As President Bill Clinton’s daughter, Chelsea Clinton grew up in the national spotlight. Now, as an adult, she’s jetting across battleground states in an effort to get her family back into the White House.
A crowd of a few hundred cheers as Chelsea Clinton takes the stage at a hotel ballroom in downtown Eau Claire, Wisconsin.
Wearing a T-shirt and jeans, she looks more like a casual millennial than a top-tier presidential surrogate. The outfit, however, matches her low-key style.
She’s not a politician, and has said she never wants to follow in her parents’ political footsteps. She’s just a 36-year-old who happens to be sole heir of the most prominent Democratic political family since the Kennedys.
Holding a white note card in one hand and a microphone in the other, Chelsea rolls through a stump speech that is polished from countless months of practice, her voice never straying above a conversational volume.
The spiel is heavy on social issues – healthcare, the minimum wage, family leave – and she talks about how her two young children have changed her life.
“I grew up spending a lot of time at events like this,” she says, as many in the crowd nod knowingly. “Holding signs, passing out buttons, handing out stickers. Becoming a parent makes it a lot more personal to me.”
She takes a few swipes at her mother’s opponent, recounting how a child of an immigrant she met was told by schoolmates that Donald Trump’s wall would “keep people like you out”.
“That is not our America,” she says.
Much of Chelsea’s time in Eau Claire was spent answering audience questions, and it was here that she showed she has her mother’s grasp of policy, if not always her father’s uncanny sense of empathy.
Remy Ceci, who drove an hour from her home in Pepin, Wisconsin, to ask Chelsea a question about climate change, said she was surprised by the depth of the day’s conversation.
“I thought for sure that it would just be, ‘Hi, vote for my mom’,” she said. “But she’s an extremely passionate speaker, and she’s well-versed in the issues.”
Chelsea effortlessly ticked off the campaign’s positions on the environment, as well as family medical leave, reforming the Department of Veteran’s Affairs and college affordability measures.
But when local government human services worker Patrick Tschida, voice wavering, asked about the recent murder of a Saudi Arabian student at a local university – which he said was an anti-Islamic hate crime – Chelsea veered off into a discussion of school civics education and presidential powers
In similar circumstances, Bill Clinton would have soaked up the emotion in the room like a sponge. There would have been hugs and, possibly, tears. He would have felt the pain.
After the event, however, Tschida said he was happy with Chelsea’s answer.
“We have to do whatever we can do locally to raise the awareness that people shouldn’t be fearing ‘the other’,” he said. “It’s xenophobia at it’s worst.”
Bill Clinton, of course, sets a high bar for displays of political empathy. Like her mother, Chelsea comes across as cool, cerebral.
Where her father emotes, Chelsea’s guard is always up. As a teen, Rush Limbaugh famously referred to her as the “White House dog”.
Then there was her father’s very public infidelity and subsequent impeachment. Those sorts of things can’t help but leave a lasting mark on a person’s psyche.
Since her father’s presidency ended in 2001, Chelsea has dabbled with the spotlight but never fully embraced it. She graduated from Stanford University and spent a few years working at a Wall Street investment bank. She had a contract to appear regularly on a national news network, but made little lasting impression.
In recent years she’s helped run the Clinton Foundation – the billion-dollar chartable enterprise that has been both lauded for its international relief efforts and the target of criticism for allegedly granting insider government access to big-money donors. Like many things Clinton, it’s a complicated web that is open to both positive and negative interpretations.
Although Chelsea presented a quiet front in Eau Claire, emails allegedly hacked from the personal account of senior Clinton campaign advisrr John Podesta show that the Clinton daughter has a sharper edge behind the scenes.
The purloined documents, if they are legitimate, reveal Chelsea chaffing against what she viewed as sloppy management practices and self-interested behaviour by some foundation employees
“My only objectives were to take stock, professionalise the foundation, build it for the future and build it in such a way that supported [Bill Clinton’s] work and my mom’s,” she wrote in one email.
If she succeeds in helping her mother ascend to the presidency, Chelsea is slated to take on an even greater role in running the foundation.
That could prove to be a daunting task, given what’s sure to be an even more glaring focus on its activities with the Clintons back in the White House.
It will certainly be more challenging then talking to friendly audiences like the one in Eau Claire, who were happy just to have here attention for an hour.
“She’s so fluent, and she presents herself so very well,” said Bonnie Golden after Chelsea was done shaking hands and saying her goodbyes.
“It’s easy to follow her, it’s easy to understand. And you can feel the love in her voice.”