Chelsea Clinton Steps Into Spotlight

Some wonder whether she will pursue elected office in New York.

By Maggie Haberman and Ben Smith
|  Thursday, Oct 13, 2011  |  Updated 1:07 PM EDT
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Chelsea Clinton Steps Into Spotlight

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Former U.S. president Bill Clinton (L) and daughter Chelsea Clinton

The Next Clinton has arrived.

Former first daughter Chelsea Clinton, long a fiercely guarded ward of the Clinton circle, made her first tentative steps into the public eye during the later stages of her mother’s presidential campaign. She found, friends say, that she liked it. And so this fall has featured a carefully staged walk into the spotlight.

Last month, the youngest Clinton interviewed her mother on stage at her father’s Clinton Global Initiative on a range of policy issues. She joined the board of directors of Barry Diller’s InterActive Corporation. She started a Facebook page. And she penned a rare personal tribute to her father’s legacy on the 20th anniversary of the start of his 1992 campaign for the Daily Beast.

The moves have stirred a sense in the extended, zealously protective Clinton circle that Chelsea, 31, and married, is -- after being fiercely shielded from the public life by her parents for years — choosing to join it. The star turn at the Clinton Global Iniative was, said a former senior Clinton aide, “her coming out party.”

Even people who dislike Bill and Hillary Clinton — and there is no shortage in political circles — acknowledge the skill and care with which they raised their daughter amid the most unforgiving glare imaginable. And vestiges of that sense of protection remain: many of the people closest to knowing the truth about Chelsea Clinton’s future largely declined to speak to POLITICO, or to be quoted even on background.

“I’m a man of few ironclad rules but one of them is I don’t discuss Chelsea,” said former Clinton aide James Carville. Other former top aides, like Paul Begala and Mark Penn, simply didn’t respond to inquiries on the subject.

Indeed, the Clintons’ remarkably successful campaign to shield their daughter from the emotional harm that so often comes to the children of prominent figures has extended well past their years in the White House and long past Chelsea Clinton’s childhood. In 2008, she was assigned a trusted minder, Philippe Reines, now a senior State Department official, to protect her from media contact on the campaign trail. Even now, no subject makes Clintonites freeze up like the Clintons’ only child.

But people close to the family say that Bill and Hillary Clinton were not reflexively shielding their daughter from the public eye, but simply allowing her to make her own decisions and become a public figure on her own terms — something she seems to have now chosen to do.

“She’s an adult now, and you change,” said Judith Hope, a longtime New York family friend and political supporter. “I suspect she’s just coming to a point where she may be ready for a more public profile. And I think she would see it as the ability to do good rather than to be on the stage.”

 

Hope said that she’d seen from Clinton, who is now getting a Ph.D. in public policy from New York University, an “ever increasing interest in public policy issues,” particularly health care policy. Clinton, she noted, is taking an increased role at her dad’s Global Initiative in all aspects, but particularly in areas affecting women and girls.

“She’s like her parents — she’s a wonk,” Hope said. “But she also is personable and savvy and she certainly knows the life, and she knows the liabilities. I would hope that she is coming into a phase where she realizes that she has her parents’ motivation to make things better.”

The specter of someone with the last name of Clinton edging into public service inevitably raises the prospect of public office – perhaps an appointment by her mother’s boss, the president of the United States, or by an old family friend, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo. Or perhaps a run for Congress. Clinton allies suggested that option as a possibility for her, either in New York City where she lives, or farther north.

Rep. Nita Lowey, an old family ally who represents the official Clinton home in Westchester County, turned 74 in July and two Clinton supporters suggested that Chelsea Clinton might be a natural for her seat should Lowey decide to retire in coming years.

“She’s coming into her own – she’s developing her own career,” said Basil Smikle, a former Clinton aide and New York political consultant who said he hadn’t been let in on any plans for the next Clinton generation.

“If she did [run for office], I would not be surprised, and I think she’d be great,” he said. “She’s obviously very intelligent, and she has the political genes to make her a successful candidate. New York State as a whole could use an injection of new, younger blood with some fresh ideas.”

Lowey, whose spokesman, Matt Dennis, stressed that she is running for reelection in 2012, didn’t dismiss the notion of another elected Clinton, in Westchester or anywhere else.

“Chelsea Clinton is a smart, ambitious, remarkable woman. If she chooses to pursue elected office someday, she would be a formidable candidate and fantastic public servant,” she said in an emailed statement.

Others, such as Hope, suggested that an election is not what Clinton has in mind, and that her focus is purely on policy initiatives.

Still, the political abilities of “The Next Clinton,” as New York Magazine’s Lloyd Grove called her in a 2008 profile, raised eyebrows even in 2008. Grove wrote then that “Chelsea is in many ways the ideal amalgam of her parents’ political talents,” and quoted Bill Clinton musing that she “has her mother’s character and her father’s energy.”

She has, perhaps, a shade more of her mother’s cool than her father’s raw charisma on stage — but that too seems to be blossoming. And the younger Clinton was hardly rushed onto stage. She made her first public appearance on her mother’s behalf on Dec. 8, 2007, to bolster Hillary Clinton’s flagging Iowa campaign. She found — somewhat to her surprise allies say — that she enjoyed the retail politics of shaking hands and making the sale, and she honed her pitch in a series of campus appearances with “Ugly Betty” star America Ferrera on Clinton’s behalf.

 

After the election, she continued to pick her spots. In 2010, she dropped by a phone bank run by gay rights groups where she made calls in support of legalizing same-sex marriages and spoke to volunteers.

“She was great — very poised, and willing to do whatever we needed her to do,” said Brian Ellner, a senior strategist with the group, the Human Rights Campaign. “She didn’t have a single request except how can I help, which was gracious and different.”

Ellner noted that the marriage issue wasn’t, at that point, a sure political winner, or the safest proposal for a political scion to choose.

“She seemed very low maintenance — a roll-up-her-sleeves type,” he said.

The Clintons, meanwhile, remain part of the national conversation. Bill Clinton is again taking a central place in the nation’s domestic policy debate, with a book on jobs due out in coming weeks from Knopf and an increasingly ambitious domestic agenda under the rubric of CGI America, which met this summer in Chicago with a focus on domestic policy to complement the original organization’s international focus.

Hillary Clinton is widely perceived as a successful secretary of state, and has managed largely to float above the Obama administration’s political woes. Despite her denials, a large cadre of supporters continues to expect her to run for president in 2016. And in her Daily Beast essay, Chelsea Clinton made clear that she has no regrets over living in the embattled White House of the late 1990s.

“I have never for a moment regretted telling my parents I supported their decision,” she wrote. “I have always been grateful that at least over our breakfast table early one September morning, I voted for my dad for president, a privilege I never had at the ballot box.”

And on stage at the Clinton Global Initiative one Thursday afternoon in September, the former president faded into the purple backdrop as his daughter interviewed his wife. There, Chelsea Clinton was formal and intellectual – she asked her mother about “your vision for a participation age as a metaphor” – and also warm, and daughterly in what is, in American politics, an unprecedented public handoff of power from mother to daughter.

“Thank you, mom,” she concluded. “I’m, once again, grateful that you’re my mom and my secretary of state.”

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