America is not a hereditary monarchy. However entertaining it is to speculate, the news seems unlikely to have any real impact on the 2016 presidential election. So why did I find myself caring so much when Chelsea Clinton announced on Thursday that she and her husband, Marc Mezvinsky, were expecting their first child later this year?
For those of us who were once curly-haired, awkward daughters, Chelsea Clinton’s arrival on the national stage at age 12 meant years of sympathetic wincing. The barbs directed her way landed on us by proxy, whether she was being photographed on a day when the weather turned her lush curls into a frizz, or “Saturday Night Live” was stacking her up against the Gore girls. My first lesson in the way Rush Limbaugh cloaked nastiness in humor was the time he declared that “Everyone knows the Clintons have a cat. Socks is the White House cat. But did you know there is also a White House dog?” The punchline was a picture of Chelsea. Tom Gogola, who has gone on to a career as a distinguished investigative journalist, published a satirical column purportedly based on a recording of Chelsea, in which the first daughter criticized her father, praised the joys of pot, and talked about Paula Jones. When he was asked for the tape, Gogola faked one.
All teenager girls have their miserable moments. But what Chelsea experienced was not just a projection of those moments before a national audience. The people who harassed and criticized her could cloak their behavior in the argument that they were commenting on her parents’ choices and their parenting style. And it is absolutely true that her father’s choices, just as much as Limbaugh’s sense of humor, subjected Chelsea to experiences no teenager should have. Chelsea may have had to live in public because of the jobs her parents had chosen, but plenty of people blew right past the distinction between living in that gaze and actually being a figure of public relevance.
Is it any wonder that people still remember the “Leave Chelsea Alone!” T-shirts that Skyler Thomas printed up as part of his “Don’t Panic!” line? Or that it felt so good that, when one of the titular characters tried to hit on Chelsea during their odyssey in “Beavis and Butt-Head Do America,” Chelsea chucked him out of a White House window. (To be fair, Butt-Head’s come-on at least made Chelsea’s braces a point of commonality between them, rather than grounds to mock her.)
Chelsea’s growing grace and seeming comfort in herself in the years since have been a rebuke to the people who used her parents’ role on the world stage as a license to take swipes at her. The width of her grin at her 2010 wedding or the clear closeness between Chelsea and her mother during the 2008 campaign all make the people who insulted her, who nibbled at that bond between Chelsea and her parents, look ineffectual. Her tormentors may never really repent, convincing themselves that they were pulling off satire or commenting on the adult Clintons. But every time Chelsea Clinton is happy, it proves how little they accomplished. All of us with awkward adolescent photos tucked safely away in the albums where they belong can raise a — now non-alcoholic — glass to her ongoing victory.