First Daughter, Then and Now

Chelsea could be the Clinton campaign's secret weapon.


Father, daughter at a Hillary speech.


At the Democratic National Convention in Chicago in 1996, then first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton gave a speech about "children and families." On the stage behind her, a video image of her daughter, Chelsea Clinton, then 16 years old, hovered in relief. The moment was telling. The country's first daughter, usually shielded from the glare of the public spotlight, was being granted an important and symbolic—but nonetheless background—role in her father's second presidential bid.

Today, Chelsea is 27 years old. Since leaving the White House for Stanford in 1997, she has straightened her hair and gained a boyfriend. Currently she works at Avenue Capital, a $12 billion hedge fund in New York. But as Senator Clinton canvasses the country this fall in pursuit of the presidency, Chelsea's role in her mother's campaign remains largely old hat: that of the important, but still background, figure. At least for now.

Mother hens. Bill and Hillary have always prized and defended their daughter's privacy, often casting themselves as mother hens against the vulpine national media. They received counsel in 1993 from Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis on how to shield Chelsea, then 13, from reporters; the same year, they dispatched the Secret Service to Sidwell Friends Middle School to distract photographers on Chelsea's first day of class. After comedian Mike Myers said "Chelsea Clinton—not a babe" on a 1993 Saturday Night Live skit, Hillary Clinton scolded the show's staff for "having nothing better to do than be mean and cruel to a young girl." Both producers and actors apologized. When People magazine in 1999 commissioned a story on Chelsea's relationship with her mother during her father's impeachment trial, Bill and Hillary shot back, asking the magazine to kill the story. Though the cover piece ran, the couple's fight for Chelsea's privacy was praised by both supporters and detractors, and their parenting skills continue to win high marks. "Perhaps the Clintons' greatest achievement is their daughter, who moved into the White House as a young girl and left as an accomplished young lady," President George W. Bush told an audience in 2004.

Though Chelsea has long since outgrown the Fort Knox treatment of her high-profile adolescence, her comings and goings are still kept quiet. The consensus among Washington insiders this fall is that Chelsea (and Bill) will become an increasingly visible presence in the campaign over the next 12 months, but only to a point. Her real contribution, experts say, will be emblematic, much like her photo at the 1996 convention. "Chelsea comes across as the golden child," says Steven Keller, assistant professor of media and public affairs at George Washington University. "This is something that will uniquely benefit Hillary Clinton because, as a female candidate, her mommy credentials are solid." The daughter would no doubt agree.