Politico’s Jack Shafer wrote Friday that it is “time for Chelsea Clinton’s easy ride to end.” The former — and perhaps future — first daughter turns 36 this month, is vice chair of the Clinton Foundation and a board member of IAC, and is active in her mother’s White House campaign. She’s not a kid anymore. And she’s most definitely a public figure.
Yet the media still handle her with kid gloves. Here’s how Shafer put it:
When precisely did Chelsea Clinton complete her transition from a White House kid whom journalists agreed to treat as off-limits to a public figure deserving of the full scrutiny of the press corps?
The unsettling answer to the question appears to be, “Not yet.” The soon-to-be 36-year-old occupies the status of an American princess — Diana on the Potomac, if you will. The press covers her, of course, attempting to ask her substantive question, but mostly she exists to grace the covers of magazines — Fast Company and Elle most recently — and be treated to lighter-than-air puff pieces. …
But at some point — early adulthood — the general immunity from critical coverage needs to end.
I wholeheartedly agree. There’s no need for wanton hit pieces, of course, but when the press probes Clinton Foundation fundraising, for instance, Chelsea ought to share in the scrutiny. After all, her parents added “Chelsea” to the organization’s official name in 2013 to reflect her increasingly prominent role.
It’s worth remembering, however, just how vigilantly — almost militantly — the Clintons tried to discourage Chelsea coverage during Bill Clinton’s presidency. The media mostly obliged, owing to Chelsea’s adolescence; the few exceptions only made her a more sympathetic figure, deserving of protection.
She was 18 when the Monica Lewinsky scandal engulfed the nation. Anyone with a soul had to feel awful for a teenager in that situation.
Reporters and editors should theoretically be over those sentiments, all this time later. But many — particularly senior journalists now steering news coverage — spent so many years laying off poor, little Chelsea that it’s easy to understand why they haven’t managed to break the habit.
Bill Clinton had just been elected but not yet sworn in when, in November 1992, “Saturday Night Live” aired a sketch in which comedian Mike Myers made a joke that suggested Chelsea was less attractive than the three daughters of Vice President-elect Al Gore. Chelsea was 12 at the time. Myers apologized and NBC edited the wisecrack out of re-aired versions of the show.
That same month, conservative commentator Rush Limbaugh also picked on Chelsea’s looks, comparing her to a dog.
Bill Clinton was blunt in his criticism of such commentary in a December 1992 interview with People magazine.
“I think you gotta be pretty insensitive to make fun of an adolescent child,” he said. “I think there is something pretty off-center with people who do that.”
In February 1993, shortly after the inauguration, White House press secretary Dee Dee Myers appeared on comedian David Letterman’s show (back when it was on NBC) and made the Clintons’ expectations clear.
LETTERMAN: Are you enjoying your job there with President Clinton?
MYERS: I am; it's been great.
LETTERMAN: And his daughter, of course, Chelsea. How do you get along with her?
MYERS: Chelsea is wonderful. She's a really good kid.
LETTERMAN: She seems like a very nice young woman.
MYERS: She really is. Dave, don't ever make any Chelsea jokes!
LETTERMAN: I'm not making Chelsea jokes.
MYERS: I know; I'm just warning you.
So it went. When Chelsea went off to college at Stanford in the fall of 1997, Hillary wrote the following in a special to the Los Angeles Times:
I am grateful that Chelsea has been largely spared unwelcome and intrusive press attention during the last 4½ years. Once the American media understood that Bill and I were committed to protecting her privacy, they have — with very few exceptions — avoided any hint of stalking her or covering her outside of clearly public events that she participated in because of her father's role.
The media's sensitivity and responsibility have been enormously beneficial for my daughter, and she has had as normal a growing-up as is possible in the White House. …
I remember well my own college years — the good, the bad and the ridiculous. The dates that didn't work out; the late-night rushing back to the dorm before curfew — a relic of the distant past; the caffeine-fueled all-nighters during finals; the long walks through city streets or across campus that ended in a tender moment with a handsome new boyfriend. I can't imagine having any of those private experiences, all part of finding myself, being interrupted by the bright lights of cameras — and not because of anything I was or did but because of my parents' occupations.
This was partly a thank-you note -- but mostly another warning to the press: don’t you dare take the bubble wrap off.
Shafer is right. Nearly two decades later, such warnings have expired. It’s time to stop treating Chelsea as if she’s marked “fragile.”
But it's not easy to make the shift. The media have many years of un-training to do.