The recent emergence of Chelsea Clinton as a voice for her mother’s campaign has resulted in a chorus of “poor Chelsea” from various sources. Ms. Clinton is still deeply wary of the media, and the sentiment may be valid; her life has been dominated by attention she never chose to engender. But it’s got a nefarious underside, as exhibited by the suspension Friday of David Shuster, a commentator for Hardball who got put in the naughty chair for asking on the air whether Clinton had “pimped out” her daughter. Pimping is a common enough euphemism in modern parlance, but one which an indignant Hillary Clinton has managed to turn into a carnival of pity and remonstrations.
I am not unfamiliar with said carnival. Back in 1997, as a surly student journalist at U.C. Berkeley, I made a couple of comments about the use of Chelsea as a prop for controversy-free photo ops when her parents dropped her off for her first semester of college at Stanford. Scraping for something to say about the upcoming football game between Cal and Stanford, I criticized my school’s rival for pouring resources into the circus surrounding Chelsea’s arrival, suggesting that they were more concerned with maintaining a pristine, photogenic student body than educating as large and diverse a population as possible. I then encouraged Berkeley students to share our less refined ways by trashing the campus, including Ms. Clinton. Sure, my line “show your spirit on Chelsea’s bloodied carcass” was over the top and poorly chosen. And then the AP wire snipped my column’s line, “Chelsea Clinton represents the Stanford ethos of establishment worship which must be subverted and destroyed,” into “Chelsea Clinton … must be destroyed.” (The column is no longer available online.)
The comments made their way to Mrs. Clinton, who asked the Secret Service to search my apartment and quiet me down, according to Chris Von Holt, one of the nice agents who visited. The Clintons later denied any involvement, but I did manage to get the agent’s claim otherwise on a tape recorder I had with me. The message to 21-year-old me and the rest of the press was clear: Stay off Chelsea. The media has long abided by, and even approved of, this ban. The Clintons were lauded for protecting their daughter from uncomfortable scrutiny. What has been ignored is the degree to which they’ve dragged Chelsea in front of the cameras any time they need to look like a family, deflect talk of Bill’s extramarital affairs, or now, shore up Hillary’s flagging support among voters under 30.
The Clinton campaign is seeking a bulletproof spokesperson. Last year, the Edwards campaign made a similar move when it unleashed the candidate’s wife, Elizabeth, as primary attack dog. She was a brilliant, articulate voice for the campaign, and all the more effective because her untreatable cancer diagnosis made her unassailable. You could question Elizabeth Edwards’ policy arguments, but you couldn’t attack her personally. (When John Dickerson questioned the deployment of Elizabeth in Slate, she responded indignantly.) Hillary’s campaign tried to use Bill similarly after Iowa. The former president landed a few good blows before Hillary’s New Hampshire win, but then went further in South Carolina and ended up alienating African-Americans, the Democratic establishment, and everyone who remembered just how divisive the last Clinton White House was.
The turn now to Chelsea is logical, but it’s similarly destined to fail. When Bill was first elected, Chelsea was 12; treating her with special deference made sense. Now she’s 28. She’s old enough to vote, get drunk, and run for Congress. She’s chosen to enter the political fray and campaign for her mom. That’s cool, but Chelsea is also old enough to answer for the positions she’s espousing and to be treated as any other national political figure. Last summer, Clinton campaign spokesperson Howard Wolfson told the New York Times that, “Even though President and Senator Clinton are public figures, their daughter is not.” That’s legally implausible and an impossible stance in the face of Chelsea’s consistent presence on the campaign trail. Chelsea has been courting voters from Iowa to California, and soliciting the support of superdelegates over the phone. Yet she has the temerity to tell a 9-year-old reporter she’s off limits. This is stupid.
Politics is a rough game. By its harsh rules, use of the verb “pimp out” to describe Sen. Clinton’s calculating use of Chelsea can hardly be deemed over the line. The word has been stripped of most of its sexual cachet by years of overuse and application to objects as varied as online data and Yarises. Hillary doesn’t actually think Shuster was making an ugly reference her daughter’s sexuality; she’s just infantilizing Chelsea to maintain that she’s a child who can’t defend herself or take public scrutiny. So long as this claim stands, Hillary’s got a telegenic, articulate spokesperson whom no one can criticize or question. That’d be great for the Clinton campaign, but it’s not how our system works.
My skepticism on this matter is of course personal. When I made my youthfully excessive comments about Chelsea back in 1997, she was a kid. But I was barely more than a kid too, just 4 years older than Chelsea. Hillary didn’t have any qualms about having my house searched or threatening my arrest, I believe. She didn’t object when the Stanford Daily fired Jesse Oxfeld, another student journalist who violated the mandate that Chelsea was off limits.
Now that Chelsea is an adult who fiercely campaigns for the candidate she believes in, and in doing so exercises the precious right of free speech, we must have the corollary right to comment on her speech. This includes pointing out when her mom’s campaign is using her in crass and opportunistic ways. Truly offensive, harshly sexualized, or racialized comments like we’ve seen in this campaign are wrong, and soon after being made are shouted down as such. David Shuster didn’t do that; he used a common, if coarse, euphemism for the self-interested use of another person. The treatment of Chelsea Clinton as a special figure in American politics has to end. If she’s shy, she should return to private life. If she wants to campaign for her mom, she should get our respect, but she must also expect our scrutiny.