When Chelsea Clinton takes the stage on Thursday night to introduce her mother, she faces a tall order. The once and perhaps future first daughter will be in direct competition with longtime friend Ivanka Trump, who emerged as the star of last week’s Republican convention. Even die-hard Democrats were impressed by the performance of the glamorous and well-spoken businesswoman often referred to as “Trump’s better half.” Tweeted Mia Farrow, “When is Ivanka running for President?”
No matter what she says, Ms. Clinton, who has long been one of her mother’s closest political advisers, is unlikely to give the Democratic nominee as big a boost. But fortunately for her, Hillary Clinton is far less dependent on the next generation than Donald Trump. Since the combative Trump has so few political allies, he had little choice but to turn the Republic National Convention into a family affair in which his four adult children all held coveted prime-time speaking slots. Though Donald Jr., Eric and Tiffany were also effective character witnesses, Ivanka, who typically speaks to her father several times a day, was perhaps most effective in countering her father’s perceived flaws. But even if Hillary Clinton is not relying on her daughter to restore her image, Chelsea would probably play a significant role in her mother’s presidency, a departure from most first daughters.
Whoever wins the election in November, America is poised to have its most consequential first daughter since Anna Roosevelt. In 1943, the 37-year-old eldest child of Franklin Roosevelt, who had worked as a journalist for a decade, moved into the White House to serve as her father’s special assistant. She soon became FDR’s “expediter,” as Washington insiders put it, the aide who both got people in to see the president and got the president to do things. Many White House watchers were convinced that FDR’s decision to put Harry Truman on the ticket in the summer of 1944 was entirely hers. As Life put it in early 1945, “Daddy’s girl is running Daddy.”
None of the first daughters since 1945 have been too intimately involved in affairs of state. Margaret Truman was too busy launching her career as a singer and writer; the Johnson and Nixon daughters appeared at campaign events for their fathers, but they never took part in policy formulation. Likewise, Caroline Kennedy, Amy Carter, Chelsea on her first go-round, the Bush twins and the Obama girls, were all still immersed in their school work. Patti Davis, in contrast, bitterly opposed the agenda of her father, whom she attacked in her fiction. Maureen Reagan was a political creature (she ran unsuccessfully for a Senate seat in California during her father’s first term), but she was not particularly close to Reagan. And while George H.W. Bush did occasionally lean on a future president, his eldest son, George, he did not look to his youngest child, Doro, for political advice.
Anna Roosevelt was the exception. Given FDR’s tense relationship with his wife at the end of his presidency, Anna often took on the duties of the first lady. It was she whom FDR asked to accompany him to Yalta rather than his wife. At that historic conference, Anna both monitored her father’s delicate health — unbeknownst to the American people, the president was suffering from a serious heart ailment — and took charge of the complicated dining arrangements for his meals with his staff and the other world leaders such as Stalin.
Chelsea and Ivanka are major figures in the 2016 campaign. While Ivanka and her husband, Jared Kushner, were the ones who forced out Trump’s longtime campaign manager, Corey Lewandoski, Chelsea helped formulate the response to some of Bernie Sanders’s attacks this winter — such as those that touched on her mother’s support of the Affordable Care Act. Like Anna Roosevelt, both daughters are likely to be enlisted as part-time first ladies: Chelsea because the nation’s first gentleman would want to pursue other interests and Ivanka because her stepmother seems to like her privacy.
While Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton promise to take the country in vastly different directions, the two women auditioning to be Anna Roosevelt’s successor have much in common. Like FDR’s daughter, both Chelsea and Ivanka grew up as children of privilege in families shaken by severe marital discord and infidelity. And just as the young Ivanka was constructing towers with Legos in her father’s office, Chelsea has been accompanying her mother to campaign rallies since age 2. As girls, each one turned serious early in part because neither enjoyed much unstructured playtime with her parents. Though she may well become America’s first first mom, Clinton the parent has resembled the vast majority of the 43 men who have served as president. Like Trump, she, too, has held extraordinarily demanding jobs, and work has been one of the primary ways in which she has bonded with her daughter. Today, just as Ivanka serves as an executive vice president of the Trump Organization, Chelsea serves as vice chair of the Clinton Foundation.
Politically, Ivanka Trump, who last week described herself as neither “Republican or Democrat,” and Chelsea Clinton are not all that far apart. Ivanka’s allusion in Cleveland to the importance of equal pay for equal work seems lifted not from anything her father has ever said, but from one of Hillary Clinton’s stump speeches. The major difference between the two is that Chelsea, who holds a trio of advance degrees, is more wonkish — she’s an expert on health policy, for example — and seems a bit more uncomfortable in the media spotlight.
But both women are dutiful daughters who will keep doing whatever they can to help their parents achieve their professional dreams. In the run-up to the election, while Ivanka Trump is expected to focus on shoring up her father’s support among women, Chelsea Clinton is likely to work on humanizing her mother. After January, it’s hard to imagine that either daughter would turn down whatever assignment dropped on her lap.
At the end of this scorched-earth campaign, Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton will no doubt want to avoid each other. But their daughters, who can readily identify with each other’s predicament, may well be able to pick back up their friendship.