On the campaign, Chelsea fair game

By Jonathan Jacobson

My empathy for Chelsea Clinton over the last 10 years has waxed and waned more often than my blood pressure during a Bush State of the Union.

Sometimes, I feel bad for the poor girl for having to endure publicly what was an incredibly embarrassing private affair. Other times, I feel a little envy for the Stanford and Oxford graduate with a consulting job that probably paid her more money in a year than I’ll see in a decade.

But Clinton took a leave of absence from that job a few months ago to start campaigning for her mother full time. She has actively chosen to thrust herself back into the public realm. Good for her, but there’s one problem.

Clinton wants all the advantages of American public life – the loud voice, the immediate access to media outlets around the world, the chance to propel herself into politics — but none of the drawbacks. She completely stiff-arms reporters and dodges questions she deems inappropriate.

If the Clinton campaign expected to avoid difficult questions for Chelsea by not letting her talk to journalists, that strategy melted away last week the moment a student at Butler University asked about her father’s affair.

The question, as an editorial writer in The Nation put it, “had to happen.” Then it happened again in North Carolina on Monday. And it’s unlikely that this is the last we’ll hear of it.

“It’s none of your business,” she told the North Carolina questioner. And in many ways, she is right. She should not have to answer for her father’s mistakes and she should not be subjected to extremely personal questions about her family life, even if it is already disturbingly public.

But the Clinton camp sent Chelsea out as an ambassador of the family. She is an intelligent, competent woman who has seen more political races from the inside and out than most people her age.

If she didn’t want to answer these questions, she should have stayed in that cushy job and not entered that rough-and-tumble world of the presidential campaign, a space in which there can be no expectation of privacy, and no way to avoid the prying eyes of the public.

When you step out of the shadows and into the limelight, you have to know how to enjoy the applause and how to deflect the tomatoes. The Clinton campaign put a shield around Chelsea that ultimately hurts both their candidate and the public.

She is there, it seems, only to answer the easy questions. Why else prevent journalists from talking to her? But difficult questions are inevitable, and any campaigner has to be prepared for them.

It’s impossible to imagine any of the candidates responding to any question by anyone – whether Helen Thomas or a twelve-year-old with an attitude – with anything even resembling, “It’s none of your business.” Try to envision McCain uttering those words on the Straight Talk Express.

At the end of the day, this is American politics. Nothing is off limits.

It’s unreasonable and unfair to expect that, while on the campaign trail, there will be no challenging, discomforting queries. It is, in fact, the very nature of the game.

And Chelsea Clinton’s silence on this issue exposes the strange position she is in. She is supposed to talk but also to remain silent. This fundamental paradox prevents her from being an effective surrogate for her mother and predictably led up to this moment.

Clinton’s choice of words – that is, the whole “none of your business” to-do – was also abrasive.

It is the public’s business and it has been since 1998; Hillary’s response to it is an important element of her campaign and even if Chelsea isn’t in the mood to field that kind of inquiry, she should understand where it’s coming from.

If Hillary’s advisors are as calculating as the press makes them out to be, maybe next time this question arises – and it won’t be long – Chelsea will be ready with a response.

Jonathan is a senior in English and rhetoric. He hopes that when he runs for president, he won’t have to take questions from reporters.