Everywhere Chelsea Clinton goes these days, people stop her to say, “I’m sorry about your mother.” The most touching version of this I witnessed, as we traveled around the country on her book tour this past spring, came from a handsome, stylish young black guy in the Memphis airport. He tentatively planted himself in front of her and said, “I’m sorry your mother lost.” Clinton looked into his face and appeared to summon every drop of sincerity she could muster: “Thank you,” she said. “I am too. We just have to keep moving forward.” To which he said, “I’m working on technology that’s going to help us do that.” He very briefly explained his project and then gently hugged her. “Thank you so much for telling me that,” she replied.
People stop her to say all sorts of other things as well, like the woman earlier that morning at her hotel gym who asked, “Are you on Grey’s Anatomy?” No, Clinton said politely. “How do I know you?” “I’m Chelsea Clinton,” she said in her matter-of-fact way. “Oh, I’m so sorry,” said the woman. Clinton reassured her that no offense was taken, this sort of thing happens all the time. “I just hope you thought I played a nurse or a doctor and not a corpse.”
Sometimes the things strangers say to her are far less pleasant. “I’ve had people come up to me and say, ‘I wish your mother had aborted you.’ And I say, ‘I’m so sorry you feel that way,’ ” Clinton told me. “People have said to me, ‘I hope you and your children die so your family line ends with you.’ And I say, ‘I hope you have a great day.’ Because what else do you say to someone who has that much hate and bile? Except to respond with kindness, this sincere sense of, Not only do I not reflect that back to you, but I wish something different for you.”
This is not what these years were supposed to be like for Chelsea Clinton. She wasn’t supposed to be scarfing down gluten-free cereal bars and yogurt at the gate at La Guardia and then flying off to read her book to hundreds of young people at a zoo. She wasn’t supposed to be comforting perfect strangers in airports over her mother’s loss to Donald Trump. It’s not hard to imagine she wouldn’t have at least been considered as a choice by a President Hillary Clinton for, say, secretary of Education or Health and Human Services. At the very least, she would have been part of her mother’s brain trust, the so-called kitchen cabinet. After all, for her entire life, people — including herself — seem to have expected this of Chelsea, that she would follow into the family business in some way or another. (And unlike Ivanka Trump, she has spent much of her career working on policy.) Another Clinton presidency, this one during her adulthood, would have been a kind of capstone to her professional life thus far.
But instead, after the cataclysmic event of her mother’s loss — which she struggles to talk about — Clinton has cobbled together an unusual portfolio: a children’s-book author who has sold over a million books, the vice-chair of the Clinton Foundation, and an adjunct professor at the Mailman School of Public Health at Columbia University, all while being a prominent member of the #resistance on Twitter and talk shows. She and her mother are currently on a multicity public tour for their joint book of essays, and she gave birth to her third child in July.* Though each of these things is career enough for any normal human, one gets the feeling that she is a little insecure about whether she’s doing all she can, all the good she can, whether it adds up to … enough, especially in the agonizing age of Trump.
Born in 1980, Clinton is, by my glib estimation, the First Millennial on the cusp of midlife. She has lived essentially half of her years in a kind of daughter-as-sidekick role in the shadow of two extraordinarily famous, accomplished people. It’s clear that many of her choices so far have been dictated by what would serve the family project best. And now instead — in this period of time that, according to the family’s plan, was going to be the full flowering of Clintonian ambition, her mother at long last smashing that glass ceiling — she’s seeing a preview of the rest of her life. Her parents will always loom large, yes, but in this second half, she’s got to figure out what she wants. She gets to figure out what she wants. It’s probably unexpectedly freeing but also daunting and not a little scary.
“Her life has been characterized by all these huge events that have shaped her existence, over which she had no agency,” said one of her best friends from her Oxford days, the British actor Simon Woods. “The way the last few years have played out have probably enabled her to be herself. There’s less pressure on her now. She’s not perpetually a surrogate for someone else. And that’s a really good thing. So now is the time when she gets to shape her life by the choices she makes.”
Clinton’s publicity tour for Don’t Let Them Disappear, a children’s book about endangered species — her sixth book, and her fifth for children — began on April 2 and went well into May and took her all over the country. I joined her on the road for the swing through the Northeast and much of the South, mostly trundling among airports and hotels and book events, many of which took place at zoos. It was often just Clinton; her chief of staff, Bari Lurie; and me kibitzing during the spaces in between, figuring out where to get a bite and find a bathroom. Lurie and Chelsea first met when they were 20 and 21, when Lurie was an intern in Hillary’s White House operation at the tail end of the Clinton administration in 2000.
The minute we arrived in Memphis, Clinton disappeared into a bathroom near the gate to do her makeup. She was five months pregnant, wearing jeans and a little black jacket, carrying a plain black Chanel bag heavy with books and electronic devices. While Lurie and I waited, we spotted Smokey Robinson sitting by himself. By the time Clinton came out ten minutes later, he was on his phone and Clinton decided not to bother him. “I met him a couple of times, and he was lovely,” she said, dragging her rolling suitcase through the airport. “My parents took me to listen to a lot of music when I was a little girl, especially my dad: Temptations, Four Tops, Smokey.”
In the SUV on our way to the Memphis zoo, the conversation about music continued. Beyoncé’s concert film Homecoming had just been released on Netflix that week, and Clinton and her husband, Marc Mezvinsky, had watched it. She and Lurie got to talking about that now-infamous moment when Beyoncé FaceTimes Jay-Z to show-and-tell him how excited she is about fitting back into her costume after having given birth to twins but Jay-Z seems underwhelmed. “And I said, ‘Marc, if that’s ever me, you better have more enthusiasm,’ ” Clinton says, letting out a big laugh. “It wasn’t the ‘I’m so proud of you. That’s amazing’ that I arguably think any woman deserves, particularly someone who has clearly worked herself body, mind, heart, soul, and spirit to get to that place. Marc was like, ‘Duly noted.’ And I was like, ‘I bet every woman watching this has this sense of She deserves more enthusiasm. Marc was like, ‘I got it. Can we go back to watching it, please? We’ve talked about it three times in the last 90 seconds.’ ”
“The struggle is real,” said Lurie, who had given birth four months prior and also has a 2-year-old. “Men just don’t get it. Your body made this thing …”
“Two humans!” Clinton shouted.
Because this is Chelsea Clinton, the conversation naturally turned to a lengthy disquisition on “the so-called developing world, where one in 45 women still die in childbirth. It’s still incredibly dangerous for mothers and newborns. A million newborns die on their first day, and a million more die in their first month. And we know how to save most of the kids; we just don’t have the structure and the systems to do it.” Brief pause. “Anyway, I loved Homecoming.”
The Memphis event was packed and lively and had all the markers of a town hall, as if Clinton were running for office. A little boy named Caidyn asked, if she had to choose, would she rather be a paleontologist or an archaeologist. “A question I’ve never been asked before! And a good question! A paleontologist, because you find things that better help us understand climate change and extinction.” Afterward, she did an interview with a local news station while a few people hovered around waiting for a selfie. I heard Clinton say to one of them, “We have a lot in common: I like zoos, and I like my mom too!” Lurie and I were standing off to the side, and I mentioned that this felt a bit like a campaign stop. “It always happens,” said Lurie. “Even when the context is so not that, even when no Clinton is running anywhere for anything.”
The people of America who love the Clintons behave around them in any organized setting as their constituents. A couple of weeks before, during a signing at Books of Wonder in New York, there was a fair showing of sensible liberals, women who wouldn’t dream of coloring their hair, who move through the world with a chin-up longanimity. One was wearing a T-shirt with a blown-up picture of Hillary’s face, the words YAS QUEEN! emblazoned underneath. At another signing in Atlanta, Chelsea got down on her knees and signed someone’s sneakers. A southern-belle type appeared with her daughter — named Chelsea, born 1992.
It’s easy to forget that Chelsea Clinton is a southern girl. But when we landed in Memphis, her demeanor shifted ever so slightly — she seemed lighter, more expansive, giddier. Her accent thickened up a bit, too: “Agenda” became “aginda”; “I get it” turned into “I git it.” It was almost incomprehensible to her that I had never been to Nashville or Memphis. You never been to Beale Street? You never been to Sun Studio? “It’s this teeny tiny place. Where Elvis was discovered.” Graceland? The Lorraine Motel where MLK was assassinated?
It pains her that we won’t have time to go to the infamous spot, now the National Civil Rights Museum — so much so that the morning after our Memphis stop, she insisted that we order an Uber to the airport 15 minutes early so we could detour by the Lorraine Motel. “I just think it’s important that you see this,” she said. “I wish we had time to go in.” To the driver: “Can we go around to the other side? There you go, look. That particularly iconic view. At least you’ve seen it … It is so well curated. After Dr. King was assassinated on April 4th — ”
“Was it April 4th or 6th?,” said the driver, interrupting.
“April 4th, 1968.”
“But there’s an April 6 Street over there, so I don’t know,” said the driver, pointing in the direction of what’s actually November 6 Street.
“Hmmm. I think it’s April 4th. I hope something good happened on April 6th.” She let out a mordant chuckle. “And there are other civil-rights museums. Montgomery, Vicksburg, which has even more Civil War — ”
“Shiloh,” said the driver
“Sooo … Vicksburg actually has more monuments than Shiloh — ”
“It is eerie. You’ll go there and you’ll understand the fight over Confederate monuments.”
“What a pretty day!,” said the driver.
“Today is the 24th,” said Clinton. “Ignominious day. Fifth anniversary of Flint not having clean water.” Despite the fact that she has used the phrase “when my mother was First Lady” and talked about living in the White House, the driver never puts it all together. As we get out at the airport, he says, “You guys are real history buffs, aren’t ya?!”
As we were landing in Atlanta, the pilot came over the sound system and told the people on the left side of the plane that if we looked out the window, we could see Air Force One, which had just landed. Clinton did not look up from her Kindle. President Trump and the First Lady were here to speak at the gracelessly titled Rx Drug Abuse & Heroin Summit. Soon enough, our SUV hit traffic snarled by the presidential motorcade. Lurie was in the back making calls to the Georgia Aquarium, where we were headed for a private tour, letting them know we were running a little late. She was also trying to find a place for us to stop for lunch along the way.
“We can eat after. I don’t want to make us late,” said Clinton.
“It’s actually better to bump everything a little bit now,” said Lurie.
“Okay, I just don’t want to make anyone late.”
“We have a little bit of a buffer.”
“Okay, I just don’t want to inconvenience anyone.”
Clinton was now staring out the window, speaking under her breath, almost to herself. “All right. I do need to eat. But it can wait.” We rode for a while as she and I talked about her friend who lives in Atlanta whom we were meeting at the aquarium. She heard Lurie say we’d be there at 2:20 and started to obsess again. “I don’t want to be 20 minutes late, so we’ll eat superfast.”
“I’m clarifying for you. It was on your schedule as two, but it’s not two. Relax. This is not a thing.”
“I loathe being late.”
We pulled into the parking lot of a Baja Fresh near the aquarium at exactly 1 p.m. Plenty of time not to be late. We were all scarfing chips and salsa when a woman approached. “Oh my gosh,” she said. “Chelsea Clinton. I can’t believe you’re here. What are you doing here? You’re such a real person, sitting here in Baja Fresh. And you’re, like, sooo beautiful.” Her name was Cathy Heller, and she had a podcast. “We just had Howard Schultz on,” she said. “Not to talk about politics. We should have you on.”
“Can we take a picture?”
“Of course!” Clinton got up and put her arm around her. “Oh my gosh, Cathy, look at your amazing shoes.” They have struck up an almost instantaneous camaraderie.
“So how do you have time to do the books, change the world, be a mom?,” said Heller. “I’m serious.”
“I’m highly scheduled, and I have a great team. And I’m very passionate about all of those things.”
“And she loves nachos,” said Lurie. “Which is why we’re in Baja Fresh.”
“This says sooo much about you. You’re just relaxed at the Baja Fresh.”
Clinton says, “Thank you for being a woman in the business-podcasting space.”
Something about being online seems to be freeing for Clinton: Her Twitter persona is spikier, angrier, a little more aggressive toward her political enemies and haters than she is in her daily life. In late September, when Trump called the impeachment probe and whistle-blower complaint “the greatest scam in the history of American politics!,” Clinton retweeted it and wrote simply, “Yes, you are.” She also comes out swinging for issues she cares about — “Shameful: House Republicans Are Pressuring Amazon to Sell Books on Gay Conversion Therapy, a form of child abuse.” When Greta Thunberg tweeted about people “going after me, my looks, my clothes, my behaviour and my differences,” something Clinton knows more about than she cares to, she tweeted to Thunberg, “I am so sorry on behalf of all the adults who should know better and clearly don’t.” And was greeted on Twitter by a chorus of lefties who argued that Clinton’s parents had been among those complicit in setting up the global system that has enabled climate change; being their daughter is a complicated legacy, even on #resistance Twitter.
A friend of mine since first grade — the smartest, most politically astute person I know, who didn’t go to college and never left our hometown — told me on the phone the other day that she treats Clinton’s Twitter feed as a kind of guide to the “shit” she should care about. “She’s like a fuckin’ Twitter teacher!” she said. When I shared this with Clinton one day over breakfast in Manhattan, she stared at me for a moment. I spooled it out a little further, into a question about people like my friend, who are scared and exhausted and look to her for a jolt of hope. Clinton listened intently and finally said, “You know, I think there is this sense, this perception now, that … you know, Is it just too hard? And yet, so many of the same people who are asking that are themselves persisting, to ensure that it’s not as hard tomorrow.”
Clinton is not on Instagram or Snapchat. She does not use Facebook to keep up with friends and family. But Twitter is different. “It can’t be disconnected from the president’s kind of mainstreaming and even mainlining of hate and hateful rhetoric. Twitter is the medium through which he largely does that,” she said. “And yet Twitter didn’t create the president’s bigotry. And it didn’t create, I think, his horrific coddling of white nationalism. It just has enabled him to socialize it in an attempt to normalize it. Right? So I think it is important to respond online but to never think that that is a substitute for what still has to happen to make a real difference in real people’s lives.”
Offline, her tone as an author is less spicy. Clinton’s picture book for kids, She Persisted, was the No. 1–selling picture book at Penguin Young Readers in 2017. Clinton’s editor there, Jill Santopolo (who also edits Kamala Harris and Sonia Sotomayor), was present at the launch of her book tour in April at the Bronx Zoo and brought along a tote bag filled with Clinton’s books, including the sequel, She Persisted Around the World. Clinton has published seven books in five years, including It’s Your World: Get Informed, Get Inspired, & Get Going! and Start Now! You Can Make a Difference, books aimed to engage tween/teen activists. When Lurie handed me the tote bag, Clinton, who was being interviewed on-camera for a promotional spot for the zoo, said from across the room, “You could also give him my book Governing Global Health,” drawn from her 712-page dissertation for her Ph.D. in international relations. “I forgot that gem!,” said Lurie, laughing. “Chelsea thinks the subtitle really gets ya: Who Runs the World and Why?” Clinton said, smiling, “You don’t have to read the whole book.”
Her children’s-book career began when Santopolo saw Clinton on The Daily Show With Jon Stewart in 2013 discussing noncommunicable diseases. “I was like, Why isn’t she writing books for kids? She has this amazing ability to take a large, difficult concept and make it digestible,” said Santopolo. She wrote a letter to Clinton, who, as a new mother, was particularly open to the idea because, she said, she had discovered “how many kids’ books are centered on male voices — even books about animals are told from the male-animal perspective. We desperately need to change that for our daughters and our sons.” Then in early 2017, Republican senators tried to silence Elizabeth Warren during the Jeff Sessions confirmation hearings and … Nevertheless, she persisted. The phrase launched a gazillion memes and T-shirts but also a brand for Clinton. The book, about “13 American Women Who Changed the World,” sold like hotcakes and inspired a sequel; it has been adapted by the Bay Area Children’s Theatre into an hour-long musical for kids that will likely appear in other cities beginning next year. She has also recently taken a bunch of pitch meetings in Hollywood toward turning She Persisted into a television special.
In some ways, working in the realm of children’s content is an odd move. As a young girl, Clinton was not just taken seriously by adults (she grew up in the Arkansas governor’s mansion and then the White House), she had no choice but to act like an adult when she was a child. Ironically, as an adult, she has been perpetually cast in the role of the dutiful daughter. So even now, there’s a little girlishness that surfaces with some regularity — not stunted, just maybe a little repressed by circumstance. And she is earnest in the extreme, which is another aspect of her personality that adults can misread but that children connect with instantly. She has a deeply ingrained habit of remembering someone’s name and repeating it when she addresses them. Surely, this is the result of being raised by two politicians. As How to Win Friends and Influence People reminds us, “Remember that a person’s name is to that person the sweetest and most important sound in any language.” But it is also the coin of the realm in, say, kindergarten. At one point, I told her that because my friends have children who are reaching that crucial, questioning age, I was only just now realizing that when they ask me Why?, I’ve got to answer it thoughtfully because they hang on every word I say. A big, mischievous smile spread across her face. “Well, hopefully, Jonathan, you’re yourself around your friends’ children but you’re yourself without the swear words.”
Two days later, Clinton was at the Lesniak Institute for American Leadership at Kean University in Union, New Jersey. The auditorium was packed with adults, some with kids in tow, and Clinton was here to do a Q&A with former state senator Raymond Lesniak about her book in particular and endangered species in general. Lesniak was wearing a baseball cap that read SENATOR RAY. He’d helped put New Jersey at the forefront of animal welfare and conservation by, for example, banning the sale of ivory in the state as well as the importing of trophies of endangered species. This was the main reason Clinton agreed to join him onstage to promote her book. But Lesniak, who is 73 and recently retired after serving in office for 40 years, radiated the genial obliviousness of the career public servant who was reelected again and again. When she appeared onstage to surprisingly loud applause and took a seat next to him, he introduced her by holding up a blown-up photograph of … Chelsea with her parents when she was an awkward teenager. “Oh goodness,” Clinton deadpanned as half the audience cooed on cue while the other half groaned in sympathy. “Who’s that girl?!,” asked Lesniak, as if he were introducing a confusingly adult Shirley Temple. “You were so wonderful and powerful at the Democratic convention when your mom was nominated,” he said, casting her as the sidekick yet again.
“Oh, thank you,” said Clinton, and then slowly, almost imperceptibly, she began to handle this guy, to take control. Clinton has a way of very politely, very subtly trolling people who cross a line. At one point, Lesniak said, “My wife says I always manage to turn the conversation back to me.” Clinton leveled him with a look. “We are at the Lesniak Institute,” she said. Later, he took a moment to brag. “New Jersey was the first state in the nation, with legislation sponsored by …”
“The man sitting next to me,” Clinton said to a laughing audience.
When the questioning was turned over to the crowd, she said, “Adults, please let the kids ask their questions first.” “I love how correct she is,” I whispered to Lurie as Clinton answered a 7-year-old girl’s question about whether she plans to run for office one day, a question Clinton has been answering since she was 3, which she always closes with some version of the following: “So while I don’t have any plans to run for office, I think it’s something that all of us who care about our communities and our country and world should be thinking about. Thank you for asking me that question, but even more, I hope you will ask yourself that question.”
In early October, as if on cue, when the representative from New York Nita Lowey announced she would not seek reelection to Congress, press speculation ran rampant that Chelsea Clinton would run to replace her. Clinton put the rumors to rest on The View a week later, but, hilariously, reporters had convinced themselves that not hearing back from Clinton’s office was “further fueling” speculation, when in fact her staffers field these calls so frequently they sometimes don’t even bother to respond with denials.
Clinton’s phlegmatic demeanor and her collected, deliberate, and measured way of speaking can sometimes read as detachment to those who don’t know her. It can also seem like a coping mechanism, a way of deflecting — or absorbing — the endless lifelong scrutiny. “Unfortunately,” says Lurie, “I think people view it through the lens of political correctness, in comparison to celebrities, because they don’t believe that anyone could truly, like, wake up and have a conversation with their kids about family separation at the border. But oh no: I walk into her apartment at 7:30 in the morning and she is teaching her daughter about how unfair and unjust it is. Don’t get me wrong; there’s also a debate about last night’s episode of The Voice. It can be puzzling to others, but to those who know her best, it is one of the most endearing things about Chelsea. ”
Every moment, no matter how random, offers up an opportunity for her to teach. She can’t be packaged into a sound bite; she is not a woman of slogans or one-liners. And in that regard, she is nothing like her parents — not a politician. She can’t be rushed or interrupted. As someone who knows her well once said to me, “You ask her what time it is and she will build you a wristwatch.”
One day in New York, when Clinton was signing at Books of Wonder on 18th Street, I met her kids Charlotte and Aidan for the first time. The place was packed with parents and their children, including some of Clinton’s school-mom friends. Charlotte had organized some sort of clever game and made herself the leader with a few other kids walking in line behind her, weaving under and around the ropes and stanchions. She was wearing red glasses that had slid down her nose, and when she looked up over the top of them, you could see her future: like she can’t wait to be 45 years old and in charge of stuff. She’s not just a chip off the old block — she’s a chip off the old block who herself is a chip off the old block.
“What a kid!” I said to Hillary Clinton on the phone one morning. “She really is a fun, curious little person, isn’t she? We just have the best time with her,” she replied. Nick Merrill, Hillary’s longtime aide, told me that the grandchildren are “the center of Hillary’s universe,” that they “provide a normalcy that’s hard to get if you’re Hillary Clinton otherwise.” Said Hillary, “If we’ve got even an hour, we’ll stop by and see them, read to them, play with them, maybe even help put them to bed and then go on to our evening activities.”
“Can you imagine what it’s like to see Bill and Hillary babysitting a 3-year-old and a 5-year-old?,” said Merrill.
It’s hard to know whether it’s conscious or deeply sublimated, but Chelsea does not talk all that much about her father. Indeed, she gives her mother most of the credit for instilling in her all the values she is rightly so proud of. She talks rhapsodically about Bill’s mother, Virginia, with whom she spent a lot of weekends in Arkansas when she was a little girl. “She had a cardboard cutout of Elvis in her house,” Chelsea told me late one night as we were driving from Athens to Atlanta. “Every Saturday, she would have a Scotch-and-soda, only one, at five o’clock, and then she would make dinner and we always had homemade macaroni and cheese, stewed tomatoes, and either chicken or fish. And on special occasions she would bake a chocolate cake, and then we would watch — truly, every Saturday night that I stayed with her — a different Elvis movie. And there are 50 of them. That’s just what we diiid. And then we would go to church the next morning.”
One afternoon in early June, I visited Chelsea at the Clinton Foundation HQ in midtown on a day when she was recording the podcast she does with her father, though he wasn’t around. The former president and the former secretary of State were at a meeting of the Clinton Global Initiative Action Network on “Post-Disaster Recovery in the U.S. Virgin Islands,” and the offices were quiet because the entire CGI team was also away at the meeting.
Chelsea was doing an interview with Kurt Kelly, the owner of the Stonewall Inn, as Gay Pride was a few weeks away (She attended the 50th-anniversary celebration at Stonewall on the Friday of Pride Weekend and was photographed hanging out with Lady Gaga and Donatella Versace). Chelsea may be the least-vain celebrity I’ve ever met, but she is always put together. On this day, not so much: She was wearing a long blue cotton sack dress and a pair of beat-up old sneakers with no socks. Long straight hair, zero makeup, and glasses: magenta frames, as nerdy as they come. I almost didn’t recognize her.
Kelly arrived, and we all piled into a small room filled with recording equipment and her podcast producers. Kelly was nervous at first, intimidated to the point of freezing up. “My mind is a little overwhelmed,” he said. “There are so many stories.” Clinton said, in the sweetest way imaginable, “And I want to hear them allll, so you can talk for as long as you want.”
When the interview was over, I wandered around the offices with Lurie. There was unusual, exotic art on nearly every wall, all of it gathered during President Clinton’s travels to every corner of the globe. Later, I talked to Maura Pally, who, like Lurie, interned in Hillary’s office when she was First Lady. She has been working at the Clinton Foundation for six years, now as the executive vice-president. Pally has particular insight into how Chelsea works with her father at the foundation. “They speak each other’s language so clearly, so they have a shorthand with each other,” she said. “But also she is the one person who doesn’t hesitate to challenge him and correct him on things. You know, if he is talking about something, which of course is always very factually driven and statistics driven, Chelsea will be like, ‘Actually, Dad, you’re wrong. Here is the correct factoid.’ And he’ll be like, ‘Yup … you were right. That’s my daughter. Has more degrees than me and Hillary combined and is smarter than the two of us combined.’ He doesn’t really have that banter with anybody else.”
The foundation has always had a complicated relationship to Clintonian political power, but since Hillary lost the election, the organization has been struggling to find its footing. The Clinton Global Initiative Annual Meeting ended in the run-up to 2016, after 12 years. “We had accomplished what we had set out to do,” Pally said, referring to its goal of making power-broker conferences more about action and less about schmoozing, “and frankly, we knew that would be very challenging, in a hyperpolitical environment, to have heads of states and CEOs come to a Clinton stage to focus on issues.” The foundation now does targeted disaster relief and runs a program for college students, among other initiatives, with which Chelsea is deeply involved. It has also focused its philanthropic efforts on issues like climate-smart agricultural practices in Africa, the opioid epidemic, and Too Small to Fail, an early-childhood program that Chelsea and her mother launched together when the secretary joined.
From talking with Clinton Foundation folks, I got the sense that Chelsea has helped change things at the organization through sheer force of personality. And among the cache of Clinton-related emails published via WikiLeaks was a series in which it was clear that Chelsea had been the driving force behind severing the foundation’s ties with Teneo, the consulting organization run by Bill Clinton’s friend (and infamous “buckraker”) Doug Band.
When I asked Pally if Hillary’s run and subsequent loss had changed the organization in ways that have been disappointing, she said, “Do you have 12 hours?,” and let out an exasperated laugh. “I think honestly what really impacted us was the complete and utter political attacks and lies that came at us just relentlessly. We became a political punching bag, and I think in hindsight people look back and say, ‘Oh yeah, of course that wasn’t true.’ ” Still, for Chelsea, the net effect has been one of reassessment. She must reconstitute this part of her professional life, too.
Getting Chelsea Clinton to divulge her feelings about her mother’s losing the election turned out to be a fool’s errand. (As one person in the Clinton orbit said to me about Hillary, and it is also true about Chelsea, “Feelings are not the immediate destination in any conversation.”) I thought I could ladder her up to feelings by confessing my own trauma and subsequent anxiety during and after that Tuesday night in November. Nice try. “For me, what’s traumatic is what’s happened since. As sad as I was on Election Night for my mom, I’m far sadder for our country,” she said. What followed was a long list: demonizing Mexicans, white-nationalist rhetoric, family separation, anti-choice justices.
A person who worked on Hillary’s campaign told me it’s not just Chelsea who has a hard time talking about Election Night: “We all failed to process that day in a lot of ways. The other thing is — and this is purely a guess — if I were Chelsea Clinton, I would have felt both enormous sadness for her mom and the country but also a sense of relief that probably has some guilt attached to it.” One person close to the Clintons said to me, “The whole family will never fully recover from this.”
A week after I first asked Chelsea about Election Night, I brought it up again and got nowhere in the feelings department, but I did get this oddly detached response: “I was still breastfeeding. Aidan was not even 5 months old. We went and we voted, and then I spent time with our kids and spent a lot of time breastfeeding and pumping, because that’s what women do when we’re committed to having that relationship with our babies. And then I took my kids to the hotel and we’re with my parents and we got the kids ready for bed and then I think my friend Jen actually, literally brought the kids home and helped get them to bed. We were with my mom, and I pumped a lot on and off for the rest of the night.”
Aside from putting their heads down and getting right back to work, as is their way, one of the things mother and daughter did was write together — something they would not have had time to do if Hillary had been president. First, Chelsea’s publisher persuaded them to do a children’s book together, Grandma’s Gardens, which comes out next year, which got everyone thinking about doing something weightier. The Book of Gutsy Women, which came out on October 1, is essentially a collection of essays — some written by Chelsea, some by Hillary, and some jointly — about women who have inspired them both: Geraldine Ferraro, Harriet Tubman, Helen Keller. “We wrote, actually, more than 200 essays, which we cut in half,” said Hillary. “It was really painful.” She gets excited talking about their editorial choices. “I write about the first famous woman I ever saw in person … who was Maria Tallchief, the Native American prima ballerina,” she said. “And Chelsea talks about how she got to meet her later. We both learned a lot. I mean, obviously it’s easier to write alone, but its very stimulating to write with someone else. It was, as we say, an iterative process.”
Lurie told me the collaboration was fascinating to watch. “They write so differently. Hillary still writes and edits in longhand, while Chelsea believes that Microsoft Word is your friend.” So they wound up bouncing drafts back and forth to each other via email.
This fall, the two embarked on a joint book tour. It has not been without controversy: Last week, reports circulated that Hillary had been contemplating jumping into the 2020 race, and on Tucker Carlson’s show, her former aide Philippe Reines stoked the flames by saying that while it was unlikely, she had not closed the door on the possibility. That was on top of the hot water she had gotten into for reportedly saying the candidate Tulsi Gabbard was being groomed by the Russians. She’d actually said “Republicans,” not Russians (although she said Gabbard is “the favorite of the Russians”), but by the time that was cleared up, a Clinton outrage cycle on Twitter had been through all of its predictable and exhausting life phases.
But before all that, there was the launch, when Hillary and Chelsea finished a long, lively talk with Billie Jean King on the stage of the Kings Theatre on Flatbush Avenue. It was late for a Tuesday night, the first day of October, the end of Rosh Hashanah. When I’d arrived a couple of hours earlier, the street out front was thrumming with the kind of energy one associates with Times Square in the ’80s. There was the joyful boom-box throb of Flatbush, sure, but also a sizable group of angry Haitian protesters who were still convinced that the Clinton Foundation had mishandled funds meant for the recovery from the 2010 earthquake. Because of the protesters, there was also a sizable police presence, some with dogs, lending a sort of free-floating unease to the scene. But the crowd inside the theater leaned toward the genteel stroller people of the increasingly white, liberal neighborhoods that surround Prospect Park. As the program came to an end, hundreds of them, already standing for a lusty ovation, surged toward the stage instead of the exits.
I noticed Chelsea’s husband in the very center of the throng, smiling and taking pictures of his wife and mother-in-law. When Hillary — who had seemed cranky before the event but was now buoyant, reaching out to grab hands and soak in the adoration — pulled back from the edge of the stage in her burgundy pantsuit and waved good-bye, the crowd erupted into cheers and whistles, some shouting, “I love you!” As the last remaining stalwarts of Hillaryland (Huma!) headed backstage, everyone looked a little stunned, even emotional.
Chelsea’s staff was making arrangements to whisk her back to Manhattan to her son Jasper, now 14 weeks old. Meanwhile, in a hallway amid the backstage hubbub, Hillary was telling King the story about “the only time I ever won a trophy” as a not very good tennis player. It was a mixed-doubles match at a tournament at a Fayetteville, Arkansas, country club. When she and her partner were presented with one trophy (“No, no, no!,” says BJK), Hillary was struck by the fact that the little golden plastic male tennis player on top of the trophy was several inches larger than the female player. “Of course, I have that trophy!,” said Hillary, laughing that deep, gusty laugh of hers. “I said to my partner, the guy, ‘You have to let me have this trophy, because this is such a statement.’ ”
Eventually, I found Chelsea in a dressing room and we sat and talked for a few minutes. She was running late. “I have to go take this picture with my mom, and then I have to go home and pump.” I asked Chelsea — the pro, an expert in answering nosy questions with a long, thoughtful answer that sometimes doesn’t actually answer the question — what it’s like doing interviews with her mother. This was the first time I had ever seen her screen freeze up. She stared at me with her big blue eyes and blinked a couple of times. “It’s fun.” There were a few more awkward seconds. “I love working with my mom.” Blink, blink. “It’s fun.”
Maybe she was just rushed and tired, but it’s hard not to think that maybe it isn’t so, you know, fun. Chelsea and Hillary had begun their media blitz for Gutsy Women just a few days before, right after Nancy Pelosi announced that the House was, at long last, launching an impeachment inquiry. Which meant that every interview (CBS This Morning, Good Morning America, The View, The Late Show With Stephen Colbert) was front-loaded with Important Questions for Hillary — arguably the world’s foremost living expert on the subject, having been on the Nixon impeachment-inquiry staff in 1974 and married to the only president to have been impeached in the past 150 years. Their joint interviews about the book they co-authored were hijacked by the news, and here was Chelsea, cast once again as the dutiful daughter, listening respectfully.
The Ford Foundation on East 43rd Street is a deeply familiar yet utterly obscure structure that is easy to walk right past, because from almost every angle it looks like an impenetrable fortress. It is just a block from the United Nations, and I can’t help but think about the time, ten years ago, when I spent a couple of days following then–Secretary of State Hillary Clinton through her appointments during the U.N. General Assembly — the first and last time I had a reason to go to the U.N. It felt both rarefied and prosaic, teeming with people who spend their days trying to redraw the blueprint for how life could — should — be lived, if only everyone else would wake up and cooperate. Unlike the rest of us, these folks, Hillary especially, seemed to have an extra strand in their DNA, another gear the rest of us lack, that allows them to tolerate the drudgery and sacrifice, not to mention the endless disappointment and thanklessness, of trying to make the world a better place.
I was always mystified by the fact that so many of my friends had so many misgivings about Hillary. But on that long spring book tour, I came up with a theory: Chelsea, like her mother, makes people feel guilty, almost ashamed, that they’re not doing enough. That unless you are pitching in and helping and doing good — almost constantly — you are not measuring up. It’s not that these people necessarily dislike Hillary, I realized; at least for some of them, it’s that they don’t like the way Hillary makes them feel about themselves. I caught a whiff of this in Brooklyn at the Kings Theatre, when, toward the end, Hillary said, “We hope that these stories don’t just end with admiring those we profile but lead people to think about what each of you can do in some area that’s important to you. And only you can know what that might be.” In other words: Don’t just enjoy this! It must lead you to discover a sense of purpose! Now imagine if you were that person’s only child.
I was meeting Chelsea Clinton this morning at the Ford Foundation for a gathering of Girl Scouts young and old. As it happens — and this will probably come as no surprise — Chelsea was a Girl Scout. So was her mother. So was Condoleezza Rice. Indeed, 72 percent of all female senators were Girl Scouts, and about 60 percent of the women in the House were once part of a troop.
The Clinton Foundation had partnered with the Girl Scouts to host an event on the importance of civics education: Chelsea was running a panel that included New York Attorney General Letitia James; Laura Dove, the Republican secretary of the U.S. Senate; Dr. Emma Humphries, chief education officer for iCivics; and Lauren Hoagland, a Gold Award Girl Scout from Birmingham, Alabama, who had just turned 18.
As the discussion was winding down, Chelsea turned to questions written on note cards from the Girl Scouts in the audience. “There’s a question I feel obligated to ask because it’s come up quite frequently, and I think this is a very succinct expression of it: ‘How can we ask our girls to be brave and engaged when they see women candidates or other women who are in powerful positions treated badly or unfairly?’ ” The resonance of Hillary Clinton’s daughter reading this question is lost on no one. James gave a great little speech about why these young girls must run for office. Humphries told a sharp, funny mean-girls story about a friend saying horrible things about her when she was their age and the invaluable three-word piece of advice she got from a teacher: “Consider the source.” Then Hoagland, the 18-year-old, who had been getting the biggest applause lines all morning, said, “Powerful women have always turned heads. They’ve always made people a little bit confused. All of you will turn some heads. You’re going to get people confused as to why you care … It’s a choice to be brave.”
“Amen!,” said Chelsea.
Afterward, Lurie and I worked our way through the packed reception room — filled with women and girls laughing and talking, a sound so distinct it ought to be a ringtone — and headed back into the greenroom and found Chelsea, then still hugely pregnant, sitting on a sofa, eating a muffin. The room was decorated with beautifully framed photographs of those who had appeared at the Ford Foundation for one reason or another. Above Chelsea’s head was a giant photograph of her father. Her other staffers, Joy and Sara, turned up, and there was a lot of animated chitchat about how moving the program was, how well-organized the event was. “The Girl Scouts are on it,” said Lurie. “Right?,” said Clinton. “It’s not just a metaphor!” And then, as she absentmindedly gathered her things to head off, she said to no one in particular, “Was anyone sitting near Lauren’s mom? She must be beaming. She must be so proud of her.”
*This story has been updated to reflect that Clinton’s third child was born in July.
*This article appears in the October 28, 2019, issue of New York Magazine. Subscribe Now!