PHILADELPHIA — Chelsea Clinton has a singular role to play on the final night of the Democratic National Convention here, serving as the very last character witness for the party’s nominee — who also happens to be her mother.
The contents of the speech Clinton will deliver is being tightly held, but the hope among many Democrats is that the 36-year-old mother of two will talk in very personal terms about how her own mother raised her. She has rarely spoken of her upbringing.
Chelsea occupies a unique place in history as the only person to have both parents run for president, and she has taken a particularly active role in this campaign. While the children of candidates have always played a role in campaigns, they all seem to have an outsize role in 2016 — as the adult children of 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. Reporters can’t get near her to ask a question.
Appearing on a panel sponsored by Facebook and Glamour magazine Tuesday, she referred to “my mom” frequently, and implored 18- to 24-year-olds to vote. She also talked about pumping her milk for breast-feeding her newborn.
“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 urgent at all.
“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, receiving 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 have long been 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 Chelsea may have been one of the most invisible White House children in history, staying off the radar well into her twenties — even when coming forward might have helped her parents.
She has held her life close to her vest, only revealing small 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 thirteen 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 to the convention.
Still, Chelsea endured years engulfed in drama and intense media scrutiny that surrounded her family. She has never uttered word about it — except to say “its 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 that Chelsea), she was famously photographed as the bridge between her parents, holding their hands as they all solemnly walked toward the Marine One helicopter.
During the hard-fought 2008 primary battle between Clinton and Barack Obama, Chelsea was rarely seen in the early struggle — much to the frustration of campaign aides and the disappointment if 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 following the New Hampshire primary, when her mother was desperately trying to make a comeback, Chelsea found her voice and began to converse with voters, if not the press. She visited more than 100 college campuses during that campaign, and 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 children 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 that to have her out front but Hillary Clinton 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 Clinton 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’ 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 the 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 Ph.D. in international relations from Oxford.
Early on, she planned to study pre-med, but moved in 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.
She 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 has moved into the family business, working at the Clinton Global Initiative.
At her father’s 1992 nominating convention, a campaign aide suggested that then 12-year-old Chelsea introduced 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 can afford her mother that honor when she introduces her to the crowd.