By Lois Romano
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, January 5, 2008
NASHUA, N.H., Jan 4 -- She is indisputably her mother's daughter, as they stand stoically side by side, their wary eyes scanning the crowded, cavernous airplane hangar, facing yet another unsettling crisis, another battle in full public view.
The younger woman sidles up to the older one and rubs her back affectionately, and suddenly, they blend into a single unit in their brown outfits as they watch their swashbuckling man warm up the crowd, brooking no talk of defeat.
"I think my girls look good, don't you?" Bill Clinton bellows to supporters, beaming back at the women in his life. The crowd explodes.
After a few minutes, the former president escorts his 27-year-old daughter, Chelsea, off the stage as his wife takes over her first rally after her disappointing third-place finish in Iowa. Chelsea Clinton never comes near a microphone.
The poised only child of Bill and Hillary Clinton, the one accomplishment for which they are only lauded, never criticized, has finally stepped forward in this presidential campaign, making her debut in front of friendly political crowds. She suddenly appeared in Iowa last month, clearly to soften her mother's sometimes austere image -- and to offer some competing glitz to Barack Obama's rolling Oprah show.
Tall and striking, she smiles graciously and watches adoringly as her mother speaks, then enthusiastically works the rope line, talking to supporters and happily posing for cellphone photos. "You're beautiful!" a woman shouts from the crowd. "She's my greatest source of support next to my husband," Clinton told People this week. "She's incredibly smart, got great people skills . . . and lots of good feedback."
Last week in Iowa, Chelsea warmly embraced an elderly woman who asked for a photograph with her. "Of course," she said. "Just tell me where to look." Then: "I'm just hanging out with my mom today. She's going to be a great president. You're going to get everyone you know to caucus for her?"
This is the bland, utterly acceptable chitchat of the reticent surrogate, and it's as far as Chelsea seems willing to go. Hers is not a speaking role. Onstage, she doesn't utter a word, no opinions, no rallying cry, not even a simple welcome. And if anyone resembling a reporter approaches, she flees -- sometimes taking the media ban a bit far.
"Do you think your dad would be a good 'first man' in the White House?" asked 9-year-old Sydney Rieckhoff of Cedar Rapids, a "kid reporter" for Scholastic News.
"I'm sorry, I don't talk to the press and that applies to you, unfortunately," Chelsea told the fourth-grader Sunday. "Even though I think you're cute." Her reluctance would seem to be at odds with her mother's message of self-empowerment and a very vigorous effort to attract young female voters. "Like so many women I know, it took me a while to find my voice -- and I was thinking recently about how I found it," Hillary Clinton recently wrote for Glamour. "As a young woman at Wellesley in the late 1960s, we were passionate and fighting for what we believed in. . . . I found a way to use my voice to make change happen."
Aides have repeatedly declined requests for interviews with Chelsea, and at this point it's not clear whether it is the parents or the child who is resisting.
"Believe me, we'd love to have her out there," said a longtime aide. "It's Chelsea -- she won't do it and her parents respect that."
Said a longtime friend and adviser of Hillary Clinton, "The feeling is, once you have opened that door, the floodgates open. It never ends."
Susan Ford Bales, who spent her late teens in the White House as the president's daughter, said choosing to be a public figure is truly a "personal" decision for family members and always a risk. "You want to get out the word about the candidate -- not make political news," she said.
From the beginning of their public careers, the Clintons have been scrupulously protective of Chelsea, and that early decision has been a saving grace for her, friends say, because the couple has undergone harsher scrutiny than most politicians, through a myriad of scandals and Bill Clinton's adulterous episodes. During the 1992 presidential campaign, so invisible was the 12-year-old from the requisite campaign photo that polls showed that the American public didn't even know the Clintons had a daughter, prompting a cover story on the family in People.
Six years later, after Bill Clinton admitted to the nation that he had an inappropriate relationship with Monica Lewinsky, Chelsea was famously photographed as the bridge between her parents, holding their hands as they all walked toward the Marine One helicopter.
Hillary Clinton recently said that she is in constant contact with her daughter but that she wants "to respect her choices like my mother respected my choices. I'm going to let her life unfold at her pace."
Chelsea lives in New York these days, where she moved after graduating from Stanford University and receiving a master's degree from Oxford University. Two years ago, she left a job at consulting firm McKinsey & Co. to join Avenue Capital Group, a hedge fund management firm. She has a serious boyfriend, Marc Mezvinsky, the son of former Iowa Rep. Edward Mezvinsky and Marjorie Margolies-Mezvinsky, a former member of Congress from Pennsylvania.
By all accounts, the privacy the Clintons afforded their child provided her with the semblance of a normal life. She is described as warm and smart and friendly. Still, she hasn't exactly stayed beneath the radar as she has moved into adulthood, evidencing some appreciation for all her celebrity has to offer -- without taking on the burdens. A few years ago, she showed up at a Paris fashion show for Donatella Versace's clothing line, looking quite comfortable in a prime seat near Gwyneth Paltrow and Madonna. She was a staple of the British press during her time at Oxford -- not all to the good.
After she wrote an article following Sept. 11 for the now-defunct Talk magazine, pining for life and friends in America, the Oxford Student took her to task in an editorial, noting, "One would think Ms. Clinton would prefer to keep quiet on such a sensitive issue. Instead, she uses her position as Bill Clinton's daughter to publicize her pro-war views, managing effortlessly to offend her fellow students at the same time."
Chelsea has been a scarce commodity during this campaign compared with 2000, when she regularly campaigned with her mother during her Senate bid. Last month, with little fanfare, she suddenly appeared in Iowa, conveniently during the same weekend that megastar Oprah Winfrey was barnstorming for Barack Obama. "Chelsea could clear her calendar during December," Hillary Clinton told People. "Good timing for me, because that's when people start paying attention."
By contrast, John McCain's daughter Meghan has been a consistent high-profile presence with her dad, traveling with him, blogging about his events and chatting up reporters. Mitt Romney's sons have also been campaigning for months as surrogates. Cate Edwards, a Harvard Law School student, has maintained a schedule separate from her father, former senator John Edwards, speaking on his behalf before groups of college students.
Chelsea was onstage in Iowa on Thursday night, maintaining a bright smile as her mother spoke to supporters after her stinging third-place finish at the caucuses there. Then she was back Friday morning, at her mother's first campaign stop in New Hampshire. After Hillary Clinton finished her stump speech, Chelsea lunged toward the rope lines, dividing the crowd with her parents. She posed for pictures, asked for votes and autographed signs. "She thanked us for volunteering," said James Howell, who came from Connecticut to help out. "And she said, 'Be sure and vote for my mom.' "
Research director Lucy Shackelford contributed to this report.