Politics & Policy

Her Chelseaness: How to Be Entitled and Boring without Really Trying

(Illustration: Roman Genn)
Chelsea Clinton is a person, no, a citizen, no, a global citizen, and she is done being quiet.

Chelsea Victoria Clinton was named after the Joni Mitchell song “Chelsea Morning,” and as of the spring of 2017, it’s Chelsea Morning in America. Boom, she’s in Variety . . . CBS This Morning . . . The New York Times Book Review. She even picked up a Lifetime award! Okay it was from Lifetime, as in the cable channel, not for a lifetime of achievement, but still, Chelsea Clinton is everywhere. America, whether it asked for it or not, has become the setting for an invasion-from-inside thriller: The Chelsening.

She’s not just a little girl anymore, you know, not just someone’s daughter or campaign prop. Chelsea Clinton is a person, no, a citizen, no, a global citizen, and she is done being quiet. Hear, world, as Chelsea speaks out. She is speaking out about social media: “I’ve recognized, as a lot of people have, that Twitter is a vehicle for me to share my thoughts.” She’s speaking out on movies: “Of course I’m going to see Furious 8. I’ve already seen Logan. I love that Logan is being succeeded by a little girl.” She’s speaking out on the Clinton Foundation: “At its most distilled level, we try to make a positive, impactful, empowering difference in whatever ways we can.” She’s speaking out on speaking out: “This is not the time to be silent or stay on the sidelines.”

With the exception of a few resentful Twitter pokes at the man responsible for rendering her mom an isolated forest monster — Chappaquatch — instead of the most powerful woman in the history of the planet, everything Chelsea says is pretty much like this. The positions she articulates on progress (pro), climate change (anti), and gauzy, inspirational, make-the-world-a-better-place-for-girls-and-women goodness (super-duper pro) are verbal fentanyl. Everything she says is a platitude wrapped in a cliché washed down with a bromide. She’s the dusty end of the greeting-card section, the lite FM of famous-person chatter, a human press release. In short, Chelsea Clinton is becoming the champion dullard of our time. This didn’t happen by chance: We’re talking about the ever-calculating Clintonworld here. The dullness is a strategy, a demented post-last-ditch effort by the Clinton gals to finally power Hillary into the Oval Office. But I’ll come back to that.

It’s not like Chelsea Clinton lacks for interesting things she could talk about. What’s it like being in college when your dad humiliates your mom with an intern your own age? What’s it like watching said mom humiliate herself by losing the presidency, after a lifetime of preparation for the task, to a cheesy reality-television star running on a whim? What’s it like living in a $10 million New York condo with 250-foot-long hallways? Oh, and do you have any comment on longtime Clinton Foundation officer Doug Band’s claim, in a private e-mail uncovered by WikiLeaks, that the foundation paid for your “wedding and life for a decade”?

Yet Vogue writer Jonathan Van Meter, after spending much of the spring and summer of 2012 with Chelsea, was so lost for a juicy anecdote about her that he led off his lengthy profile with this tidbit: “I am pretty intrigued by Joplin Avenue Coffee Company,” Chelsea told him in Joplin, Mo., adding, “When in doubt, coffee.” Van Meter italicized the final noun in a heroic attempt to make the remark sound a little more electrifying than it was.

Variety’s writer Ramin Setoodeh whipped up this pulse-pounder to open his profile: “Chelsea Clinton is about to tell you some things you may not know about her. In an interview with Variety, she lists the last great movie she saw (Hidden Figures), her most surprising job (an internship at a cattle ranch in 1999), and her favorite food growing up (cheddar cheese).”

Supposedly the media have an intriguing new angle. After 20 years of declaring that Chelsea has at last found a niche for herself, they’re now saying that Chelsea has at last really found a niche for herself. Said niche is her new social-media role as the tart-tongued Trump tormentor of Twitter. “Now on Twitter: Chelsea Clinton, Unbound,” proclaimed the New York Times in a story of more than 1,100 words — longer than the same newspaper’s April 18 story about the Fresno Islamist who slaughtered three people while yelling “Allahu akbar.”

You’d have to grade on a steep curve, though, to call Chelsea’s anti-Trump tweets withering or even amusing. After Sean Spicer, defending Trump’s notorious tweet about alleged Obama wiretapping, said, “The president used the word ‘wiretaps’ in quotes,” Chelsea fired off the following semi-coherent riposte: “Is the lesson that we should put in ‘quotes’ things we don’t mean? Rather than what we say (and mean)? Asking for . . . the world.” In another supposedly wicked tweet cited by the Times as evidence that the Clinton heir is now “unbound,” Chelsea criticized Trump for not condemning whoever left Nazi leaflets at a Jewish student center at Virginia Tech. After a Washington Post writer tweeted, “Huh. Looks like Trump’s version of taking on Wall Street is to deregulate it. Who could have predicted this?” Chelsea retweeted the remark, adding her own comment: “Anyone taking him seriously.” This stuff isn’t exactly insult-comedy gold; even for a celebrity, Twitter Chelsea isn’t interesting.

Variety did take a deep breath and dare to ask Chelsea whether she is running for anything. Her answer inspired a breathless March 29 headline on its site: “Chelsea Clinton: I Am Not Running for Public Office (EXCLUSIVE).” And she did say those words: “I am not running for public office.” But the world may be pardoned for pointing out that the formulation sounds a bit Clintonian. Of course she isn’t running for public office right now, just as Bill Clinton was not receiving favors from Monica Lewinsky at the exact moment he said, “There is not a sexual relationship.” What we want to know is: Will she ever run for public office? Here’s a fuller quotation of her thoughts on the matter: “If someone steps down or something changes, I’ll then ask and answer those questions at that time. But right now, no, I’m not running for public office.”

The world may be pardoned for pointing out that the formulation sounds a bit Clintonian.

So a more accurate Variety headline would have been “Chelsea Clinton Leaves Door Open to Running for Public Office,” more or less the opposite of the one that actually ran. Given the timid, deliberate pace of her emergence into public life, though, it is a bit hard to picture Chelsea jogging for anything, much less running for anything. Low-level city-council-type gigs would be beneath Her Chelseaness, and the big juicy jobs would require too much glad-handing, too many speeches she wouldn’t be good at giving, too many intrusive questions from pesky political reporters. If she were really staking her claim in politics, would she be confining her interviews to Elle, Vogue, and Variety? Sure, like Caroline Kennedy, she’d probably enjoy being tapped to fill a vacant Senate seat. Who wouldn’t? But actually fighting for elective office seems like it would require more fire in the belly than she’s got. At her age — 37 — her father, having started with nothing, was in his second term as a governor. She has instead assembled a résumé that bespeaks a certain lack of . . . focus.

“Mainly I work really hard. I really believe in the work I’m doing, and so I work seven days a week,” she told The Chronicle of Higher Education as her interviewer fawned at Chelsea’s Stakhanovism. “I will just always work harder [than anybody else] and hopefully perform better,” she told Fast Company. “And hopefully, over time, I preempt and erase whatever expectations people have of me not having a good work ethic, or not being smart, or not being motivated.”

That’s Chelsea: a workhorse. But what exactly does she do? So far, the career path is a random stumble in and out of school, in and out of entry-level jobs. After Stanford, she seemed to sample every ultra-connected Millennial pursuit except being a Girls co-star. She did some consulting. She scored first a master’s, then a Ph.D., in international relations from the University of Oxford, which apparently allowed her to do her coursework remotely (you know, like the University of Phoenix). She did a stint on Wall Street, as an analyst. She slipped up to Columbia for a master’s in public health.

Her most public gig so far has been her most disastrous one: lending her personality to NBC News at a salary of $600,000 per annum. It was a gig New York magazine dubbed an “unbelievably cushy fake job” and for which, Business Insider calculated, she was paid $26,724 for each minute she was on air — including all the minutes in which she was interviewed by other NBC staffers about her awesome work for the Clinton Foundation. In her own pieces, she interviewed the Geico gecko and reported on a program to provide therapy dogs to soldiers, in the process demonstrating that she takes after her mom when it comes to connecting with people. She is “bombing,” said The Week. “Her debut was boring, her subsequent work has been boring, just as she planned,” wrote Gawker.

Without establishing herself in any field, she segued gently into the realm of the ceremonial job, as though, having skipped entirely the “rising to the top of one’s profession” part of life, it was time to kick back a little, to accept due recompense in the form of board seats (such as the one on the family foundation) and advisory sinecures and other such vapor-jobs, prestige appointments lightly tethered to the vaguest of duties. Remember how, on Seinfeld, the lifelong dilettante Kramer retired to Florida in his forties? That’s our girl Chelsea, albeit with the wacky charisma replaced by an exceptionally monotonous raise-your-voice-and-be-heard female-empowerment component.

Without establishing herself in any field, she segued gently into the realm of the ceremonial job.

In 2010, Chelsea landed an appointment as “assistant vice provost for the Global Network University at New York University,” a job she said she got because she “met John Sexton,” the president of the university, and “then met some of his team,” as she told The Chronicle of Higher Education. She knew she wanted to “be part of translating their shared vision of NYU into reality.” Vision-translating? Sounds sweet if not exactly arduous.

Along the same lines, Chelsea and three others are credited with co-founding NYU’s Of Many Institute, a group that means to “reach across faith boundaries to solve social problems.” Chelsea said she was inspired by her interfaith marriage (to Wall Streeter Marc Mezvinsky, who is Jewish). She also became co-chairwoman of an Of Many Institute advisory board of 20 members, including Jared Kushner. Since the institute appears on its website to have only five employees, including an office manager, it’s not clear that it really needs a 20-person advisory board, but then again, Chelsea grew up in the age of meaningless résumé-padding. Maybe once you start accumulating credentials, you can’t stop. Maybe the credentials become the point.

The closest thing to an actual job Chelsea seems to hold now is a gig as an adjunct assistant professor at Columbia’s Mailman School for Public Health. “I’m committed to my teaching at Columbia,” she told Variety. Well, not that committed. She teaches one three-hour class, Global Health Governance, a week.

Chelsea is also an author. Her name — her brand? — is on the cover of Governing Global Health: Who Runs the World and Why? She and Devi Sridhar, the chairwoman of Global Public Health at the University of Edinburgh, are listed as the co-authors. An adjunct who teaches one course a week and a department-chairing full professor — which one do you think did the bulk of the work?

Chelsea is listed as the sole author of It’s Your World: Get Informed, Get Inspired & Get Going! — an intensely dull 402-page book (“Most historians, economists, and social scientists — academics who study people and societies over time — agree that geography matters”) meant to nudge ten- to 14-year-olds in a progressive direction. Soul-scarifyingly tedious as the book is — it’s like the middle-school version of one of those campaign-manifesto blobs nobody reads — it seemed to take a village to write it. Hundreds of people are thanked in the acknowledgments, and some of these folks seem like they did more than simply offer a friendly read. “Ruby Shamir, Bari Lurie, Joy Secuban, Allie Gottlieb, Sarah Henning, Emily Young, Kamyl Bazbaz, and Tara Kole helped me build on a base of ideas, provided crucial research assistance, and supported the various phases and incarnations of It’s Your World,” Chelsea wrote in her voluminous thank-yous. “And last, though certainly as the saying goes, not least, the brilliant Lissa Muscatine.” Muscatine, a former Washington Post journalist, just happens to be Hillary’s longtime speechwriter and, according to Jeff Gerth and Don Van Natta’s HRC bio Her Way, the ghostwriter of the narcoleptic Hillary memoir Living History, for which Lurie served as lead researcher. Many of the other helpers Chelsea listed are also longtime Hillary flunkies and factotums.

Is it too much to expect of a Stanford grad who has two master’s degrees and a Ph.D. that she write her own book instead of calling in a ghostwriter? How hard can it be to produce a volume of stuporous change-the-world banality in the first place? Especially a bad book written with all the verve of the iTunes Terms of Service agreement? A book for middle-schoolers?

In April, Chelsea announced her latest authorial project: It’s a picture book. About the history of awesome powerful women. It’s called “She Persisted.” This is a grown-up with a Ph.D. in international relations from the University of Oxford, and she’s volunteering for the preschool ghetto. The branding seems a tad off: If a woman with all of Chelsea Clinton’s connections, wealth, and academic credentials, a woman to whom all options in the world present themselves, is directing her energies to supplying captions for a picture book illustrated by someone else, does this really advance the message “Women can do anything”? Shouldn’t an Oxford international-relations Ph.D. be editing Foreign Affairs or producing a 900-page history of diplomacy?

The one time that Chelsea accidentally said something revealing, what she revealed was that she is very much the daughter of the woman who claimed she was “dead broke” when she left the White House. Chelsea told Fast Company, “I was curious if I could care about [money] on some fundamental level, and I couldn’t. That wasn’t the metric of success that I wanted in my life.” She certainly cares enough about money to live in an apartment costing $10 million instead of, say, a double-wide in Trenton, N.J., but the remark illustrated how ill acquainted Princess Clinton is with the reality that nice things cost money, which in turn must be earned. She likes nice things, but since they’ve always been there without her having to do anything, it has never occurred to her that others who want things one-tenth as nice are forced to care about money a hundred times as much. Trying to signal that she was better than the rest of us mere money-grubbers — while sitting in a chic apartment the length of an entire Manhattan block — simply defined her as Millennial Antoinette.

Not that the media are interested in making much of that remark, because they’re living in a self-constructed matrix where Hillary’s career is still viable. It hasn’t dawned on the editors of the slicks that, as Hillary Clinton is perhaps the biggest laughingstock in the history of American politics, her daughter’s emergence as a Trump critic carries the sad stench of sore-loserdom. Consider how outraged the media reaction would be if a bitter Ivanka Trump were sharpshooting President Hillary Clinton from Twitter. Moreover, if it’s true that, as Chelsea says, “everything is at risk. Our fundamental rights, our fundamental security, are at risk,” er, whose fault is that? As Andrew Sullivan put it in New York magazine, “any candidate who can win the popular vote by nearly 3 million votes and still manage to lose the Electoral College by 304 to 227 is so profoundly incompetent, so miserably useless as a politician, she should be drummed out of the party under a welter of derision.”

But in the febrile imagination of Hillary dead-enders — just last week they were tweeting out pictures of themselves smiling on the campaign trail in a pathetic attempt to counteract Shattered, the brutal new book on their failures and infighting — the mechanical-bull-ride-on-a-roller-coaster-during-an-earthquake Trump presidency will have America clamoring for bland competence and a return to normalcy. And the epitome of unobjectionable, experienced leadership will be agreed to be . . . Hillary? It’s utterly daft, but in the Clinton imagination, Chelsea’s dullness will rub off on her mother and be transmuted into normalcy. Which will — finally, after 30 years! — mean the much sought final humanization of Hillary Clinton. This new, boring, human Hillary will, the reasoning goes, seem like an ideal alternative to the way-too-exciting and not-at-all-normal President Trump.

It’s utterly daft, but in the Clinton imagination, Chelsea’s dullness will rub off on her mother and be transmuted into normalcy.

Hillary won’t, of course, run again, because the donor money won’t be there. The donors know that she was looking at a two-inch putt of a campaign and somehow managed not only to miss but to shank the ball into the long grass while screaming about the Russians and misogyny. When she starts knocking on the donors’ doors, she is going to get nothing but gentle hints that maybe it’s time for her to catch up on Veep. The donors know that they can get the same progressive policy initiatives without signing up for a quarter century of baggage and reliving the humiliation of two face-plantingly bad presidential campaigns.

Longtime Clinton flunky and former DNC chairman Ed Rendell gave away the game in a January story in Politico that was ostensibly about Hillary’s withdrawal from electoral politics and supposed pivot to the pure political altruism of helping other Democrats. As if Hillary, on the cusp of 70, were suddenly going to become a team player. In a remark that was buried at the end of the story, Rendell hinted that the real plan was otherwise: “I’m certain Trump will screw up enough that by the fall of ’18, Hillary’s numbers will be way up again,” he said. But why would Hillary or her team be thinking about her numbers next year if she’s done running for office? Who would even bother to poll the citizenry about her prospects? Does Gallup still ask people how they feel about pulling the lever for Al Gore or Michael Dukakis?

Chelsea Clinton is indeed working hard — on the family brand. But like her mother, she makes politics look effortful. She is clearly uncomfortable on the cover of Variety. All clenched eyes, big teeth, and stiff arms, she looks not like a person captured in a moment of levity but like someone who is trying very hard to look strong, confident, and fun. After all these years she’s spent carving out a niche for herself, she is right back where she started: a family implement, a maternal-humanization weapon, a campaign prop.


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