Has Chelsea Clinton’s career path prepared her for and led to a new moment for her – a political “coming out”?
There she was, slipping into the deli on line after the Memorial Day Parade, ready to order lunch like the rest of the throng. There was a guy with her. Maybe a boyfriend. They chatted about their order hoping to get in and out the same as everyone else. The 20-something on line was Chelsea Clinton. She had just come from the parade where her folks marched every year in their adopted hometown of Chappaqua, New York. Maybe she was too hungry to wait for the official gathering on Old House Lane or maybe she and her companion were headed back to the city early. Either way, she was flying under the radar. That was several years ago before she was launched as the married Chelsea, the NBC correspondent, the NGO Vice Chair. That was before her series of “coming outs.”
As an only child of protective parents, like Amy Carter before her, she was criticized by the press. Her mother, the First Lady, threw a safety net around her until even the mainstream press thought. At 19, already a Stanford co-ed, she was too old for that protection. The first real glimpse into Chelsea’s life came from People magazine in 1999, when the name Monica Lewinsky was added to the lexicon and teen-aged Chelsea was credited with holding the family together.
Chelsea herself gave the world little to talk about. She was a solid student, earning her undergraduate degree from Stanford University–not getting caught in any compromising positions or reckless accidents. She is smart by all measures, but that is clearly in her genes. In her 20s, she attended Columbia University for her Master’s in Public Health (where she continues to teach) after receiving a master’s in International Relations from Oxford University.
During her mother’s first presidential run, in late 2007, with Hillary preparing for the primaries, 27-year-old Chelsea stepped up. She spoke at campuses and town halls to get mom’s message out but did not break news nor give the media anything new. It was a very secondary daughterly role.
Chelsea also worked and gained solid business skills. Her first post-grad job in New York was as an analyst with global consulting powerhouse McKinsey & Company, and later in investment banking at Avenue Capital in New York. She somehow managed not to be stalked daily by paparazzi. Those are the kind of academic credentials and platinum business cards that could catapult any career, if your trajectory wasn’t already marked by two high flyers in front of you.
As her mother traveled the world as secretary of state, the 30-year-old Chelsea announced her engagement to a member of another political family: Marc Mezvinsky. The couple was married in the lovely Hudson Valley town of Rhinebeck, less than an hour from the Chappaqua White House, and just far enough afield that they hoped it might tamp down the press frenzy. Wrong. The event was covered like a Hollywood affair complete with security to keep the press at bay. 400 guests at a former estate built by an Astor–famous for creating “The 400”–seemed just about right for America’s new royalty.
The bride was a very respectable 30 years old, a perfect and almost biblical age for stepping further into public life. And a few months later Chelsea told friends (and others) she had a reckoning; it was time to use her good fortune and assume a public role, but it would not be politics or even public service at that moment. Instead, it would be in front of a camera, a place she had rarely been. NBC gave her a role as special correspondent for a reported $600,000 annual salary. Her job was to tell upbeat stories about the needy, and taping sycophantic interviews that put her audiences to sleep. Of her December 2011 debut on “Rock Center with Brian Williams,” Hank Stuever, Washington Post TV critic, wrote what was surprising was “how someone can be on TV in such a prominent way and, in her big moment, display so very little charisma–none at all.” Somehow, though, she continued with her “Making a Difference” series until summer 2014 – almost three years – with no memorable “get” or much improvement. New York Magazine called it a “fake job.” Nonetheless, Chelsea posted a goodbye on Facebook: “I am profoundly grateful to NBC viewers who responded to the stories I shared.” The New York Times commented: “Those [taped] reports were often in line with the charitable work Ms. Clinton does at the Clinton Foundation.” Chelsea told People magazine the reason she left NBC was “to continue focusing on my work at the Clinton Foundation and as Marc and I look forward to welcoming our first child.”
The world already knew a baby was on the way and that Hillary, no longer in public service, was on a book tour widely considered a precursor to her next presidential bid. Chelsea’s NBC job might prove a conflict of interest. Her work at NBC was not the end to her media connections, as Chelsea sits on the board of IAC, the Barry Diller enterprise.
So now at 35, it seems Chelsea has truly embraced her second coming out. Even with a new baby in the house, she is active in her role of vice chair of the family business–the renamed Bill, Hillary and Chelsea Clinton Foundation–traveling the world, forcing data-driven initiatives and stirring up the foundation’s operations. When she first arrived, fresh from NBC, media reports said the foundation was 2,000 employees strong but with a fractured management structure and no investment of foundation funds. Using her McKinsey smarts, Chelsea called for an immediate business audit, followed by putting in a McKinsey chum as CEO, and brought in an investment firm. She also made data a center point for planning and initiatives, not unlike any other modern company.
Chelsea certainly worked the circles of the Clinton Global Initiative, held in Manhattan this September, as the United Nations General Assembly brought world leaders to New York. CGI has become the annual diamond-studded mega-conference where NGOs rub shoulders with elected leaders and moneyed corporate bosses. Chelsea is said to be a major player in the planning; and a moderator and speaker throughout the conference where the stage panels are only window dressing for what goes on behind the scenes and at private dinners in plush restaurants around the city. But is she a dealmaker or is that left to Dad? Does her word hold sway outside the office?
For her mother, the Foundation is double-edged. It takes money from countries America may or may not want to do business with. It takes sovereign funds as donations. The foundation principals have been paid princely sums to speak in places others may not want to be seen. Does this a future make?
In a September article in Vanity Fair (timed with CGI?), the magazine went as far as to say, “She has fully embraced being a Clinton and is now deliberately, willfully, on the road to greatness.” (Greatness? Wow.) All that in an article in which the foundation refused to let Ms. Clinton be interviewed.
Perhaps an added piece of Chelsea’s latest coming out is in the form of her new book, It’s Your World: Get Informed, Get Inspired & Get Going. The 400-plus-page tome focuses on the “tween” market, ages 10 to 14. It’s a how-to-make-the-world-a-better-place manual she hopes will compel this post-millennial generation to do good. Chelsea has been on tour signing autographs, including in her parents’ hometown of Chappaqua (sometimes called “Clintontown” or “Hillaryville”), while her mother is making a second run for The Oval. Is this part of her campaign to cast all the Clintons in a positive light, or is this timing coincidental? Those who know the Clintons would say nothing is coincidence.
The book’s critics, at least those who have bothered to take it seriously, have been many, me included. I wonder, why write a compendium of this size for a generation focused on smartphones and bite-sized reading? Why not a junior version of CGI–a Do Something (.org) on the world stage for pre-teens? An activation-driven website? Or is all this next?
Why doesn’t Chelsea join mom on the campaign trail and bring Charlotte along for the ride–helping cast Hillary in the light of the baby-boom parent and grandparent, of world leader and nurturing matriarch? Or has Chelsea rejected the role of the Good Daughter-on-the-Trail in this campaign? Maybe it’s a matter of too little time in her busy life. By one reckoning, this year alone, she has accompanied her father and wealthy donors to Africa, a Clinton Global Initiative conference in Marrakech and visited Haiti.
At 35, Chelsea is older than her dad was when he became governor of Arkansas. So who is this 30-something quasi-public figure and what is her plan? Outside of the book tour, her paid speeches, which bring money into the foundation–records show anywhere from $10,000 to $100,000 per event–have been labeled vanilla at best. The Washington Post recently described Chelsea arriving at a foundation event: “It would be her familiar routine: Arrive. Wave. Smile. Thank the volunteers.”
Her name, like her parents’ is a drawing card, but why? Educated. Yes. Presentable. Yes. A powerful and moving speaker? No. The Washington Post continues, saying about Chelsea on stage: “Here, commanding attention, not because of her personal accomplishments but because she is the solo offspring of America’s ultimate power couple.”
The big draw certainly doesn’t just come with being a child of The Rose Garden–meaning kids school-aged or younger raised in 1600 during a parental term. There were certainly other president’s children who grew up in or had at least had one foot in the post-WWII White House, starting with the most-famous Kennedys. There was Susan Ford, the youngest and still in high school; Amy Carter–the little caboose who moved in at nine–with married older brothers joining the extended household; the Bush Twins who were already in college, and now, of course, the Obama Girls.
Some First Children have gone into public life–the Bush twins–Jenna Bush Hager is a bubbly part-time NBC Today Show host and editor-at-large for Time Inc.’s Southern Living magazine, and Barbara Bush, a Yale grad, and CEO and co-founder of Global Health Corps–founded in 2008. Of course, John Kennedy Jr., a magazine publisher, looked like he was positioning for public office, but his life ended before we would ever find out. And while we don’t know yet how the Obamas will seize on their post-White House years, it’s clear the Clintons, whether they move back into 1600 or not, have secured some kind of place for Chelsea on the world stage.
Some of us boomers see Chelsea in a similar light as Caroline Kennedy–there’s that Kennedy name again. An Ivy-educated lawyer, writer and public servant who toyed with elected office but quickly withdrew. Caroline walked in her mother’s shadow and had been protected by it for years. Currently, she serves as U.S. Ambassador to Japan (since Nov. 2013), after a series of non-paying public service jobs in New York City. Under Mayor Michael Bloomberg, she was Vice Chair of the Board of Directors and Honorary Director of The Fund for Public Schools, and as Chief Executive of the Office of Strategic Partnerships of the New York City Department of Education. Her official bio says: “worked as a lawyer, author, and editor. She has authored, co-authored, or edited more than a dozen books.” She is also active in her father’s presidential library
For years, Caroline has traveled in cloistered high-flying circles, making political inroads over private dinners and cocktails. Those who know, say her speed dial is enviable. She has traveled with her own book tours with less-than-earth-shattering titles (though lovely, like a reboot of Profiles In Courage, several poetry anthologies, and coauthor of a couple more serious titles). Caroline’s own children have grown up in Manhattan, attended private schools and Ivy League colleges, and probably summered with the Kennedy Cousins at Hyannis. Yet they have managed to remain in the shadows, too, the Schlossberg name relatively unknown to the tabloid public. In family circles, they are among two generations now of Kennedy cousins with last names as varied as Shriver, Lawson, Cuomo and Schwarzenegger.
Mezinsky may well be the same–a name that will not follow Chelsea’s children easily. Charlotte Clinton Merzinsky may only be known by her first name–similar to her mother (named for a 60s era pop song: Chelsea Morning). To some, her baby has been baptized with the moniker Princess Charlotte like the Windsor baby across the pond.
So far Chelsea’s public actions leave us with more questions than answers.
If Hillary Rodham Clinton returns to the White House, will Chelsea assume a new role as adult First Daughter, accept a political appointment or will she cautiously steward the foundation while her mother stewards the world? If Hillary spends eight years in The Oval, Chelsea will be in her 40s when mom is done (assuming Hillary is a two-termer). Right now, there is no sign of her looking for elected office but, as her parents’ age, will she want to adhere to their political legacy or the role of untethered statesperson? Will the Clinton political dynasty end before it becomes one? Will it only remain a rare Washington partnership leaving behind the foundation and one Clinton to run it?
Will there be a third pubic coming out for Chelsea that is a political one?