Yes, yes, yes. Chelsea Clinton is not the most charismatic orator—as the Twittersphere was happy to point out during her brief address on Thursday night. She is like her mother that way. There’s something not quite natural about her self-presentation. She’s not stilted, exactly. But she can come across as too cautious, too reserved, too conscious of other people’s eyes upon her.
But, let’s face it, as the lead-in to Hillary’s big nominating speech, a little bit of boring was called for. Unlike some of this convention’s high-wattage speakers, there was zero chance Chelsea was going to upstage Hillary with a barnburner or tear-jerker. Chelsea wasn’t there to pump up the crowd. Her role was to comfort, to explain, to cajole, with an eye toward giving Americans a glimpse of her mother’s softer side.
As she does on the campaign trail, Chelsea went heavy on talk of motherhood, both her own and Hillary’s. She gushed (only somewhat awkwardly) about her own wee tots—including son Aidan, born a mere five weeks ago—and of Hillary’s enthusiastic grandparenting. And she explained how being a mother herself has given her a greater appreciation for her own “wonderful, thoughtful, hilarious mother”—who, Chelsea assured us, was always, always there for her.
Even more sentimental was Chelsea’s invocation of her late grandmother, Dorothy Rodham. “Grandma would be so, so proud of you tonight,” she assured Hillary late in her remarks—at which point I thought poor Bill was going to dissolve in a puddle of tears.
Cornball? Maybe. But this is what Americans look to Chelsea for. It is what they have always looked to her for. Forget policy platforms and partisan attacks. Her job is to beam with filial pride and affection, to make Hillary seem like a more or less normal person.
The Chelsea-Ivanka comparisons were unavoidable. Despite the gulf in tone and message of the two conventions, the candidates’ daughters served an identical purpose: to reassure people that their parents are warm, decent, trustworthy, lovable humans who in no way resemble their ugly caricatures. Plus, when their parents aren’t locked in mortal combat, Chelsea and Ivanka are chums. This makes perfect sense when you consider how much the two have in common: Both are daughters of extraordinary privilege raised in the spotlight by world-famous, controversial, larger-than-life parents. Both know what it’s like to have their family life become perpetual tabloid fodder. Both understand that voters are looking to them for clues about the character of their perplexing, often vexing parents.
Chelsea was neither as glittering nor as vivacious as Ivanka. She did not confound preconceptions or say anything startling. She performed exactly as expected—which is what one might anticipate from the young woman who Michelle Obama praised as “raised to perfection.”
But what Chelsea did provide—that Ivanka most definitely did not—were specific, detailed, intimate anecdotes about her mother: the books they read, the jokes they shared, the family outings they took, and the little mother-daughter rituals they developed. (Come on! You gotta admit that bit about their making up dinosaur stories was freaking adorable.) Carefully packaged though they were, these are the kinds of memories that not-so-glamorous folks can relate to.
The daughters’ disparate portraits of their parents also captured a central—perhaps the central—difference between the candidates: Ivanka’s talk of Trump was long on vague, high-flying praise of his character and greatness. Chelsea, meanwhile, nearly drowned the audience in small-bore anecdotes about cloud watching and dinner-table talk with mom. It’s the grandiose showman vs. the detail-minded wonk, as told by the two people who know them best.
Chelsea gave a quick nod to all the usual themes associated with her mom’s campaign—tireless fighter, lifelong advocate for women and children, great listener. In short: a tough cookie with a squishy middle. But it was the personal details that she was there to share in her typical low-key, earnest (and, yes, not especially transcendent) style. As Chelsea told the crowd, simply, in closing, “This is the story of my mother, Hillary Clinton.”
It will be another few months before we find out if this tale has a happy ending.
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