Still Unwritten

After a quarter-century in the spotlight, Chelsea Clinton has never told us who she is. That could change Thursday night.

Chelsea Clinton speaks onstage during the 2016 HOPE Global Forum at Atlanta Marriott Marquis on January 14, 2016 in Atlanta, Georgia.
Chelsea emerged into adulthood with a blowout, a practiced smile, and a closetful of stylish blazers. Above, she speaks at the 2016 Hope Global Forum on Jan. 14 in Atlanta.

Marcus Ingram/Getty Images

In June 2008, Chelsea Clinton traveled to Austin, Texas, for the state’s Democratic convention. “Oh, gosh, thank you,” she said with a girlish smile as the crowd cheered her arrival on stage. “Oh gosh, now I’m just embarrassed.” Then her speech: pats on the head to a roster of local politicos, a message on her mother’s behalf that it was time to support Sen. Barack Obama’s newly secured candidacy, and a plea to register more Democratic voters. After four minutes, it was thank you and good night.

The speech in Texas was nothing special—Chelsea had been delivering similar performances throughout her mother’s first presidential campaign, and she has continued to do so in the years that followed. Introductions at fundraisers, TV interviews with Ellen DeGeneres and Entertainment Tonight, campaign stops in California and Pennsylvania and Arkansas. But the speech was also nothing special because it was literally not special: short, anodyne, delivered with practiced competence but little spark. She wrapped up with a nod and a firm smile, as if she were checking the event off her to-do list. Then the once and aspiring future first daughter traipsed to the front of the stage to shake hands with well-wishers while the sound system blared an upbeat pop hit from a few years back: “Today is where your book begins; the rest is still unwritten.”

Chelsea Clinton, now 36, has seemed just on the cusp of coming into her own for many years now. “Chelsea Clinton Finds Her Voice,” a Washington Post headline reported in 2008. Four years later, she was “finally embracing her political birthright,” according to a splashy profile in Vogue complete with photos by Mario Testino. In 2014, Fast Company put her on the cover and announced, “She’s finally carving out her own identity.” Last year, a big Chelsea feature in Vanity Fair reported she “is now deliberately, willfully, on the road to greatness.”

On Thursday night, she will deliver a prime-time introduction of her mother at the Democratic National Convention, a speech being billed as a headliner. Once again it feels like a big debut of sorts, though it’s not even the first time Chelsea has introduced her mother at the DNC. “Ladies and gentlemen,” she told the roaring crowd in Denver back in 2008, “I am very proud to introduce my hero and my mother, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton.” That was it.

Let’s pause to acknowledge that being even mildly critical of Chelsea Clinton is uncomfortable for many women of her generation. Many of us retain an instinctive protectiveness toward the preteen who was thrust into the spotlight with wild curly hair, braces, and a preppy-baggy early-’90s wardrobe. The nationally broadcast cruelty to Chelsea during the early years of her fame was shocking at the time, and seems even more so today. In 1992, when Chelsea was 12, Rush Limbaugh mockingly compared her to the White House dog. The next year, a “Wayne’s World” sketch on Saturday Night Live declared her “not a babe.” (Wayne himself, Mike Myers, later wrote a note of apology to the White House.) And say what you will about contemporary outrage culture, but it would have reacted swiftly and righteously to Frank Rich, then of the New York Times, calling a 13-year-old “a girl whose gawkiness, frizzy hair and orthodontically transitional smile stand in repeated contrast to the Aryan perfection of Sarah and Kristin Gore.”

Her parents quickly established that Chelsea was totally off-limits to the press, a guardedness that likely deepened after the grueling sex scandal that led to her father’s impeachment. An instantly iconic family photo shows the Clintons crossing the White House lawn to board Marine One the day after Bill finally admitted his relationship with former White House intern Monica Lewinsky. Chelsea walks between her parents, holding their hands, her wedge of auburn curls buoyant in the breeze. At that moment, there was no one who didn’t feel awful for that kid.

Bill and Hillary’s consistent protectiveness of Chelsea was just about the only thing that earned them bipartisan admiration during their time in the White House. Chelsea attended an expensive private school in Washington and by all accounts had a normal childhood—or whatever “normal” means under the sheltering wing of money, fame, power, and the Secret Service. With the press trained to treat her with quiet respect, she participated in church youth groups and ballet classes and sleepovers. Unlike the Bush daughters, she was never busted for underage drinking. Unlike Reagan daughter Patti Davis, she seems highly unlikely to write a tell-all memoir.

“The universal feeling is this is a child who has been in the public eye her whole life and has emerged as a nice child,” Marjorie Margolies-Mezvinsky, a former congresswoman and Clinton family friend, told a reporter in 1997. “She’s not bratty. The stories are legion in the White House. She doesn’t take anything for granted.” Around the same time, Chelsea made one of her first public utterances on a goodwill tour of Africa with her mother. “We have a big problem with people not thinking they have a future,” she told a girl who asked her about challenges facing young Americans. “We’re very cynical. There’s a lot of hopelessness. … That’s something we have to work on collectively, as a group, to try to realize that we are the future.”

Almost 20 years later, that nice child with the soundbite-ready knack for generational analysis is married to Margolies-Mezvinsky’s investment banker son, Marc, and on paper she’s a superachiever: undergraduate degree from Stanford, master’s from Columbia, Ph.D. from Oxford, a stint at McKinsey, seats on a handful of boards, and a $10 million condo on Madison Square Park. Chelsea emerged into adulthood with a blowout, a practiced smile, and a closetful of quietly stylish blazers. Today she serves as vice chairwoman of what is now called the Bill, Hillary, & Chelsea Clinton Foundation and charges up to $65,000 for speaking appearances. (Profits go back to the foundation, and she does not draw a salary.) But by Clinton standards, she’s somehow still unwritten. When her father was 36, he was in his second term as governor of Arkansas; at the same age, her mother was chairing the committee in charge of reforming the state’s educational system.

As a leader in her family’s sprawling foundation, Chelsea has earned mixed reviews. In Vanity Fair last year, Evgenia Peretz reported that she has made a few enemies along the way:

It was felt in some quarters that Chelsea, who hadn’t paid her dues—by, say, spending real time in Africa, or cutting her teeth at one of the programs—was coming in and throwing her weight around. [Former CEO Bruce] Lindsey and others complained to President Clinton but to no avail. “He has no ability to say no to her,” says a source familiar with the shake-ups.

It’s not that she hasn’t had the chance to define herself in other ways. In 2011, NBC handed her a $600,000 contract in return for a part-time job producing feel-good segments for NBC News and Brian Williams’ since-canceled Rock Center. Peretz called the hire “a disaster,” reporting that she arrived with her own PR team, barely deigned to show up at the office, and acted aloof toward her colleagues to the detriment of her work. One of the few segments she produced before the relationship ended in 2014 was an interview with the Geico Gecko.

Chelsea’s work as a campaign surrogate has been bumpy in its own way. “I’m sorry, I don’t talk to the press,” she infamously told a 9-year-old reporter for Scholastic News in 2007, when she was a grown woman of 27. “That applies to you, unfortunately, even though I think you’re cute.” These days she has loosened those strictures, but when she veers from the “my mother, my hero” script, she is prone to unforced errors, such as claiming in January that Bernie Sanders’ health care plan would “empower Republican governors to take away Medicaid, to take away health insurance for low-income and middle-income working Americans.” (Politifact’s ruling: mostly false.) In February, she slipped and referred to Sanders as “President Sanders,” prompting a round of embarrassing headlines just hours before her mother’s first head-on debate with her then-rival. Many of the cozy interviews she does seem intended to simply remind voters that Hillary Clinton is a grandmother and a woman with a sense of humor. But none of them are terribly funny or natural, especially compared with the seemingly effortless charm deployed by her father in his rambling yet riveting convention speech on Tuesday night.

In a Facebook Live event with Glamour magazine on Wednesday, Chelsea showed a bit more feistiness when asked what she would say to her (former?) friend Ivanka Trump about how Donald Trump would act on his supposed interest in equal pay and accessible child care: “It would be that question: ‘How would your father do that?’ ” she replied. “Given it’s not something that he has spoken about, there are no policies on any of those fronts that you just mentioned on his website—not last week, not this week. So I think the ‘how’ question is super important. In politics as it is in life.” If she didn’t exactly turn the softball pitch into a home run, she at least hit a double.

Overall, however, Chelsea has been relatively quiet during her mother’s current campaign, likely because she gave birth to her second child in June. But she has hinted that she has political aspirations of her own. Perhaps someday Americans will look back on Thursday night’s speech in Philadelphia as an important step toward an inevitable third Clinton presidency. That was the night, we’ll surely all agree, that Chelsea finally came into her own.