Thursday, April 10, 2008

Why Chelsea Clinton Matters, or Making Other People's Parents Cry

Senator Clinton also had to create a relationship with another significant relative,
her mother-in-law, Virginia Kelley. One op-ed writer takes note.

A candid photo of Senator Clinton and Heidi Li, taken just after their brief exchange about Chelsea Clinton, and mothers and only children/daughters
February 2005

It is fun to read about Chelsea Clinton and her role in Senator Clinton's campaign. Part of the fun lies in the fact that Chelsea is the first person in the country whose father AND mother have each made serious presidential bids. She may become the first person whose father AND mother will have served as President of the United States. It is also fun to read about Chelsea because, regardless of whether you support her mother's candidacy, Chelsea, we learn, is intelligent and poised, loyal without being blindly loyal, and highly competent.

But, one might well ask, lovely as those traits are and however unique Chelsea's position in the annals of American political history, why should a voter care about Chelsea Clinton? Answer: s/he should not. Voters should not care about Chelsea Clinton per se. What voters should care about is what Chelsea Clinton tells us about her mother's qualities as a potential President of the United States of America.

Children do not always provide meaningful evidence about anything to do with their parents. There are so many reasons why a parent's child may or may not be like or unlike the parent; why a child is successful or troubled (or both); whether the child is interested in the issues that a parent cares about or is bored to tears by those issues. Parents rarely fully forge their children's identity (although many parents might like to think they do, especially if the child has as many fine qualities as Chelsea Clinton seems to have.)

So what does matter about Chelsea Clinton as we assess her mother as a prospective President? The answer lies in how Senator Clinton relates to her daughter. That relationship, particularly Senator Clinton's role in it, can tell us something about how Senator Clinton relates to people more generally. (It does not tell us everything we need to know about that, and it bears remarking that my point holds equally true for fathers, and how they relate to their children.)

I do not have much more information than one can find in the newspaper, but I can report one recent episode that said a great deal to me about how Senator Clinton relates to her daughter and therefore indicated how Senator Clinton relates to people more generally. In late February, I had an opportunity to say a few words to Chelsea Clinton, and then to her mother, at an event both attended. Chelsea made a rushed appearance at this event before heading off to meet "young" voters. But as she departed, I had a moment to say to her that as an only child/daughter myself, I really understood what she's doing for her mother. Chelsea thanked me but did not seem to understand what my hurried comment really meant - and that made sense to me, because Chelsea Clinton is a 28 year old who was in a rush. But later in the evening, after Senator Clinton had made some serious remarks to the group about the campaign and her positions, I had the chance to speak to Senator Clinton informally. I told her what I had said to her daughter. I remarked that while Chelsea could not yet fully appreciate what I meant, Chelsea had certainly been very gracious and polite. Finally, I told the Senator that, as an only child/daughter, that when I see her and her daughter look at each other, I just "get" that look. And Senator Clinton said to me, quite spontaneously, "Now you're going to make me cry." That's just when the candid photograph above was taken.

As a recent Washington Post article makes clear, Senator Clinton has been careful to give Chelsea space when it comes to deciding how involved she wants to be in her mother's current enterprise. What my exchange with Senator Clinton made clear was that this space was just that: given. The space has nothing to do with how connected Senator Clinton is with her daughter. The exchange also made clear that the Senator appreciated somebody else noticing the bond she and her daughter enjoy.

What this tells voters about Senator Clinton is that she can see people as separate from her AND as connected to her. If a parent can do this with a child, achieve that dual perspective, that parent can do that with almost anybody. And that perspective - one that respects the otherness of another but also takes pleasure in connecting with her or with him - is a valuable one for somebody who will have to deal with all sorts of people who stand in varying relationships to the President of the United States. That perspective allows one to empathize with others without being their patsy. It enables one to agree to disagree with somebody and continue to work with him or her toward common goals. It is a perspective that is part of maturity and of wisdom.

Senator Clinton also had to create a relationship with another significant relative,
her mother-in-law, Virginia Kelley. One op-ed writer takes note.

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