WASHINGTON — When Chelsea Clinton was only six years old, her parents began steeling her for the rigors of public life.
Her father was running for governor of Arkansas again, and they expected a messy campaign. At the dinner table one night, her mom explained that people would say nasty things about daddy that weren't true.
They then played a game, in which Chelsea was her dad, and Bill Clinton was the opponent. He proceeded to say terrible things about himself, which resulted in a teary Chelsea asking: "Why would anybody say things like that?"
But as Hillary Rodham Clinton recounts in her book, "It Takes a Village," after several dinners of role-playing, little Chelsea "gradually gained mastery over her emotions and some insight into the situations that might arise."
That exercise, as well as nearly eight years of real-life training with her scandal-ridden parents in the White House, have toughened the first daughter to such a degree that, instead of running from politics, she's wading right into it. And like her gently coiffed curls, Chelsea has evolved from an awkward, frizzed-out, 12-year-old into a self-controlled woman at ease with the public.
A senior at Stanford University, she's taking the fall semester off to campaign with her mother and experience history-in-the-making with her father.
Her earlier interest in medicine has given way to one that encompasses history, government, and politics. She's considering applying to Oxford University, where her father was a Rhodes scholar. Some even speculate her future lies in politics, adding the Clinton name to a long list of political dynasties in America.
Certainly the media are curious about the emerging young woman, and the White House has received a spurt of interview requests. "People perceive that (a) she's growing up, and (b) she's out there more," says a Democratic official. Nevertheless, the White House answer to these requests remains a firm "no."
That's been the White House policy all along, as the Clintons sought a near-total news blackout on their daughter. The media, family friends, and school officials have largely played along, making Chelsea perhaps the most-protected, least-publicized child in the modern White House.
The Clintons maintained that as a young person, she ought to be able to define herself before she's defined by the media, and the privacy shield is so effective that Stanford press officers don't even keep a file on Chelsea.
Not a burger-lover like dad
The factoids that have trickled out give an incomplete picture:
Chelsea's a vegetarian, who hasn't set foot in a McDonald's in eight years (except for this summer, when she visited one with her parents. She ordered ice cream). She's an accomplished ballerina, and disappointed her dad when she switched from team sports to toe shoes in high school. And she's a Methodist, having chosen at age 10 to become an adherent of her mother's faith, rather than following her father into the Southern Baptist Church.
Now reporters want to know what's next for Chelsea.
It could be that the youngest Clinton is considering a career in politics, says the Democratic official, but who can tell with a 20-year-old? "She may be trying this out, but I don't have a sense that this is what she's determined she's going to do with her life," the official says.
The trying-out aspect is borne out in Chelsea's somewhat tentative approach to the Senate campaign of her mother. She's gone out on the hustings only occasionally, and never solo. She doesn't say anything more substantive than, "Thank you so much for coming!"
Still, she works the rope line with more gusto than she used to and appears to have some of the diplomacy - and backbone - required of a politician. According to one recent report, when a woman at a Long Island rally gushed, "You must be so proud of your mother," Chelsea smiled and politely responded, "I am proud of both of my parents." When people tried to draw her into issues like taxes, gun control, and even Monica Lewinsky, she would just move on to the next person.
Uniformly, she's described by those close to her as a woman of strength. The Rev. Jesse Jackson, who counseled Chelsea after her father admitted his affair with Ms. Lewinsky, once said her parents raised her to have "inner strength and maturity. She is both tough-minded and tender-hearted."
A companion abroad
They also say she has smarts. From the time Chelsea was small, her dad took her regularly to his office, stocking a pint-sized desk with paper and crayons so she could do her "work." No longer at his knee, she's now at his side - accompanying him to India over her spring break and, most recently, on back-to-back trips to Africa and Colombia.
Says an administration source: She has gotten particular pleasure from showing her father places she's been that he hasn't - such as India.
And Chelsea's not just shunted off to the side on these trips. She had a ringside seat at Camp David, dining with her father, Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak. She was sometimes in the room when her father met with his team and, most unusually, attended his post-summit press conference, sitting right alongside his most senior advisers.
It was reported that the Israeli delegation thought Chelsea had a little too much access, but National Security Council spokesman P.J. Crowley denies that she ever had a policymaking role. "Her purpose was not to be a member of the peace team. She was there to help her dad," he says. And she did provide "moral support," as a senior White House official put it - working out with the president in the Camp David gym, playing cards, and watching the All-Star game.
The president has mentioned how grateful he is that his daughter even wants to spend time with him, and she has been able to help out with a few first-lady duties - such as standing in for her mother at the arrival ceremony of the king of Morocco in June.
For her mother, though, Chelsea's role in her Senate campaign has some strategic value, says New York pollster Maurice Carroll. "It's a plus" because Chelsea humanizes Mrs. Clinton, he says. "She makes her a momma, just like her opponent is a daddy."
That raises the question of whether the Clintons are using their daughter for political gain.
Mrs. Clinton says that campaigning is entirely Chelsea's choice. Yet who can forget that famous picture shortly after the president admitted to the Lewinsky affair on national television? There was the first family, holding hands and striding toward their waiting helicopter for a vacation on Martha's Vinyard. And there was Chelsea in the middle, obviously the peacekeeper, keeping the family unit a unit.
"For the most part, they try to protect her. But when a political situation requires using Chelsea, they will," Clinton biographer David Maraniss told People magazine, which published an extensive profile of Chelsea last year.
Interestingly, even though that profile painted the first daughter with flattering brush strokes, the publicity angered her parents. Yet Chelsea is now on the verge of being a legitimate subject for the media, says Kathleen Hall Jamieson, dean of the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia.
She's over the threshold of adulthood. She's a tribute to her parents in that, in spite of the trauma, they appear to have raised a well-balanced, normal child. And of course, Chelsea is emerging on the political scene.
Still, "I'd be more comfortable waiting until she makes speeches," says Ms. Jamieson.
By that time, perhaps, the media will have moved on to the Bush or the Gore kids.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society