Embracing normality

As the Clintons' daughter Chelsea prepares to walk down the aisle, Paul Harris finds she is surprisingly unaffected by an adolescence spent in a tumultuous White House.

It is one of the defining images of the Bill Clinton era. After confessing his infidelities to the world in August 1998, the shamed President and his wife, Hillary, walked across the White House lawn to a waiting helicopter.

Standing between them - holding the hand of each parent - was Chelsea Clinton, smiling broadly, striding purposefully, appearing in all intents and purposes to be the one thing keeping the First Family together.

For the watching world, it was a moment of poignancy amid all the heat of the Clintons' political drama. For a moment, people stopped blaming Bill for his transgressions or wondering how Hillary managed to stand by her man. They thought of Chelsea, a teenager, still dealing with growing up and doing it all in front of the cameras of the world as her parents' tumultuous marriage was laid bare.

Now marital issues once again have put Chelsea on the front page of America's newspapers, but this time for a much happier reason than her father's fling with a White House intern. On July 31, in the upscale hamlet of Rhinebeck, just up the Hudson River from New York, Chelsea Clinton will marry her banker fiance, Marc Mezvinsky. It has the nation all caught up in a joyous tizzy for a nuptials that will go down as one of the weddings of the decade. Even the liberal politicos of the Huffington Post have taken to speculating what sort of dress she will wear (the hot money's on Oscar de la Renta).

The preparations seem a little like those for a major international summit, which is perhaps no surprise given the Clinton family's lifetime in the global spotlight. Secretary of state Hillary Clinton has been involved, getting pictures of potential floral arrangements emailed to her as she conducts diplomacy around the globe. Bill has been on a diet, shedding 5.9kg of his target of 7kg. There will be 400 names on the super-secret guest list and it will probably read like a who's who of American political life. Some gossips even hope the Obamas might make an appearance. Chelsea, however, has insisted that she has to know each and every guest personally, so her parents' inveterate networking skills will be constrained to some extent. A week before the wedding, according to reports, the guests will get a message revealing the exact destination, though it seems there is little point. Everyone already knows the wedding will take place at the Astor Courts estate, a sprawling spread that was once the home of famed tycoon John Jacob Astor IV.

No doubt it will be one of the happiest days of Chelsea's life. But it is one that many people watching her walk between her stricken parents 12 years ago might have imagined would never happen. The image seemed to sum up one clear fact: it must have been unimaginably hard to grow up as Chelsea Clinton. She had to endure the drama of her parents, the global stage, the hounding by the press, the insults of her father's Republican enemies and, finally, her father's adultery made painfully public. And with no brothers or sisters, she had to endure it all alone.

It could have led to the sort of mental issues that decades of therapy would barely scratch the surface of. No one would have been surprised had Chelsea gone off the rails. Yet that is not the case. Chelsea Clinton, perhaps in the ultimate act of rebellion against her odd upbringing, has emerged as a well-balanced, happy, talented and serious woman. Not only does she seem to be comfortable bearing the Clinton name, she seems superbly well-suited to it.

Chelsea Clinton was never going to be able to avoid the spotlight. But it took her a long time to grow comfortable in it. She was born in Little Rock, Arkansas, on February 27, 1980, when her father was already two years into his first stint as governor. Not surprisingly, given her parents' prodigious intellects, she was a bright child, skipping a grade of school. She seemed to inherit much of the best of both of her parents and few of their faults. From her father, she got his personal warmth and, to the surprise of many who meet Chelsea, a talent for flirting. From her mother, she got a love of policy and a ferocious work ethic. Her parents respected her abilities from an early age, encouraging her intelligence. Bill even set up a small desk for her to work at beside his own in the governor's mansion.

But Chelsea's life changed on January 20, 1992. That was when the Clinton family moved into the White House. She was just 12 years old and about to embark on her formative years. And what years they were. There were titanic political battles, constant attention from the world's media, the scandal of Whitewater and then the drama of the revelations about the Monica Lewinsky affair and impeachment. There can have been few young women who have had to put up with a fully fledged public investigation into their father's extramarital shenanigans, fewer still who then read the full report (Bill Clinton wept when he learned that).

Yet, whatever their political and personal mistakes, the Clintons as parents very rarely put a step wrong. Seeing the pressures put on previous White House children, they made the decision early on to shield her from the media. Chelsea was off-limits to the White House press corps. They tried to give her as normal a childhood as possible, sending her to Sidwell Friends School in Washington and to ballet classes (still a major passion of the adult Chelsea). When she went to university, she chose Stanford in California, and much was made in some quarters of her decision to flee from her parents to the opposite side of the country.

But those waiting to see what sort of a damaged Chelsea would emerge after the White House years were disappointed. She studied hard at chemistry before switching to history, graduating in 2001 with a thesis on Northern Ireland's peace process (which, surely, her father would have helped with).

If she ever had a rebellious phase, it came next when she went to Oxford to study for a master's at University College. Suddenly Chelsea, for so long kept secret, embraced the public. She partied, she hung out with celebrities in London and was named one of Europe's most eligible single women by Tatler. She shrugged off her media shyness and posed for photographs for Vanity Fair without asking her parents' permission ("I'm a big girl now," she said).

But it did not last. When Chelsea returned to America, she seemed to have got her wild days (and they really were not so wild) out of her system. Like so many bright sons and daughters of the American elite, she went into finance. She worked first for McKinsey management consultancy and then for a hedge-fund owned by a major Clinton supporter. She worked hard, indulging her passion for number-crunching and pulled down a hefty six-figure salary.

She became involved in charity work and spent six months working for her mother's presidential bid in 2007 and 2008. For a brief moment - as Chelsea toured more than 100 colleges touting Hillary's credentials - the media speculated that she might follow in her parents' footsteps. She certainly showed a talent for it. She spoke eloquently and enthusiastically, not shying away from her past, revealing an impressive command of the issues. She won a significant fan base. But that was not to last either.

The old media ban was firmly back in place. Not once during the campaign did Chelsea give a press interview. She even turned down a 9-year-old reporter for a children's newspaper, saying: "I'm sorry, I don't talk to the press and that applies to you, unfortunately - even though I think you're cute." Chelsea just wanted to help her mother. She did not want a public life and there was no sign that she would ever consider running for public office. When the campaign was over, she went back to college in New York to study health policy.

Again, it was a typical path for an elite New Yorker of brains and talent. Her husband-to-be completes that picture.

They are cut from much of the same cloth. He is an investment banker, both of whose parents were also politicians. His father even suffered his own political scandals and ended up in jail for fraud. They understand each other's experiences. They have known each other since they were children and are, by all accounts, a very good match.

So, when the A-list guests start arriving at the Astor Courts estate, the scene actually won't be that unusual. Every summer weekend in New York, the heirs and heiresses of the elite tie the knot. But for Chelsea Clinton, who had some of the strangest childhood experiences in history, such normality is a quite staggering achievement.

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