PHILADELPHIA — Chelsea Clinton — the intensely private only child of two high-wattage politicians — painted an intimate portrait of her mother Thursday, emphasizing Hillary Clinton’s compassion for the disadvantaged.
Looking to counter the perception of the nominee as a driven and career-obsessed, Chelsea Clinton told 20 million prime-time viewers that her mother will drop everything for a few minutes to FaceTime with her granddaughter Charlotte, “to blow kisses” and read to her.
And speaking of her own childhood, she said: “Regardless of what was happening in her life, she was always, always there for me.”
A week after Ivanka Trump extolled her father’s virtues at the Republican convention, Chelsea Clinton, 36, bore witness for her mother. But unlike the very public Ivanka, this was an unusual role for Clinton, who has spent most of her adult life avoiding the spotlight.
Wearing a bright red dress, Clinton spoke in strikingly personal terms about how her mother was intensely involved in her childhood, from soccer games to church on Sunday. She vowed to voters that she would be there for them as well. “I am voting for a woman who has spent her entire life fighting for families and children,” said Clinton, who serves as vice chair of her family’s foundation. “I’m voting for a woman who knows that women’s rights are human rights and who knows LGBT rights are human rights. . . . I’m voting for a fighter who never, ever gives up and believes that we can always do better, if we come together and work together.”
Clinton occupies a unique place in history as the only person to have both parents run for president, and she has been particularly active in this campaign. While the children of candidates have always played a role in politics, they seem to have an outsize role in 2016 as the adult children of both Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump take turns on the stump to vouch for the flawed candidates.
“Because both Clinton and Trump have such high negatives showcasing their trophy children is a smart move,” said historian and author, Douglas Brinkley. “Their children are mature and accomplished. In a sense, the kids are the most super of super-surrogates for Clinton and Trump.”
Chelsea Clinton has had a modest presence around Philadelphia this week, having given birth to her second child with husband, Marc Mezvinsky, just a month ago. As always, her appearances are carefully managed. She talks slowly and deliberately about how becoming a mother has created a sense of urgency for her about the choices in this campaign. She refers to “my mom” frequently, implores people to vote and talks openly about pumping her milk for breast-feeding her newborn. Reporters can’t get near her to ask a question.
Appearing on a panel sponsored by Facebook and Glamour magazine Tuesday, she implored 18-to-24-year-olds to vote.
“I would just say urgently to every young woman, and, yes, every young man, um, every person who may not know their gender yet, or may have no gender identity — whatever you care about is at stake in this election,” she said, not sounding at all urgent.
“I think it’s really hard for any of us to imagine what we can’t see,” Clinton added. “And so I just am really proud that little girls will be able to redirect their imaginations in other ways, because my mother will have broken down this barrier.”
On Wednesday, she was the star guest for the Human Rights Campaign’s lunch to honor LGBT elected officials. She received several standing ovations in her nine-minute remarks.
Clinton calmly ripped into the Republican National Convention, saying she found most offensive the party’s “open embrace of conversion therapy” — a controversial treatment program intended to change a person’s sexuality. “In other words, child abuse,” she said.
Presidential kids live in a universe of their own, out of the limelight but rarely hidden, often coming of age in an unforgiving fishbowl that highlighted their every misstep.
But Clinton has been among the most invisible White House children, staying off the radar well into her 20s — even when coming forward might have helped her parents.
She has held her life close to her vest, revealing only snippets over the years. In 2008, she assured potential voters that her parents never abandoned her. “When my dad ran for office in ’91 and ’92, in the 13 months that he was running, there were only three nights when one or both of my parents weren’t with me, and there were maybe a handful of Sundays that we didn’t spend together,” she said. “People often ask me, ‘Do you have the privilege to believe that quality is more important than quantity in family time?’ No, I don’t have to — because my parents were always around.”
Bill Clinton tried to paint a picture of Hillary as Mom this week, describing his wife as “the best mother in the whole world.”
“Through nursery school, kindergarten, T-ball, soccer, volleyball and her passion for ballet . . . Hillary first and foremost was a mother,” he said in his speech.
Still, Chelsea endured years engulfed in drama and the media scrutiny that surrounded her family. She has never uttered word about it — except to say “it’s none of your business” — but it is hard to imagine that it hasn’t profoundly shaped the woman she has become.
After Bill Clinton admitted he had an inappropriate sexual relationship with Monica Lewinsky (just six years older than Chelsea), she was famously photographed as the bridge between her parents, holding their hands as they solemnly walked toward Marine One.
During the hard-fought 2008 primary battles between her mother and Barack Obama, Chelsea was rarely seen in the early struggle — much to the frustration of campaign aides and the disappointment of the media. When she showed up on stage with her mother, she barely spoke. “I’m just hanging out with my mom today,” she would say.
But after the New Hampshire primary, when her mother was trying to make a comeback, Chelsea found her voice and began to converse with voters. She visited more than 100 college campuses during that campaign, and she has done similar college stumping this year.
Sometimes, her avoidance of reporters seemed a bit surreal.
In 2008, a 9-year-old in Iowa asked her, “Do you think your dad would be a good ‘first man’ in the White House?” The child was a kid reporter for Scholastic News.
“I’m sorry, I don’t talk to the press, and that applies to you, unfortunately,” Chelsea told the dejected fourth-grader.
The Clintons have always been protective of Chelsea — to the point where many people didn’t think they had a child when he first ran for president in 1992. When polling showed as much, a People magazine cover featuring the trio quickly appeared.
For the most part, the media abided by a ban on writing about her awkward years, as it does for other White House children. And the Clintons left no stone unturned to protect her, once complaining to “Saturday Night Live” about a bland reference to her looks as an adolescent.
As she has gotten older, the decision not to give interviews has been hers. Campaign aides would like nothing more than to have her out front, but Hillary wouldn’t intervene, saying once that she wanted “to respect her choices like my mother respected my choices. I’m going to let her life unfold at her pace.”
Chelsea has clearly made a decision to be an active, if low-key, part of the 2016 campaign.
Her first foray got off to a rocky start: Stumping for her mother in New Hampshire, she mischaracterized Bernie Sanders’s health-care plan, saying he wanted to “dismantle Obamacare, dismantle the CHIP program, dismantle Medicare and dismantle private insurance.”
Chelsea was born in Little Rock when her father was governor of Arkansas and named for a Joni Mitchell song, “Chelsea Morning.”
She has lived in New York since graduating from Stanford University and receiving a master’s degree from Oxford University, a second masters from Columbia University School of Public Health and a PhD in international relations from Oxford.
Early on, she planned to study pre-med, but moved toward finance instead. She is married to Mezvinsky, the son of former Iowa Rep. Edward Mezvinsky and Marjorie Margolies-Mezvinsky, a former member of Congress from Pennsylvania.
Clinton has jumped around in her career goals. She worked at McKinsey & Co. and later Avenue Capital Group, a hedge fund management firm. Then the woman who refused to talk to the media landed a job as a special correspondent for NBC News. Now she works at the Clinton Global Initiative.
At her father’s 1992 nominating convention, a campaign aide suggested that Chelsea, then 12, introduce her dad after the biographical video with a simple: “Ladies and gentleman, the next president of the United States, my dad, Bill Clinton.” But Hillary Clinton nixed the idea to avoid putting pressure on her daughter, the New Yorker magazine reported at the time.
Now 24 years later, the grown woman afforded her mother that honor when she introduced her to the crowd, saying: “My mother, my hero and our next president.”