The mother and daughter talk to Decca Aitkenhead about their fears for each other's safety, being an emergency nanny to the grandchildren — and the gutsy women who change the world.
To have been a global household name since one's early teens is an experience ordinarily confined to child stars and sporting protégés. The few who owe their fame to their parents' jobs belong to an even smaller category; those whose celebrity endures to the age of 39 are fewer still. To owe it more to the work of one's mother rather than one's father places Chelsea Clinton in a category so vanishingly tiny, she may well be its only member.
I have interviewed Chelsea before, and also Hillary, but never met the two together. What has struck me most about both was how temperamentally ill-suited they seemed, in many ways, to the glare of media attention. They are two of the most guardedly private public people I've ever met, and share a glassy air of unknowability. After decades of pitiless exposure, this isn't exactly surprising; at 71, Hillary has endured brutal scrutiny of everything from her marriage to her hair and her private emails, while Chelsea has had "vitriol flung at me for as long as I can literally remember". I'm not sure they were ever really cut out for fame, though. Yet here they are, bang on time, arriving straight from a daytime TV appearance, ready to talk about the book they've just written together. I think they regard public life less in terms of ambition than vocation — which would explain why they're so impressive to their fans, and so gratingly pious to their critics.
We meet in an industrial loft studio near Hell's Kitchen in Manhattan, all whitewashed concrete and exposed cabling. The former first lady's secret service agents stationed by the rickety lifts cut comically incongruous figures in this hipster warehouse, but the Clintons make themselves at home, and Hillary immediately starts quizzing me about the latest developments in the Brexit crisis.
Chelsea gave birth to her third child just two months earlier, and apologises for having to take herself off to pump breast milk. With a five- and three-year-old as well, she must be shattered, but you wouldn't guess it from the sleek grooming and focused poise. She talks softly and carefully, in curiously convoluted multi-clause sentences that I might have put down to sleep deprivation had she not talked in the same clunky policy-wonk register the last time we met.
Her mum is sassier and blunter, but the pair mirror each other's strikingly contained body language, sitting perfectly still save for the occasional slow, studied nod. They carry themselves so exactly as they always do in public that, even though this is the fourth time we've met, I still can't tell what they're like in private. Chelsea comes across as the most strenuously earnest of the two, so when I ask them to name their guilty pleasures, I'm surprised to see her face light up.
"I'm one of the millions of Americans who is obsessed with Bake Off. Oh my gosh, obsessed!" she giggles. "It is torturous right now that we're only getting one episode every Friday night. My husband and I want to binge-watch it. And now my husband and I, we bake more thanks to Bake Off. Oh my gosh, it's my favourite show."
And Hillary? "Oh," she smiles, looking self-conscious. "Spending time with my friends, going to the movies, hanging out with my gorgeous grandchildren, taking long walks." Those don't count, I laugh, as guilty pleasures. How about Love Island? Hillary's smile instantly cools. "No, I am not a Love Island fan." Chelsea looks puzzled. "What's Love Island?"
You won't find the show's contestants in The Book of Gutsy Women, which the pair have co-authored. It's a celebration of courageous female pioneers throughout history, from all over the world, selected to inspire women today. They say they loved writing the book together — although Hillary drove her daughter mad by writing her parts in longhand. Other than that, though, it's hard to find anything the pair disagree about. When I ask if the Duchess of Sussex is a gutsy woman, they exclaim "Yes!" in unison. "Yes. She. Is." Hillary beams. "I'm a huge Meghan Markle fan."
I wonder what they make of Meghan suing the Mail on Sunday for publishing her letter to her father; both have been similarly vilified in the media, but never sued for character assassination. "Oh, but our laws are so different," Hillary says. "But I do want to say that the way she's been treated is inexplicable." Plenty of people think the explanation is obvious. "Well, I think if the explanation is that she's biracial, then shame on everybody." Does Hillary think that's it? "It's certainly part of it."
"I also think," Chelsea adds, "it's because she proudly had a career first and has a voice that she thankfully continues to use. Anyone who has the temerity to break the mould of what has previously been established and expected often, unfortunately, receives criticism and bile that I don't understand. We've seen this pattern repeatedly. I don't know her, but as someone who respects her, I'm so grateful that she persists, and is unbowed, and is doing work she feels called to do. And also isn't willing to be bullied." Some commentators say she will pay a price; the lawsuit may be successful, but she can never win. Chelsea shakes her head. "But Decca, you have to do what you feel is right."
I notice that not once in the entire conversation do this mother and daughter interrupt each other. Chelsea tends to use five words where one would do, but if her mother ever gets impatient she doesn't show it. They sit side by side on a sofa, and while each one talks the other turns to gaze with rapt pride.
From almost any other family, such flawlessly choreographed fealty would make me smell a rat in a flash. Frictionless maternal adoration seldom exists outside fairy tales — so at first I mistake it for yet more evidence of the inauthenticity of which the Clintons have so often been accused. The more they talk about their relationship, though, the less this cynicism feels plausible.
Where, I ask Hillary, does being a grandmother rank on her list of life priorities? "Oh my gosh, it ranks at the top," she gurgles. "It's just the most wonderful experience. I literally had no idea how overwhelming it would be to see my child become a mother, to meet my grandchildren, to be part of their lives. It's an incredible life journey and I'm thrilled that we're making it together." Is "emergency nanny" now one of her roles? She bursts out laughing. "I have played that role, yes."
Hillary is "very good about sticking to the schedule", says Chelsea. "I don't worry at all about the reading lessons, going to bed on time, getting their bath when they're supposed to. But I definitely notice treats happening. And I just have to let that go." There's a playful mischief in her mother's voice I've never heard before as she protests, "Well, I mean, when your grandchildren want pizza for lunch and dinner, I don't see anything wrong in giving them pizza for lunch and dinner."
But neither can come up with a single difference in their parenting style. When I ask for one thing they would change about the other if they could, both exclaim, "Oh, wow!" and laugh. "Depending on the day," jokes Hillary, "I have either a very short list or a very long list," but at the top of either would be a wish that she could ease her daughter's burden of responsibilities, "so she could get more sleep".
Chelsea seems surprised. "I definitely thought my mother was going to say she wished I was less of a perfectionist. She's been trying to mature that out of me for more than 25 years, and I'm still working on it." For herself, "I wish my mother used a word processor. You know, Word — or WordPerfect — or Google Docs. I'm agnostic," she laughs. "Just any one of them."
When Hillary told a TV interviewer last week that "the gutsiest thing" she'd ever done was to stay in her marriage, Chelsea laid a hand on her knee, momentarily uncomposed, and gasped: "I'm so overwhelmed by my mother's answer that I'm a bit out of words. I'm just so proud to be her daughter." I ask why she'd been so surprised by her mother's answer.
"It's clearly an incredibly painful time in our family's history and not one that we have spoken about together publicly, though of course we've talked about it a lot privately. So I just didn't expect that to be the answer in that moment. But on reflection it seems obvious that it would have been."
I would guess their fierce bond of loyalty has a lot to do with the legacy of President Clinton's affair with Monica Lewinsky. It's often the case that children of parents besieged by external attacks cannot countenance creating any internal drama of their own, and Chelsea's biography reads like a case study in aversion to rebellion. Having grown up in the White House, she studied at Stanford and Oxford universities, and worked for a while as a management consultant and an analyst for a hedge fund, but her heart wasn't in it, and she is now vice-chair of the Clinton Foundation. "It is frustrating, because who wants to grow up and follow their parents?" she has said, adding she'd "tried really hard to care about things that were very different from my parents", but felt "called to this work both as a daughter and also as someone who believes I have contributions to make".
For all her status and success, there is a vulnerability about Chelsea indiscernible in her mother. I ask what's the gutsiest thing she's ever done. "I think I was protected from having to be gutsy as a kid, really until my dad ran for president. And then I had to navigate why these older men were attacking me. I had to find the gutsiness to live my childhood, which I believed was my right as a 12-year-old. I think that was the first time I realised I had to be gutsy."
The one thing she and her mother don't appear to agree on entirely is the question of transgender self-identification. Their book features Danica Roem, the first trans woman elected to a US state legislature, and when I ask if someone with a beard and a penis can ever be a woman, Chelsea peers at me as if I've just asked if the sun rises in the east. "Ye-esss. Yes." Hillary is looking uneasy. "Errr. I'm just learning about this. It's a very big generational discussion, because this is not something I grew up with or ever saw. It's going to take a lot more time and effort to understand what it means to be defining yourself differently."
A lot of British feminists of Hillary's generation, I say, have a problem with the idea that a lesbian who doesn't want to sleep with someone who has a penis is transphobic. "Right," Hillary nods. Chelsea stiffens and stares at me. They're also uncomfortable with people who are physically male sharing women's refuges, and with the NHS's decision to assign patients to single-sex wards according to the gender they identify as rather than their biological anatomy. "I would say that, absolutely," Hillary nods firmly. "Absolutely. Yes."
Chelsea is now fixing me with a furious stare. When I point this out, she laughs — "I'm a terrible actor" — and says quietly but emphatically: "I am thrilled by the NHS's decision. Because how can you treat someone if you don't recognise who they feel and know in their core they are? And I strongly support children being able to play on the sports teams that match their own gender identity. I think we need to be doing everything we can to support kids in being whoever they know themselves to be and discovering who they are."
I turn back to Hillary, who is looking conflicted. "I think you've got to be sensitive to how difficult this is," she says. "There are women who'd say [to a trans woman], 'You know what, you've never had the kind of life experiences that I've had. So I respect who you are, but don't tell me you're the same as me.' I hear that conversation all the time."
She says the pair don't argue about it, but I get the impression they don't like to present anything less than a united front to the world.
Bill is now pretty absent from public life. He and Hillary live between Little Rock, New York and Washington, and appear to lead quite separate lives; the days of Billary are long gone. It seems incredible that we know so little about their marriage now, when its dramas were once played out so publicly, the most intimate details of Bill's extramarital sex life — the stained dress, the cigar — all over the media. Even though the couple are seldom seen together nowadays, we hear no reports of anyone new in either her or Bill's life. Whether this says more about his self-restraint, or the family's power to control the narrative, is just one of the many Clinton mysteries. It's a startling truth that there will now be an entire generation for whom both Chelsea and Hillary — and even Lewinsky, who campaigns these days against online public shaming — are the names they know, rather than the man who first brought them to our attention.
That generation includes Chelsea's oldest daughter. Her youngest two — Aidan, 3, and baby Jasper — still have no idea of their grandparents' public profile, but Charlotte, 5, "has some sense of her grandmother as a real advocate and person who's dedicated her life to public service. She understands that because her grandmother features in picture books we read, more than her grandfather."
Chelsea lives in a Manhattan apartment with her private equity manager husband of nine years, Mark Mezvinsky, and their children. Although fabulously wealthy, she talks about riding on the subway and going to the grocery store like anybody else. I'm not sure her life would pass as normal in many people's book, but notice how she becomes most confident when the conversation turns to her field of professional expertise. Chelsea has a master's degree in public health, and The Book of Gutsy Women features pioneers of vaccines. On the question of whether schools should refuse to accept children who haven't been vaccinated, the pair are unanimous.
"One hundred per cent yes," says Hillary. "I think Andrew Wakefield is one of the most awful people of recent history," Chelsea concurs. "I just think he is an evil man." Chelsea gets more animated on the subject than anything else we discuss, and cites detailed statistics about herd immunity. It's funny to see Hillary for once not the policy expert but the layman, huffing: "I just don't get it, this hostility to scientific advance. I mean, I like modern toilets! I mean, my God, I don't know where this ends."
Chelsea can talk about the anti-vax movement until the cows come home. What Hillary, on the other hand, really wants to discuss is Donald Trump. She knows half her country probably won't listen. "And it's not only people who might disagree with me who don't want to hear any point of view from the other side. We are all suffering from the refusal to listen to one another. So this is an equal-opportunity problem. But I think it is my obligation as a citizen to provide as accurate an assessment as I can of what's going on."
One of the women profiled in their book is Greta Thunberg, who the week before we meet had delivered a coruscating speech to the UN climate change summit, prompting some commentators to worry about her mental stability. Do they worry for Thunberg?
"I don't worry for her in herself," Chelsea says, "she is clearly strong of purpose and full of joy. But I worry for Greta like I worry for my mom. There are, sadly, a lot of very angry people who are very threatened." Does she worry about her dad too? "Less so. I think my mom is more threatening to people."
Hillary worries about her daughter's safety "all the time. Unfortunately, we currently have a spate of leaders in countries like yours and mine who whip people up, whip up their fears and their anger, and their rage and their ignorance — and they weaponise it. We've never had a president who explicitly catalyses this kind of divisiveness. It's part of the playbook of authoritarians: distract, divert and scare. Get people scared and they're more manipulatable. The leader tries to keep you confused and off balance, saying things so outrageous that you can't believe it, until the next one comes, and it sort of normalises it and sadly desensitises you to what's happening. It's a real pattern."
Chelsea agrees: "Trump is a master manipulator."
"And it works!" Hillary exclaims. "The thing I keep trying to tell people is that he is not the first to have done this. If you read Timothy Snyder's book On Tyranny, it's a chilling description of how authoritarian mindsets work. And this is what we're dealing with."
She met Boris Johnson when he was mayor of London and sees clear parallels. "I thought he was a grandstander and very full of himself. I knew Trump [before he became president] and I thought the same thing. A kind of blowhard, a blustering guy. But they both clearly harboured great ambitions for themselves."
Has the UK mistaken Johnson for a bit of a laugh, and landed itself with another Trump? "Yes. It's the same pattern. The total disregard for facts — or 'My assertion should be your facts. Don't question me, how dare you question me?' It is part of a real undercurrent of authoritarianism. You get rid of people who disagree with you. You surround yourself with cronies. You begin to degrade every institution that could possibly hold you to account. You go after the press. This is all part of the playbook of wannabe authoritarians."
Do they worry about complacency among voters? "I think that has ebbed," Chelsea says of Americans. "I think the cascade of cruelty, the meanness, has just become so undeniable." In the UK, I point out, Johnson is being championed as the people's hero in a battle of the people versus parliament. Hillary looks aghast.
"Well, then I fear for your country. If anyone says he's a hero to anyone other than himself, I really worry. We don't know what's going to happen with Brexit, or impeachment, or our upcoming election — and I don't care what your political ideology is. If you invest your support in people who will try to take advantage of it to promote themselves to become authoritarian leaders, then we are headed for an even worse outcome."
Does she see parallels in Johnson's government warning of violence on the streets if we don't "Get Brexit Done"? "One hundred per cent. That's who these men are. They want to be authoritarian rulers in democracies." She pauses. "We are in a crisis. A crisis of our democracy that is deep and broad and frankly existential. We need to recapture our democracy."
Exactly how is a question that raises so many of the old problems with her political approach. She's right that authoritarians distract voters from facts with an eye-catching circus of fireworks — but her enduring faith in the power of facts to defeat fireworks doesn't appear to recognise evidence from the last campaign that, when faced with an opponent like Trump, facts lose.
Hillary thinks Trump will be easier to beat this time — "Yes. Absolutely" — but her grounds for confidence essentially boil down to: this time there'll be more facts.
"Because now he has a record. He. Made. Promises. That he has never even tried to fulfil. So there is a narrative now about him."
On the day we meet, The New York Times ran a column headlined "Will Trump Ever Leave the White House?" The columnist quoted a number of eminent scholars expressing concerns that, if defeated in 2020, Trump could deploy Republican senators, his "armed to the teeth" popular base, and/or the military to keep him in office. Does she share that fear? "Absolutely," Hillary nods. "That's the pattern. That's who he is. And he is in a class of leaders who behave like that. Putin didn't leave office — and Putin is his role model. If he could manoeuvre our government in such a way, he would." Or manoeuvre the military? "Who knows? Nobody! The other day he tweeted that there could be a civil war. Now who says something like that?"
The interview ends precisely on the hour; the operation has the precision timekeeping operation of a Swiss watch, and after elegantly efficient goodbyes they are in the lift and off to their next engagement.
The following day they are back on the trail again, signing books for a queue of fans for more than three hours. It has gone 9.30pm by the time Chelsea can leave to get back to her baby; for Hillary the night isn't over yet, she is catching a train to Washington.
They could be doing anything else in the world — or more to the point, nothing — and yet they keep going. I don't think they know how to stop.
The Book of Gutsy Women by Hillary Rodham Clinton and Chelsea Clinton is available now.
Written by: Decca Aitkenhead
© The Times of London