Chelsea: A Political Rarity on the Campaign Trail

Former first daughter Chelsea Clinton is on the road just about full-time for her mother's presidential campaign. She has spoken on more than 80 college campuses and is a draw at many fundraisers, yet she remains remarkably private.

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Chelsea Clinton may be the most famous person you know nothing about. She's on the campaign trail every day, but she rarely makes the news unless somebody asks an indelicate question. Most of the time, she's speaking at small colleges in primary states with the job of luring youth voters away from Barack Obama.

NPR's Robert Smith went back to college to see how she's doing.

ROBERT SMITH: In one of the lunchrooms in North Hampton Community College in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, hundreds of students turned out to see her, although most weren't quite sure why.

Ms. MELANIE JONES (Student, North Hampton Community College): I know she's Hillary's daughter, and that's really all I know about her.

SMITH: Do you remember anything about Chelsea Clinton in the White House?

Mr. CHRIS PERRY (Student, North Hampton Community College): No, actually I don't.

Ms. SARA CZECH (Student, North Hampton Community College): She's a recognizable name, someone you've heard of.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SMITH: After all, these students - Melanie Jones, Chris Perry, Sara Czech -were likely in kindergarten when Chelsea made her political debut in a video at the 1992 Democratic Convention.

(Soundbite of video clip)

Ms. CHELSEA CLINTON (Former First Daughter): Sometimes my dad, to make me laugh, makes, like, funny faces, or when I would squeeze his nose, he would talk in a really weird voice.

SMITH: Chelsea was barely heard again during the next eight years. The Clintons, with the help of the press corps, were able to keep the teenager out of the news. But even today, as a 28-year-old, the blackout lingers. She does not take questions from the press. Her schedule isn't public. It's still a novelty to hear that voice.

Ms. CLINTON: Oh, gosh. Thank you. Spontaneous applause is always welcome.

SMITH: On this day, she takes questions for more than an hour, sometimes as the loyal daughter.

Ms. CLINTON: I am really proud that my mom's been fighting for universal health care now for certainly more than half my life.

SMITH: Sometimes as a fellow policy wonk.

Ms. CLINTON: The cap-and-trade system has been more effective longer term at helping to control new emissions, as well as mitigate traditional emissions.

SMITH: She barely moves on the stage, never raises her voice, never goes negative. She doesn't share a single personal anecdote. In a political season where campaign surrogates have tended to drift off script, Chelsea's performance is flawless.

Ms. CLINTON: OK. Yes. I didn't call on you, but I'm happy to answer your question. Well, sir, I think everyone should vote for my mother.

SMITH: Maybe it's Chelsea Clinton's perch above the fray that has made some want to pull her back down. In the last couple of weeks, two college students have asked her questions relating to her father's affair with Monica Lewinsky. Both times, her chilly responses made national news - this one captured by MSNBC.

Ms. CLINTON: I think that is something that is personal to my family. I'm sure there are things that are personal to your family that you don't think are anyone else's business, either.

SMITH: And every time it happens, it brings up questions about how much privacy anyone can expect on the campaign trail. It's an issue reporters would love to ask Chelsea about. Not, of course, that she would answer, which makes her a political rarity.

When Bill Clinton was Chelsea's age, 28, he was running for Congress. President Bush's daughter, Jenna, who's two years younger than Chelsea, has written a book and done the talk show circuit. John McCain's 23-year-old daughter, Megan, is a blogger and never passes up a chance to make news on her own. But Chelsea, when asked, shows no desire to go into the family business.

Ms. CLINTON: My political ambitions stretch just as far as helping my mom be my president.

SMITH: Which is too bad, says North Hampton student Christopher Perry after the event.

Mr. PERRY: Honestly, I've actually got to tell you, I think she's better than Hillary, actually. I think she presents herself in a better way, a more likeable person.

SMITH: Elizabeth Sevell(ph), a social work major, also liked the former first daughter. She got to speak with her one-on-one after the event, but she still has all these unanswered questions about the real Chelsea.

Ms. ELIZABETH SEVELL (Social Work Major, North Hampton Community College): What she's doing with her life, what she wants to do, where she differs with her parents on the war, you'd have to be cloned to be just like your parents and see eye-to-eye with them on everything.

SMITH: In fact, it's unheard of in a daughter, but perfect for politics. With all the trouble caused by campaign surrogates these days, what campaign wouldn't with they could clone their own Chelsea Clinton?

Robert Smith, NPR News.

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