Too Solemn for Her Generation?

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.

At times, she seems too afraid or too calculating to answer controversial questions head-on. When she was asked recently about her father's affair with Monica Lewinsky -- and whether it had an effect on her mom's credibility -- she was blunt, according to news accounts: "I do not think that's any of your business."

Her tone was more that of a reprimanding scold than a camera-savvy surrogate wooing the college crowd. Wouldn't it have been smarter politics to deflect the question with harmless sarcasm? "I really don't feel like talking about Monica," she might have said, "but thank you very much for the personal and intrusive question." Or, if humor isn't appropriate, what about: "I know that question may be on your minds, but I'm not ready to talk about such a personal issue, and I may never be."

After that rough start, she has since addressed Lewinsky questions more thoughtfully, explaining that it's a family matter and that her father's behavior shouldn't influence a vote on her mother.

Or there's another intriguing clip, "Chelsea Clinton vs Daniel Lee," in which a student asks whether she could say anything positive about President Bush. The question itself seemed deliberately irritating, but it could have been an opportunity for a witty, detailed smackdown of a president of whom, according to recent poll data, a large majority of 18-to-29-year-olds disapprove. Instead, Chelsea went bland. "Everyone has a right to his or her opinion in this country," she helpfully explained to a crowd of students. "I urge you to vote for whomever you choose on February 5. But I am not in the business right now of talking about the president. I am going to talk about my mom."

Chelsea declined to comment for this article through Philippe Reines, a senior adviser to the Clinton campaign, citing her long-standing policy not to talk on the record with the media. "This isn't the time or place. This is the time to talk about her mother's views," Reines said.

Chelsea, he added, doesn't consider herself an ambassador of her generation, though the campaign does believe she connects well with young people. Her appeal "is less specific to her peers than to people in their 60s and 40s -- people who are parents and grandparents, and they find her remarkable. . . . They know how hard it is to raise children. When they see someone who conducts themselves so well, they identify with the senator and former president."

Chelsea isn't visiting homeowners' associations, however. She's primarily touring college campuses, where people, for the most part, aren't yet thinking about getting married and raising children. To many, she comes off more like a simulacrum of a young person -- or some grandparent's idealized vision of a young person -- parachuting into the college scene, where most voters prefer the other guy.

She seems to know it, too. In one speech in Indiana, she aimed her pitch directly at students, not their parents: "I couldn't be more proud than to be out talking about why I support my mom, not only because she is my mom, but also as a young voter because I believe that she is the most progressive and most prepared candidate."

But if Chelsea is her mom's pitchwoman for the youth vote, she still has some Facebook friending to do. So far, Sen. Barack Obama has dominated the younger demographic, prevailing by double digits in 24 of the 31 states where exit polling included a large enough sample of 18-29 year olds.

Chelsea's trying, though. She has logged more than 120 flights to visit more than 100 college campuses. Plus, she hosted a gay pub crawl in Philadelphia and a Superbowl party in Fayetteville, Ark., while sporting an Eli Manning jersey. (Yes, her handler keeps these statistics at the ready.)

But is she out of step?

"This younger generation [is reacting] against spin in every aspect of life" said Peter Levine, 41, the director of CIRCLE, a nonprofit group at the University of Maryland that researches young people's civic and political engagement. "They have irony about the powerful, but not idealism. There's no urge to tune out. Rather, you get earnest efforts to do something authentic ."

The quest for authenticity frames several of the anxieties surrounding today's young people, and even though she could be more open, Chelsea may embody our generation's professional ideals: she is a well-paid do-gooder. Many in our generation were bred on the optimism of the 1990s economic boom; we cultivated a certain sense of entitlement after seeing so many college graduates strike it rich with quirky, massively influential ideas in Silicon Valley. But the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks made many of us pivot to think about the world and public service, and the Iraq war only hardened many young people's cynicism about newsmakers and reporters.

Maybe Chelsea reached this workplace ideal of neatly combining altruism with affluence at her first job at McKinsey, an elite consulting firm, where she specialized in health care, or possibly now, at her hedge fund.

So if, perched in a challenging yet comfortable job, she is trying to give back, maybe her campaigning fulfills that yen? Either that, or, um, her work as a board member of New York's School of American Ballet?

We can't know, of course, because she won't discuss her work publicly. The only time I even came close to talking with Chelsea was when she was a high school senior touring Princeton, where I was a freshman and a reporter for the Daily Princetonian. Word leaked to the newsroom that she was down the street at the bookstore, and a few of us scampered over to see if we could wrangle a comment on her college leanings.

I peeked over a bookshelf and caught a quick glimpse. But then I left. It felt weird. This was the first daughter, whose parents fiercely kept her away from the media. Who was I to try and intrude?

But now Chelsea is no longer a teenager on the prospective frosh tour. She's touring colleges as a 28-year-old saleswoman. Yet she's clinging to her privacy as she did a decade earlier, which, to her contemporaries, could make it all the more difficult to buy what she's selling. Maybe it's time to finally meet the press and -- not to micromanage my new Facebook friend too much, but -- act our age.

Ian Shapira is a reporter for The Washington Post's Metro section, where he writes about education and people in their 20s and early 30s.

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