This week, Variety magazine announced that it would honor former first daughter Chelsea Clinton at its Women in Power luncheon with a “Lifetime achievement award.” The news spread quickly among both Trump supporters and left-leaning Clinton detractors who believe that the family’s tone-deafness cost them the election. Chelsea accepting such an award at the tender age of 37 confirmed the “out-of-touch elite” narrative once and for all.
And then “The Hill,” the D.C. outlet that had broken the news, clarified that Chelsea’s honor was not, as initially reported and gleefully reposted, for achievements over the span of her lifetime. Rather, it was an honor bestowed jointly by Variety and the television network Lifetime for her work promoting better eating habits for children. It’s a Lifetime achievement award, not a lifetime achievement award.
When it comes to accepting prizes for charitable contributions, Chelsea is in no way an outlier. Everyone in her income bracket has a shelf full of honors. Luncheon ceremonies are a way to publicly thank big-name benefactors, get them to show up to the event, and therefore attract other donors and media interest. Ivanka Trump, for example — just picking someone at random here — is no stranger to vanity awards. She has been honored by organizations such as the European School of Economics and the Diamond Empowerment Fund’s GOOD Awards. (Tagline: “Diamonds do good.”)
But Chelsea, like her mother, never gets a break — unlike Ivanka and her father.
The “Lifetime achievement” mistake was an error of capitalization that became a convenient Internet cudgel at a time when Democrats are focused on resistance, uneasy about class politics, and searching for the next generation of leaders. Meanwhile, in the real world, the Trump administration announced that Ivanka would be getting her own White House office and high-level security clearance — despite her father’s insistence that none of his children would enjoy such privileges after his election. Nepotism is a charge that the Trumps find easy to circumnavigate. Not so for the Clintons.
Although Chelsea recently tried to quash rumors that she will seek Kirsten Gillibrand’s New York Senate seat if Gillibrand runs for president in 2020, that hasn’t stopped people from reading the tea leaves to predict what she’ll do next. Chelsea has been a vocal Trump critic, commenting on issues such as infant mortality and #SaveBigBird as well as racism in education and affordable healthcare. It has not gone unnoticed: A CNN headline last month read: “Chelsea Clinton embraces her Twitter sass.” She’s writing a children’s book. She’s joined the board of Expedia. The most minor details about her provoke outrage and inspire conspiracy theories.
The studious interest in Chelsea’s next move is understandable coming from the right, which has always hated the Clintons and no doubt welcomes the distraction Chelsea offers from the president’s dismal approval ratings and damning intelligence hearings. Bill, Hillary and Chelsea have long been enthusiasm-boosters for the Republicans, and they’re reluctant to give them up.
But the laser-focused Chelsea vitriol is perplexing when it comes from the left. Shouldn’t such first-daughter hatred be reserved for Ivanka? Wouldn’t their attention be better spent on potential 2018 and 2020 candidates who have already declared their interest? Aren’t there bigger battles to fight — and aren’t they glad that such a prominent Democratic figure is registering her dissent with the current administration?
It’s a strange time for the Clintons. Trump’s opponents are desperate for Democratic public figures to show some backbone, yet many blame the Clintons’ status as American royalty for the loss of Wisconsin, Michigan, Pennsylvania and the other states that really should have swung blue. Apparently 2016 is not done with us yet, and not only because the FBI is still investigating the Trump campaign’s ties to Russia.
The Clintons don’t make sense as de facto Democratic leaders anymore, but that doesn’t mean they should just fade away, either. When Hillary recently said in a speech in Pennsylvania that she was “ready to come out of the woods,” I, for one, was happy about it. And while I don’t think she deserves a special award for it, I’m glad Chelsea is speaking out, too. They should be using their public following and personal connections to push back against Trump’s policy agenda, and to help build a new wave of left-leaning leaders who don’t have family ties to money and power. Such a legacy would be the real lifetime achievement.
Ann Friedman is a contributing writer to Opinion. She lives in Los Angeles.