Outlook: Her Generation
Monday, May 5, 2008; 12:00 PM
"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 while we grew up in the 1980s, 1990s and onward. ... People my age shed privacy at the nearest high-speed Internet connection and, more often than not, display a very grown-up quality of self-awareness and self-reflection. So how does Chelsea fit in with the rest of us? The answer is complicated."
Washington Post metro reporter Ian Shapira was online Monday, May 5 at noon ET to discuss his Outlook article about Chelsea Clinton, her appeals to young voters on her mother's behalf, and to what extent she reflects the rest of her generation.
The transcript follows.
Ian Shapira: Good afternoon everyone and welcome to the Chelsea Chat. I just got back from my hometown of Louisville, Kentucky, where it turns out I was in the midst of Chelsea. We both attended the Derby, although I was in the infield. She was up in the seats with the hat-wearing crowd. (And you can read into that distinction what you want.)
Here's a link with a photo of her all dolled up in Derby gear.
Anyway, I am happy to answer any and all questions about the Outlook piece, which readers on the comments section described as "drivel" and labeled me a "scumbag" or "nitwit" or some other variation. So, let's go for it. I have steeled myself for viciousness.
Vienna, Va.: First Obama isn't black enough and now Chelsea isn't, what, irresponsible enough? Did it occur to you she's not running for office and she doesn't need your approval?
Ian Shapira: Vienna: This is one of my favorite arguments I hear against the piece. Why my favorite? It's easy to dispute. Of course she's not running for office. Of course. But she and the Clinton campaign are trying to have it both ways: They want young voters to connect to Chelsea, but they don't feel that young voters (or any voters) have the right to ask certain questions of her and her background. We're expected to just absorb her policy pitches without being curious or asking questions of her background.
Why do you work at a hedge fund? What sort of work do you do there? Can you describe what your work day is like? What kind of clients do you have? Do you enjoy what you do?
There is a chance that Chelsea could answer those questions with really interesting insights that could help us all understand better where she's coming from in life, so we can digest her political arguments better. But Chelsea refuses to talk about herself, so mere speculation persists and people form stereotypes about her.
For instance, people assume that because she works for a hedge fund, that may be "negative." But who knows? Maybe she's doing really interesting work there, work that is altruistic in some form or fashion.
Arlington, Va.: Do you get the feeling that Chelsea might not really like campaigning, and that she's doing this because it's basically the "family business"?
Ian Shapira: Arlington: I get the sense that Chelsea does genuinely enjoy campaigning. She and her mother have a tight bond and I think that she probably loves reaching out to young people and getting to meet new people all the time.
New York: We really enjoyed the pictures of this lovely, intelligent, poised young woman that accompanied your piece, but not so much the piece itself, which seemed to continue in The Washington Post's tradition of always attempting to create a negative when it comes to the Clintons. For example, contrary to your view, I applaud her "none of your business" response to an impertinent question, and really hope she continues to turn down press interviews. I know all I need to know about Chelsea, thanks.
Ian Shapira: New York: I dispute the fact that The Washington Post only writes negative pieces on the Clintons. We did a front page profile of her in April that was incredibly laudatory and today we have a front page piece on how Bill Clinton is connecting with voters in small-town America.
If anything, we need to be more skeptical and questioning of those who are trying to assume power in this country. If you feel like you know all you need to know about Chelsea, then I think you are replacing your sense of decorum with what I feel is a much more astute sense of being curious and questioning of those who seek power in this country. Chelsea may not be running for office, but if her mother becomes President, she will have her own direct and indirect benefits, politically and financially.
And by the way, I don't dispute her wish to decline to comment on the Lewinsky matter. I do take issue with her tone, as if she questioner were an impertinet young child.
Washington: The fact that you list "Spies Like Us" as your favorite Chevy Chase movies undermines any credibility that you had. But seriously, any attempt to pigeonhole any generation with stereotypes is silly.
Ian Shapira: Washington: People have been taking me to task for citing "Spies Like Us," but let me tell you something: Go to the video. Check it out. Not only is it funnier than "Caddyshack" or "Fletch" or whatever else is out there, but it's incredibly relevant for this kind of story, especially the beginning and ending of the movie, when Emmett Fitz-Hume (played by Chevy Chase) practices being a spokesman for some federal agency and that the end, when Fitz-Hume and his comrades are playing a board game while all the reporters await their press conference. It's about, among other things, media manipulation.
Savannah, Ga.: First off, you made a mistake in your article: "Three Amigos" was the best Chevy Chase movie, and it also had Steve Martin and Martin Short. Secondly, it seems that Chelsea Clinton wants to have it both ways in so many things: for instance, she (or at least her mom's campaign) wants to be accessible without talking to the media, she is sent out as a surrogate for her mom, but if you mention that her mom is using her (with or without the "p" word), you risk losing your job. I think she genuinely supports her mom, but who wouldn't? Even Dick Cheney's daughter campaigns for him! This walled-off persona isn't a very compelling argument for voting Clinton.
Ian Shapira: Savannah: You make a good point. "Three Amigos" was pretty amazing. (I mean, the singing bush? Genius!) Thank you for that.
Alexandria, Va.: What's wrong with being a good girl? I hope she can keep it up -- you could learn a lot. Good luck to your mother.
Ian Shapira: Alexandria: You're not the only one to have wished my mom good luck raising me. I appreciate the sentiment and will pass it onto her down in Kentucky.
Williamsburg, Va.: Kind of a silly discussion, really. I mean, no one person "defines a generation." Look at the boomers' representatives in the White House, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush. Do they define the baby boomers? Oh my god, I've written four (now five) sentences on a topic that is completely nonsensical and useless. I should be using this time to read "Dilbert."
Ian Shapira: Williamsburg: Thanks for the thoughtful comment. I do think it's hard to define a generation and perhaps I should have been more nuanced about that. Generations have so many different segments to them. I am sure some baby-boomers relate more to the characteristics in my definition than many in their 20s. What I was doing in the piece was merely posing the question: Does Chelsea fit in with this segment of this generation that is well-educated, attuned to pop culture and current events, and that is earnest and idealistic but also can be humble and ironic, even sarcastic? It's a hodgepodge.
Arlington, Va.: I was one of those who didn't really connect to your article for reasons others have stated. I was wondering if you agreed with any of the critiques, and if you would have presented the article differently had you had heard them first.
Ian Shapira: Arlington: Thanks for writing and thanks for asking a thoughtful question. Yes, I think I would have been more careful about generalizing about the entirety of this generation, or at acknowleding that such overall descriptions can be irritating, especially to young people who tend to not like to be pigeonholed as one, monolithic thing. At the same time, I do think this generation has grown up in a specific era with specific news and technologicial developments that have helped infuse our age group with a certain earnestness and sarcasm, idealism and irony. It's hard to tell whether Chelsea exhibits those qualities because, at least based off the YouTube clips and her lack of media interviews, she seems either too programmatic or she seems to fearful of going in-depth on much of anything else outside her mom's talking points. Chelsea has an expertise in a few areas: knowing her mom's poltics and policy initiatives and her own personal background, having grown up in the White House and grown up alongside us all. I think it's fine if she doesn't want to talk about that stuff, but at the same time, it can't be expected that no one should ask her questions on those topics. She's campaiging for her mom, but not only that, she's trying to connect with young people -- an age group, I argue, that feeds off of information, intelligence.
Arlington, Va.: The article was primarily interesting to me not only as a lens on Chelsea Clinton, but also on the author and the demographic represented by the two of you. Of course Chelsea Clinton is not representative of her generation -- ahe is an example of a smart person who, because her parents are famous, has had every door opened to her educationally and vocationally. As The Economist once said, there is what might be called an "affirmative action" for the connected, rich and famous, and there is no question that Chelsea Clinton has been helped thereby.
I wonder if you can comment about the role getting into Princeton played in your getting a reporter job with the Washington Post? In my experience, affirmative action for the connected and so-called elite schools is alive and well on the East Coast, and particularly institutions like The Washington Post. Surely some folks who went to South Dakota State were just as deserving, but not as connected and able to trade themselves on school or family affiliations. Frin an Ivy Leaguer not so entranced with the notion of affirmative action for folks like us.
Ian Shapira: Arlington: I don't dispute the fact that where I went to school played some role in getting a job here. But at the same time, you should know that the newspaper industry (unlike say, law or finance) cares more about the package of clips you submit, and less about where you went to school. I came to The Post as a summer intern in 2000 after college and stayed on board. Take a look at each year of summer interns dating back to the late 1990s and you'll see that many of the interns come from non Ivy League schools. In fact, in the most recent batch of interns, the majority came from non-Ivies.
Then, go call up some big law firm in Washington -- say, Wilmer Hale. Ask them how many of their summer associates come from the likes of Harvard, Yale, etc. Or, go call up some big Wall Street bank or hedge fund and ask them. I am betting the reliance on Ivy Leaguers is a lot higher there than it is at The Post.
But, bringing this back to Chelsea, I think many young people out there would be interested in knowing Chelsea chose to work for a hedge fund, no less why she chose to work for a hedge fund founded by someone with Clinton ties. As I've said before, I think there could be really interesting and genuine reasons behind those decisions and that she could be doing fascinating work.
Arlington, Va.: I think your point about the relevance of Chelsea's involvement in the campaign being more toward older folks is correct. For me (a thirtysomething), her efforts mostly serve as a reminder that she was the only grownup in that family during the late 1990s. I also doubt whether anyone who grew up in that environment realistically can relate to other people her age, much less have a noninstrumental view of her mother's candidacy. I went to college with Chelsea, and could see that even on campus she lived a life profoundly different from her peers. I don't begrudge her any of it, but it does seem like she missed some perspective that is relevant to the rest of us in her generation.
Ian Shapira: Arlington: Thanks for writing and giving us your perspective from Stanford. I've heard from other Stanford graduates who went to school with Chelsea and many like you say it's inherently impossible for her to have a fuller perspective. I'll never know since I've never had the Secret Service monitoring the molecular particulars of my life. But at the same time, I speculate that someone with all the power and privilege that she had as a college student and onward perhaps had more access to different views than anyone. I remember when she went to Africa in high school and thinking how cool it was that she was able to go there and see what she saw at a relatively young age.
Washington: Every time I read a story or opinion piece (or Post chat) about Chelsea Clinton, I get the sense that journalists are just really, really annoyed that she won't let any of you interview her. Fair?
Ian Shapira: Washington: I'm not a political reporter for The Post so I haven't been hankering to interview Chelsea. I did this piece primarily as a reaction to what I have read in our paper and others and what I don't see. Interviewing Chelsea would be really interesting, but I worry that even if she does grant an interview to someone, it could come with conditions -- and it would not be in a newspaper but would probably be with someone like Diane Sawyer or Barbara Walters.
Which is funny, because I think she'd get a more nuanced treatment with a reporter from The Post, New York Times or New Yorker magazine. I think that those television interviews are highly theatrical and something Chelsea would not want. But that's just a guess.
Washington: I suppose I can understand the media's clamoring for access to Chelsea. Any interview on TV would score huge ratings. If she chose to be interviewed by you, though, what would be your first three questions to her?
Ian Shapira: Washington: Can I be honest? I don't know yet. I'd want to do a lot more research before I'd figure that out. I don't think my first three questions would be the most interesting, either -- I'd want to ask noncontroversial questions to settle into it. But, I think what you mean to ask is, what would be the three most interesting questions? I think I'd ask: Why have you felt so guarded about your privacy even though you are campaigning for your mom? Why do you think Obama connects more with young voters than your mom does? What was it like growing up in the White House and going through the Lewinsky scandal?
Oh I can hear the collective groans and shouts now. How dare reporters ask her about Lewinsky? The bottomon line is this: She can decline to comment -- and that right says a lot, as it has before. Or, she can fill in part of the ongoing historical narrative about those times, which are important for those in the business of chronicling current events.
But do I think the Lewinsky stuff is the most "interesting"? I think I am more interested in her path now, what's she doing with work, how she landed there, what ideas she's batted around for the future, and why she likes or dislikes her hedge-fund work. In other words, I'd talk to her about things that I would talk to my friends about.
Seriously: What's wrong with being a goodie-goodie? In this world of Britney and Paris and Lindsay (and, dare I say, Miley), exactly what it wrong with being a responsible, put-together, articulate, smart woman? I'm Chelsea's age, and I can tell you that I can relate to her much more that the other supposed role models out there in my age group. How about we congratulate the lady for keeping her life together, rather than lambast her because she doesn't talk to the press enough? She talks plenty at the events where she speaks, and the attendees of those events don't feel closed-off or shunned.
Ian Shapira: I find it fascinating that people make this argument, that they somehow align Chelsea with Miley, Paris and Lohan -- only because all three are celebs. Why not align Chelsea with someone else who's doing something of public value who is also our age? (Although Lohan may be doing a public service for all those poor teenage drivers out there.)
Also, I have intervied people who've been to her events. Some say she's amazing. Others say she is too walled-off and cardboard.
Washington: We get it -- you went to Princeton. Second article in which you've mentioned it. Get over it.
Ian Shapira: Washington: You must be referring to an earlier piece mocking the US News and World Report ranking. Clearly, you didn't get it that I was mocking all that. And I'm sorry if you feel bruised somehow that I didn't just say a "a college in New Jersey" or "The Daily XXXXXX-tonian," but I feel like young people and readers of The Post are confident in themselves and that they know how labels can be meaningless.
Washington: Do you find John McCain's daughter to be a little more "authentic," or more of a representative of our generation?
Ian Shapira: Washington: I find McCain's daughter to be ... interesting. Perhaps she's an example of too much information? I don't know. I've only seen her blog, which is just a snippet of her profile.
Ian Shapira: Hey everyone, thanks so much for chatting with me today. I am grateful for the criticisms and that the time you took to write in, both here in the online discussion and on the reader comments section.
If you have any thoughts on generational issues or articles that you think I should be doing, feel free to e-mail me.
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