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Post Leadership
Posted at 12:07 PM ET, 12/13/2011

Chelsea Clinton and the public life of famous children

Chelsea Clinton, daughter of former President Bill Clinton, makes her debut on "Rock Center with Brian Williams," Monday, Dec. 12. (Peter Kramer - AP)
Chelsea Clinton’s journalistic debut on NBC’s Rock Center program Monday evening was not met with the sort of approval ratings typically associated with her famous family. The Post’s Erik Wemple wrote she was “shy in front of a camera.” Her delivery was “pleasing and plummy, but monochromatic,” Newsday’s Verne Gay opined. And what about her level of charisma, according to reviewer Hank Stuever? “None at all.” We’re either spoiled by TV figures’ outsized personas, or Clinton, the daughter of one of the best public speakers and smooth talkers of modern times, may be “one of the most boring people of her era.” Ouch.

But the most puzzling thing about Clinton’s debut was not her performance. It’s why she’s reporting feel-good stories on TV in the first place. While she offered her own explanation—she “wants to tell stories,” according to Rock Center host Brian Williams, and her grandmother encouraged her to embrace a more “purposefully public life”—her reasons left more questions than they did answers. As the New York Times critic Alessandra Stanley put it, “it’s a noble sentiment, but it doesn’t make a lot of sense—because of her last name, there are plenty of ways to do good works and publicize worthy causes besides becoming a television newscaster.”

It’s a good question for debate. Does the child of two of this country’s most successful leaders have a responsibility to be a leader herself, putting what she’s been given to work for the highest and greatest good? Or is publicizing, and potentially inspiring others about, the work of people doing good things simply good enough? Why should we expect more of Clinton just because of her parents?

After all, one could argue (as Clinton has probably told herself) that her celebrity will draw more viewers to stories about people such as Annette Dove, who started an after-school program for poor children in Arkansas and was featured in Clinton’s debut. Such people deserve recognition, and given the mass audience of broadcast television, Dove, with Clinton’s famous help, could inspire more people to follow suit.

The problem? The venue she’s doing it in, for one. Rock Center is a show struggling with ratings that, while it may see a bump in viewership thanks to the former first kid, is unlikely to hold the extra viewers in our attention-deficit world for long. Why not try for an occasional gig on 60 Minutes, with its roughly 14 million viewers, versus Rock Center’s 3 million or so? Even the Today Show’s 5.5 million viewers would reach more people. Oh wait.  There’s already a former first daughter telling feel-good stories there.

And if Clinton really wants to lead more of a “purposefully public life,” my guess is she could have more of an impact by doing good herself than by sharing stories about others doing the same. (No offense intended to my own much-maligned profession, of course, but Clinton is hardly uncovering scoops on government fraud or investigating white-collar criminals.) She is already involved in her father’s Clinton Global Initiative. Why not put one of her two master’s degrees to work and start a public health nonprofit, or tap her network from the CGI and start a social entrepreneurship fund? Then, agree to sit down for several in-depth interviews about her life, her experiences, and why she chose to start the nonprofit or fund. The ratings bonanza would be even bigger, I’d guess.

I’m not sure we should expect the children of famous leaders to become famous leaders any more than we should expect the children of wealthy business people to become entrepreneurs. Living a good life, giving back in some way, and putting their many advantages to some kind of helpful purpose seems good enough. But if Clinton is actively embracing her grandmother’s challenge to do more with her life, my guess is telling warm-and-fuzzy stories on a news show with so-so ratings is only the first step. 

More from On Leadership:

Meet the 2011 Top American Leaders

Powerful women in Washington

Why are there so few women at the top?

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