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Chelsea Clinton Packs Up a Private Life for College

TIMES STAFF WRITER

She wears baseball caps and sunglasses and subdues her abundant auburn locks in a ponytail to avoid notice when she shops or bikes around Washington. Her Secret Service agents drive a nondescript Jeep, dress casually and keep watch from a distance. She takes vacations--without her parents--that virtually no one knows about.

During her five years in the White House, Chelsea Clinton has carefully guarded her own privacy, perhaps as jealously as her parents have. In fact, despite having spent her adolescence in America’s most public residence, the daughter of the world’s most prominent political figure, Chelsea is still largely a stranger to the nation.

When she moved to 1600 Pennsylvania Ave., Chelsea was a shy girl of 13 with long, frizzy hair and braces. As she moves out of the White House to take up residence today at Stanford University, she has become a remarkably poised, accomplished young woman of 17.

Yet we hardly know her.

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The public has seen little more than an evolving photo album of Chelsea’s teen years. The family snapshots: hiking with her parents in Jackson Hole, Wyo.; riding on the back of an elephant with her mother in India. Images of Chelsea on her own: dancing in toe shoes and tutu in the Nutcracker Suite; receiving her high school diploma from Sidwell Friends School; on the town with friends at the 1996 Democratic National Convention in Chicago.

These photographic vignettes, accompanied by the barest of biographical sketches, are all the Clintons have allowed the nation to see as they tried fiercely to provide Chelsea with the most normal life possible. Even the infamous Washington media abided by an unwritten pact: Chelsea would be allowed to grow up without being dogged by the U.S. equivalent of the paparazzi.

But from Chelsea’s occasional public remarks and her parents’ private musings, a sketchy portrait can be discerned. Chelsea is intensely serious, keenly intelligent, socially conscious, self-assured, people-oriented. While very much her own person, she embodies many of her parents’ more compelling qualities.

“I think she’s got both of them in her,” observed a White House official who has spent many hours with the Clintons through the years.

She’s certainly no shrinking violet. Although Chelsea has chosen to keep her private life private, she seems oddly comfortable with her unusual status as first daughter.

“She intentionally didn’t walk into the spotlight, but she wasn’t nervous when there were people she didn’t know,” said the official, who asked not to be identified. “That’s like her dad. He can talk to anyone. I think she really likes people.”

Since her father’s second year in office, Chelsea has worked rope lines alongside her parents. Like her father, she seems to absorb energy from the crowd. During her father’s second inauguration, she walked down Pennsylvania Avenue with her parents, waving warmly to a watching nation. She appeared confident and attractive, wearing a stylish suit with a miniskirt. (In fact, the fashion world bestowed on Chelsea praise it never gave her mother: She made Mr. Blackwell’s best-dressed list of 1996 as a “fabulous fashion independent.”)

One of the rare occasions when Chelsea broke her public silence occurred in March, during a trip through Africa with her mother. With media in tow, Hillary Rodham Clinton suggested that Chelsea might like to answer questions from local teenagers in the village of Arusha, Tanzania, about the challenges facing American youth.

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“We have big problems with violence in our country, in all spectrums,” Chelsea said, striking an earnest tone. “We have a big problem with drugs and people not thinking they have a future. There is a lot of hopelessness.”

Sounding like a chip off her parents’ block, Chelsea spoke in an eloquent and self-confident manner about her conviction that the answer to the despair she was describing “has to come from the young people themselves.”

“I think that’s something we have to work on. We’ve got to realize we are the future,” she said.

Chelsea knows of what she was speaking. Although she attended an elite private high school, Sidwell Friends, she involved herself extensively in volunteer work in Washington. With a church group, she traveled to the Appalachian Mountains during the summer between her junior and senior years to work with a poor family.

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Rather than feeling righteous about her efforts, Chelsea has commented that she believes she gained more from the experiences than those she was helping, a sentiment that impressed her proud dad. During a trip to India with her mother in 1995, she was struck by the dignity of the poor people there. That appreciation has had a profound impact on her feelings toward the poor, the president has told friends.

It is Chelsea’s compassion and social conscience, Clinton has confided to acquaintances, that he admires most--even more than her intelligence. Chelsea takes a genuine interest in global affairs, including her father’s role as leader of the world’s most powerful country.

She surprised her father when she asked his chief of staff at the last minute for a ticket to one of his State of the Union addresses. White House officials who have been around Chelsea a lot say they are impressed by her interest in geopolitics. When there was talk of a possible change of command in Saudi Arabia, Chelsea asked one staffer what would happen if the king died. The staffer gave her an article describing the succession process in that country; she read it and commented on it.

Serious interests notwithstanding, Chelsea does not lack for humor. On the family’s first presidential vacation in Jackson Hole, the Clintons went “camping.” Reporters were told they were really roughing it. But when Chelsea was asked about the experience, she laughed and responded: “Camping out? We slept on cots four feet off the ground, and ate off china plates,” recalled a White House official.

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And being the president’s daughter hasn’t kept Chelsea from engaging in her share of normal teenage activities. There have been slumber parties and rock-climbing excursions. She has gone on dates, and traipsed around Europe with friends. Clinton himself jokes about how he feels lucky when Chelsea makes time for him in her busy schedule.

During their recent vacation on Martha’s Vineyard, Mass., Clinton said all he really wanted to do was to have long talks with Chelsea. Although the president still managed to play 10 rounds of golf in three weeks, he spent considerably more time kicking back, playing cards and working puzzles with Chelsea than anyone thought possible.

Chelsea’s departure for college is clearly difficult for both of her parents, who have talked about this moment for months in an apparent effort to prepare themselves for the separation. Before Chelsea settled on Stanford, her parents were hoping she would opt to stay in Washington and go to Georgetown University, her dad’s alma mater. They even promised she could live in the dorms instead of at home.

Instead, Chelsea picked a university that is about as far away from Washington as it is possible to get in the continental United States.

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As the family prepared for Thursday’s departure for the West Coast, Clinton seemed oddly resigned to the transition, at least publicly. “There’s nothing I can do about it now,” Clinton told reporters in the Oval Office. “That’s what you raise them for. I’m happy and sad at the same time.”

During her last week in Washington, Chelsea ate dinner with her parents at her favorite restaurant, the Bombay Club, an elegant Indian establishment just a few blocks from the White House. The president personally participated in packing up his daughter’s possessions, making sure she would have everything she needs for dorm life in Palo Alto.

But after months of lamenting her imminent departure, Clinton decided to lighten up after overhearing a conversation between House Minority Leader Richard A. Gephardt of Missouri and Vice President Al Gore about the bittersweet agony of watching their daughters get married this year.

“I’ve been sad and whining about Chelsea going to college,” Clinton said during a closed-door meeting with the House Democratic Caucus, according to a White House official who was present.

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“But after listening to Dick and Al, I’m never going to complain again.”


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