remaining barriers to becoming president, Chelsea is not likely to move back into the White House. She recently said as much herself. "I wouldn't want to live with my parents again."

That she is devoted to her mother and shares many of her characteristics – and her passion for healthcare reform – is widely known. Thus, however mixed her feelings may be about her childhood on Pennsylvania Avenue, she is committed to helping her win the presidency. And even if some of us only paid attention to Chelsea when she emerged so luminously on that stage on Tuesday, the truth is that she is not slightly engaged in her mother's campaign. She is working on it full bore and has been for weeks.

The deployment on the campaign trail of Bill has raised its controversies, not least in the wake of the South Carolina primary when the often aggressive attacks by him against Senator Obama were widely perceived to have backfired. Yet, he is still considered one of Hillary's most potent weapons, hurtling around the primary states acting as a surrogate for her. Yesterday, indeed, he was in New Orleans, cheerleading supporters before Lousiana's primary today.

Less argument has surrounded the wisdom of getting Chelsea on the road. Far from just a prop to appear on stages with her mum, she has taken a leave of absence from the hedge fund, Avenue Capital, to lend her own fire power. As each week passes, in fact, her presence gets only larger.

Thus, on Thursday, Chelsea was imploring university students to support her mother in Nebraska, another state that votes today. "Why do I think you should support her, or what do I think you can see in her record?" her short address to them began. "As to why you should trust her – because she does what she says she will do. Before it was fashionable, she was standing up and saying, 'It's our obligation as Americans to provide every one with quality affordable health care'."

There, and at other appearances, she also tries to rally party supporters to end the eight years of a Republican presidency. "As much as we wish the Republicans would cede the White House and Congress, and say, 'You know, you're right. We really screwed things up,' that's not going to happen," she said. And she is doing more than just joining Hillary's team of surrogates. She is working her cell phone too. Among those Chelsea telephoned this past week was Pat Waak in Denver. Ms Waak is the chairman of the Colorado Democratic Party and thus set to be a super-delegate at the Democratic convention in that same city at the end of August. Would she please consider supporting her mother, Chelsea asked?

How effective is her assistance? That we may only know down the road. The unspoken task given to her is to energise her generation of Democrats to support Hillary. It is a tough challenge because of Mr Obama's massive appeal to younger voters, as demonstrated by the extraordinarily young demographic of the supporters who rush to his rallies and to his name in the polling stations. Even some of Chelsea's Manhattan chums, we are told, went with Obama on Tuesday, not Hillary.

Nor can we say for sure that her working for her mother might not at some point not generate some difficult questions also. The Clinton campaign was threatening yesterday to boycott a future debate on the MSNBC channel in an escalating dispute following remarks by a correspondent that it was "pimping out" Chelsea.

By any measure, Chelsea is now a public political figure. And yet, one thing has not changed since she was a teenage first daughter – she somehow is allowed to claim immunity from media interrogation. She has given no interviews since joining the campaign team. And she avoids reporters with an almost obsessive zeal. When approached by a cub reporter one day in December, Chelsea's response was astonishing. "I'm sorry, I don't talk to the press, and that applies to you, unfortunately. Even though I think you're cute," she told the young girl before brushing her aside. That protective bubble around Chelsea can be traced back to the first days that Bill and Hillary took occupancy of the White House in 1993. The late Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis paid a visit and urged the new first lady above all to protect Chelsea from the media looking-glass.

That both her parents took this to heart is understandable. Chelsea, not helped by a mouth filled with braces, was already taking hits. The day after the election, for example, a then member of the Saturday Night Live comedy team, the actor Mike Myers, was part of a duo composing a list of 10 reasons they were happy Bill had won the White House. After lingering on the appeal of the children of Al and Tipper Gore, they said: "While it's true that adolescence has been thus far unkind, we think she's gonna be a future fox." Myers and the show's producer, Lorne Michaels, were forced to apologise.

Nothing, surely, was more shocking than an episode in 1998 that actually says a good deal more about another person potentially bound for the presidency than about Chelsea Clinton. John McCain told a joke in such astonishing bad taste that most of the American media, though they were aware of it, refused even to report it. Maureen Dowd of The New York Times found herself writing at the time that Senator McCain "is so revered by the press that his disgusting jape was largely nudged under the rug". But his words did leak out.

Though this may not be verbatim, he said: "Why is Chelsea Clinton so ugly? Because her father is Janet Reno." (Ms Reno, of course, was Mr Clinton's attorney general.)

Chelsea survived and may shortly watch her mother, if nominated, go into battle against Mr McCain and possibly defeat him in a general election. That would be revenge.

Even as an adult, Chelsea still enjoyed special protection. When she enrolled in Stanford University – to where she switched after two years from medicine to history – a student journalist who dared write an article about her found herself dismissed from the campus newspaper. The media was thereafter kept at bay even when she graduated with honours and spent a year as a Rhodes Scholar (following Bill's footsteps) studying international relations at the University of Oxford.

In time, however, we have seen a reversal of roles between child and parents. At some point, she began to protect them. When Bill becomes too furious against Mr Obama, among those who have been tugging at his cuff and advising less fire and more dignity, has been none other than Chelsea.

Has it taken Chelsea until her 28th year to begin returning the favour of looking after her parents? Think back to the period that was surely the most painful while her father was president – the humiliating, sordid and politically debilitating Monica Lewinsky affair. Ask Americans which images of Chelsea they most vividly remember. Maybe it will be a photograph of that gangly child with the braces just entering her teens. It is more likely, however, that they will evoke that deeply touching portrait of Chelsea walking between her parents from the White House to the helicopter Marine One, which was to transport them to a summer break on the island of Nantucket, just as the Monica revelations were threatening to break them apart. With that – arms linked, six feet in step – she helped assure America that the first family would hold.

On that day, Chelsea became an adult, returning to her troubled parents the love and the protection they had always afforded her. And now, in her mother's crucial hours, when her dream of becoming president is about to take off or crash, she is doing it again.