After a quarter-century in the political spotlight, the woman who was a young girl growing up in the White House in the 1990s now seems determined to pull back from life in the shadow of her politically royal parents, former President Bill Clinton and current presidential candidate Hillary Clinton.
In a conversation with students at Lusher Charter School this week and with reporters afterward, it was clear that Chelsea Clinton's unique childhood — in both its highs and lows — still informs who she is, in sometimes poignant ways.
The first mentions of Chelsea Clinton in the national media were back in 1987, when her father declined to seek the Democratic presidential nomination — partly, he said then, in order to spend more time with her. "Chelsea" became a household name after her father was elected president in 1992, and since his presidency ended she has had an on-again, off-again presence in the public sphere: campaigning for her mother's unsuccessful presidential campaign in 2008, feature stories about her 2010 marriage and the 2014 birth of her child and several years as an NBC News correspondent.
Most Lusher middle schoolers hadn't been born when Bill Clinton was president, and Chelsea, now 35, spoke little of her time in Washington, D.C., when she introduced herself to them last week. She showed photos of herself as a child growing up in Little Rock, Arkansas, and moved swiftly into sharing some of the anecdotes from It's Your World, her new book aimed at their age group.
The book itself has drawn mixed reviews. It is praised for its comprehensive, factual approach to explaining issues: "Where she succeeds is in making even the knottiest issues seem accessible to a bright seventh-grader," wrote Maria Russo in The New York Times. But Chelsea's attempts to write on a personal level fell flat with critics. The School Library Journal called an effort to relate to poorer children on health issues as "tone deaf," and the Times likewise wrote, "In Clinton's book, the people who need help feel very far away."
When Chelsea opened the floor for questions, the first few students, naturally, wanted to know more about their speaker's famous childhood. They asked what she thought about her mom running for president, what it was like to grow up in the White House and whether she, too, planned to run for office.
With each personal question, Chelsea used her answer to gently push the topic away from her.
With regard to her mother, for example, she simply said that voters should choose candidates based on their policies, but that a woman in the White House would be a tremendous role model for girls. On living in the White House, she emphasized nightly dinners and her parents' desire to be as normal a family as possible.
When it came to her own political aspirations, Chelsea said she has been answering that question for as long as she can remember. She then turned it back on the student, asking the same question and saying that all children should be asked that.
"I think that question should be asked of kids," Chelsea said. "I don't think it's something that should just be asked of me, because of what choices my parents have made. ... I think it's a question you should be asking yourselves."
Speaking with reporters following the presentation, Chelsea resisted answering a question as to whether it is common for students to ask about her time in the White House.
"I hope your reporting would reflect that those were three, I think, of the 15 questions I was asked," Chelsea said, adding she also commonly is asked about climate change, endangered species, the role of girls and women in society, education and other issues she raises in her book. One Lusher student even asked how Chelsea could measure the success of her efforts to bring awareness to the issue of child soldiers in Uganda and South Sudan (which captured popular attention through the controversial film Kony 2012).
The question Chelsea found most poignant, however, came from two girls who approached the microphone to ask about her experience with bullying. Many people will remember that in the 1990s Chelsea was subjected to bullying on a national scale, when conservative talk radio hosts began mocking her in a personal way in their attacks on her father. (Rush Limbaugh famously called her "the White House dog.") At the time, Chelsea Clinton was not yet a teenager.
So, when asked about bullying at the Lusher event, Chelsea's answer was acutely personal. She said the absurdity of grown men insulting a child before national audiences helped her see through the attacks in a way that might not be as easy for a girl being bullied by her peers.
"Things that people were saying to me and about me when I was 11, 12 and 13 were so outrageous that I think it was more readily apparent to me on some visceral level that it was more about them than about me," Chelsea said. "It's never OK to say those things like that about an 11-year-old kid. There's no justification for that. It's always important to realize it's about the bully and not about you, and I would hope that these two girls can internalize that."
Chelsea's stop at Lusher came exactly midway through a two-month book tour across the United States, including a book signing that evening at Octavia Books. Part of her itinerary in New Orleans also included work for the Clinton Foundation, observing the work of one of the programs funded by her family's nonprofit. Her staff said they planned to sign books at Octavia that night until they reached the last one — though the event was scheduled close to the start time of the first Democratic debate of the 2016 campaign, where her mother faced off against four opponents.
Chelsea said she wouldn't miss it.
"Of course I'm watching the debates tonight. I'm excited," she said. "I always watch the debates."