Saturday, February 09, 2008

Chelsea Clinton and Having It Both Ways

Chelsea Clinton and Having It Both Ways

The Hillary Clinton campaign has just gotten a godsend of a gaffe courtesy of MSNBC's David Shuster. He used an unfortunate neologism and said daughter Chelsea Clinton was being "pimped out" by the campaign, and Mom has cut the network off cold, putting a Feb. 26 Ohio debate on the network in jeopardy. Shuster did the usual mea culpas and is suspended, but the firestorm continues.

Journalists navel-gaze and second-guess more than any other profession I know, and while some introspection is certainly warranted as to the choice of language, so is analysis of the way Ms. Clinton the Younger is acting and interacting on the campaign trail. And the only conclusion this journalist can draw is that someone -- either the campaign or the all grown up Chelsea Clinton herself -- is trying to have it both ways, by appearing on the campaign's behalf but refusing to speak to the press.

Are candidate's families fair game? Well, that depends. Certainly, minor children should be off limits. Rush Limbaugh's insults of the 12 year old Chelsea were out of bounds, just as any criticism of Barack Obama's nine and six year old daughters would be today.

Adult children have taken on all sorts of roles, from Tagg Romney's "serving his country" on his father's campaign, to Caroline Giuliani's support of Obama and open hostility to her father. Cate Edwards, younger than Chelsea Clinton, spoke frequently and eloquently on her father's behalf. Joe Biden's sons are a bit older (Delaware Attorney General Beau Biden is 39), but they also campaigned extensively for their father and gave frequent speeches and interviews.

And that gets to the crux of any media hostility toward Chelsea Clinton. Sure, I'll admit it. We're grumpy because she won't talk to us.

Chelsea Clinton with Tom Vilsack at a Jan. 1 event in Iowa City, where she shook hands with the crowd but did not speak.

What would you ask the first person in American history who could be the daughter of not one, but two, presidents? What does she have to say from her unique seat in history, raised by two such brilliant, fascinating and dramatic people? Anyone in the press would kill to have the first exclusive one-on-one with Chelsea, which will probably be rolled out at whatever time and in whatever forum the campaign deems most beneficial. Even just a quick soundbite would make headlines.

Chelsea is tantalizingly close and yet so far. In Iowa, we press were kept behind the rope line, cordoned off from Chelsea's one on one interactions, watching her stand silently on the stage with the Senator. And yeah, we resented it. We were already upset that her mother, the candidate, wasn't talking to us, and watching Chelsea just added insult to injury. She shook hands and chatted with every one of her mother's supporters who pushed to the front of the handshake scrum, but wouldn't even offer a scripted line of introduction from the stage for us to quote. (She's only recently begun speaking in public, doing her own events this week in Lincoln, Nebraska, where I seem to have a recurring reader, and answering questions from the public, if not the press.) And of course there was the incident where Chelsea no-commented a nine year old kid writing some kind of Weekly Reader column.

The no comment stuff feeds on itself. So are journalists taking some of that frustration out on Chelsea Clinton? Let me stare at my belly button some more and think about it.

So the best way the Clinton campaign can defuse criticism of Chelsea is for Chelsea to talk to the press. But maybe defusing is not what the campaign wants.

The controversy plays straight into the campaign's hands. My inbox has been filled for months with missives from Media Matters, which seems almost to be an arm of the Clinton campaign. They diligently watch for any hints of journalistic sexism, as part of the campaign's My Mother Was Born Before Women Could Vote strategy of making a vote for Hillary a litmus test of feminism.

MSNBC has been their main target.The Clinton campaign has struggled with MSNBC throughout the campaign, falling between cracks of the network's two rock stars. "Hardball"'s Chris Matthews comes from the Tip O'Neill-rooted good ole boy school of politics, and seems not to notice his own pre-feminist sensibilities. Keith Olbermann's "Countdown", in contrast, is net-savvy and fiercely anti-war, which plays straight into Obama's new politics.

Hints of sexism from MSNBC are a great play-the-victim tool to fire up Hillary's base, and Shuster was stupid to use a word with such a loaded meaning. It's a multiple meaning now. The word "pimp" has been partially mainstreamed in recent years, in a trend I don't care for, just like a number of other terms from sexuality and pornography. You can "pimp out," by decorating it in a gaudy, attention-seeking way, your ride or your MySpace page, and many young people don't even know the origin of the word. But Shuster should have, and should have understood it was playing with dynamite to use it in the walking on eggshells context of the only daughter of a barrier-breaking presidential candidate. It lets the Clinton campaign spin and re-spin the P Word to its older, female base that's less familiar with its evolving meaning.

There's no doubt Clinton's supporters, and the candidate, are genuinely offended. As for Chelsea? We don't know. She won't say.

There's no way of penetrating the Clinton family dynamics. There seems no doubt that Clinton 42 and Clinton 44 genuinely love their only child and want to protect her. And she avoided the kind of petty juvenile mishaps that the Bush twins have been involved in.

But Chelsea Clinton is not a child. She will turn 28 years old this month, the same age her father was when he first ran for Congress. And she has made a choice, a grown-up choice, to become a public figure on her mother's behalf. Having done so, her public words, or lack of them, are a legitimate topic of criticism.

This could be a strategic decision on the part of the campaign. But in criticizing Chelsea Clinton as an adult, I must also credit her as an adult. I'll give her the benefit of the doubt and accept that she may have laid down these ground rules herself: Mom, I'll shake hands for you, but no press.

Clearly, it is her right to do what she wants to help elect her mother President. And it's no doubt helping. There's a powerful Touch The Hem Of Her Garment aura around Hillary Clinton -- same goes for Obama -- and the supporters are likewise fascinated by Chelsea, having followed her from a distance for 16 years.

If her father had trotted out a 12 or 16 year old Chelsea on the campaign trail, it would have been a legitimate subject of criticism, and Bill was right not to do so. But Chelsea nevertheless spent those important growing up years in the White House fish bowl, endured difficult years where her parent's personal relationship was page one news, and had to have learned some hard lessons about the press.

Perhaps those lessons are at the roots of the silence. She did not choose that life. But she's choosing now. and has to understand that a no-press policy sets her up for criticism.

1 comment:

KL Snow said...

Great post, John. Excellent analysis of the situation.