Too Solemn for Her Generation?

Chelsea Clinton Campaigns At Our Lady Of Providence In Puerto Rico
Chelsea Clinton Campaigns At Our Lady Of Providence In Puerto Rico (Brennan Linsley -- Associated Press)
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By Ian Shapira
Sunday, May 4, 2008

The YouTube clip is hard to hear at first, but thankfully, the main character is clutching a microphone. In the 90-second video entitled "Madison audience Defend Chelsea Clinton," a crowd member asserts that the former first daughter's phone calls to superdelegates on behalf of her mother's presidential campaign are somehow "unethical." And then Chelsea launches into what, to my ear, sounds like one of those perfume-scented, floral-patterned Mother's Day greeting cards:

"Well, I disagree," she replies. "I'm, I'm so proud of my mom," she says, her voice softening. "There's no one in the world that I love more or respect more. . . . I'm so proud of my mom. I hope that your daughter is as proud of you or your children are as proud of you as I'm proud of my mom."

The Wisconsin crowd was applauding, but I was scratching my head. This is a 28-year-old with degrees from Stanford and Oxford. This was the best she could do?

Chelsea has been winning kudos in this campaign as an effective surrogate for Hillary Rodham Clinton, but I keep wondering whether she's an effective representative for us. Like me, Chelsea's a twentysomething (28 to my 29), a member of the generation that, as it happens, I spend a lot of time learning and writing about. We're ironic, sarcastic and self-deprecating, a reflection of the pop culture and politics that played out while we grew up in the 1980s, 1990s and onward. We were weaned on Chevy Chase movies ("Spies Like Us," of course, being the best), grunge and MTV's "The Real World" (seasons 1 and 2 only, please) and trained by the Onion, Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert to detect spin in the most banal comments. People my age shed privacy at the nearest high-speed Internet connection and, more often than not, display the very grown-up qualities of self-awareness and self-reflection.

So how does Chelsea fit in with the rest of us?

It's complicated.

Sometimes I feel she's aligned well with our generation, especially when I watch video clips of her speaking idealistically about her mom's plans to promote gay rights, fix the student-loan industry or provide universal health care. And her stature on college campuses means that she draws crowds and helps bolster youth activism, which is important to our generation. (Although sometimes I wonder how many in the student crowds wish, in the middle of her discourses on her mom's "green vehicular bond," that they hadn't skipped class after all.)

Crystal Strait, a 28-year-old undecided superdelegate in California, praises Chelsea for distilling wonky issues into digestible question-and-answer sessions that feel substantive but not boring. "As sad as it may be, sometimes when it comes to the youth community, we're our own worst enemy," Strait said. "We're shocked to see a young, articulate woman. Everyone's impressed with her."

But I wonder. What do we really know about Chelsea? Not that much, given her famous secrecy about her personal life, which only fuels my curiosity -- and my reporter's skepticism. What does she do as an employee for Avenue Capital Group, a hedge fund run by a donor to Clinton-related causes? Don't we need to know more about this national figure -- other than that she wants her mom to be president -- to take her views on policy seriously?

"She's been pretty adamant about saying that she's not going to talk about her personal life, only [saying] she has a dog and a boyfriend, but it would go a long way to get the youth vote and humanize her" if she'd share more of herself, said Jane Fleming Kleeb, 34, the executive director of Young Voter PAC, an organization that works with Democratic candidates to gin up the youth vote.

If you go on Facebook, you have to wait until "Chelsea" approves your "friend request" before you can visit her official page, where, once your request has been accepted, you see this in the "About Me" section: "Like so many young people around the country, I am working hard to make my mom my President!"

Like a lot of voters, I haven't seen the Chelsea Express firsthand; since she doesn't give media interviews, I have to get a sense of her bearing the way so many twentysomethings get our news: by watching YouTube clips, some shot by students, others by television networks.

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