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Chelsea Clinton: “I wish politics really operated like The West Wing”

The former First Daughter, whose father served as the 42nd US President from 1993 to 2001, said she watched the multiple-Emmy winning drama

When I was 16 I was a nerd. I was preoccupied with my reading and my studies. I also went to ballet every day after school, and I was quite serious about it. I remember clearly my mother coming into my room in the evening telling me I shouldn’t be doing my homework, I should be out with my friends and I needed a bit more balance in my life. She was completely correct, of course. But I was so curious and loved school.

I’d like to go back to my 12-year-old self, moving from Arkansas to the White House, so worried that I’d never make any new friends. My two best friends, both called Elizabeth, came to stay for a week or so during those first months. And for the first time my parents let me have a phone in my bedroom so I could call my friends whenever I wanted. So when I wasn’t doing school work or at ballet, I was on the phone talking to my friends back in Little Rock. We talked a lot. My parents did everything they could to allow me to nurture those friendships through my teenage years in Washington. They were very important to me, and they’re still my closest friends. I was a bridesmaid at both their weddings. We’ve always been deeply connected to each other.

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Chelsea looks on as her father is inaugurated as President of the United States in January 1993. Photo: Lief Skoogfors/CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images

I was never resentful about any restrictions on my life when I was a teenager. I don’t find resentment a helpful or comforting emotion. I always understood that the secret service had a job to do and I respected that and respected them. When I had to have protection I understood why. In fact I was quite grateful to the secret service staff and the way they treated my friends. Particularly the boys, who were fascinated by them. They were always so patient, answering endless questions about training and weapons, and what they would do in all the different situations my friends dreamt up for them.

I watched The West Wing when it came out and I remember thinking I wish politics really operated like that. Especially today. The idea of general agreements over shared goals and intense debate about how to reach those goals. Today in my country we don’t have a sense of shared ends – it’s quite the opposite of that at this precise moment.

In 1996, the year Chelsea Clinton turns 16…

  • A mass shooting sees 16 pupils and a teacher killed at Dunblane, Scotland
  • Braveheart is awarded Best Picture at the Oscars
  • Bill Clinton is re-elected as US president

If you met the 16-year-old Chelsea today you’d find her friendly – I was always very friendly. I understood it was my responsibility to help people overcome their preconceptions about me. I wanted to show that I’m not snobbish or hoity-toity. I was a blend of outgoing and quite geeky. I wasn’t shy or reticent, but I was not outwardly confident either. I’ve always had a strong sense of myself inside but I’ve never been brash or loud.

I was very aware of comments about my appearance in the media when I was young. I’ve thought about this a lot, especially as bullying is on the rise, and we have a president who is normalising hate. I was picked on at elementary school by some not very nice people – generally boys – who made fun of my appearance or locked me in my locker to see if state police would show up. But looking back I’m so grateful, and I feel this so deeply, that when it happened to me in Washington, it was these older men saying these mean things to a 12-year-old girl. I mean, it was crazy. Why were these old men picking on me? That said nothing about me and a whole lot about them. Something clearly hadn’t gone right for them in their lives and they were now trying to bully a child. So that helped me understand early in my life that when we’re being verbally abused by other people, it’s not about who we are, it’s all about the bullies.

I miss my grandmother Dorothy so much. I talk a lot about her to both of my children [she died in 2011, aged 92]. She was a huge part of my life and who I am now. She had a life I couldn’t imagine. She was born to teenage parents who struggled to be parents. They abandoned her for the first time when she was three and then when she was eight they basically gave up on her and her much younger sister and put them on a train from Chicago to
Los Angeles to live with their grandparents, who were harsh
at best.

When my grandmother was 14 she was told she had to start supporting herself, so she got a job and got herself through high school, graduating with honours. She was so determined and went on to create a home of hope and love for my mother and her brother. She was very wise but she was so much fun to be around as well. I wish she could have got to know her great-grandchildren. But I find it very moving that she was born before women had the right to vote, and lived long enough to see her daughter enter the race to be president.

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With mum Hillary and grandmother Dorothy at her 2010 wedding to Marc Mexvinsky. Photo: Barbara Kinney via FilmMagic

My 16-year-old self would be very surprised that I’m such a public person now. I used to be a very private person and expected to lead a very private life. It was partly because of my grandmother I became a more public person. She once told me I was Chelsea Clinton and there was nothing I could do about that. So I could either do something positive with the inevitable attention or I could live in a smaller way and learn to bear whatever Page Six was going to say about my rather boring life. My mother told me to take serious criticism seriously; it’s important to be open and receptive to the thoughts of your family, your friends, people who care about you. It’s equally important not to be curtailed by the criticism of bullies who don’t know you.

If I could go back to any time in my life… Am I going to give the answer that every woman gives? It’s when my children were born. I’d always hoped to be a mum, partly because I’m so close to my own mother. That moment of pure love and gratitude and joy. I’ve never felt anything like that again and nurturing that bond has been the best part of my life.

She Persisted Around the World by Chelsea Clinton, illustrated by Alexandra Boiger (Philomel Press, £12.99), is out now.

Image: Getty