Thursday, February 14, 2008

Is Chelsea Clinton a public figure?

With the recent controversy of MSNBC commentator David Shuster asking if Chelsea Clinton is being pimped out on the campaign trail by her parents, the question becomes—ignoring whether or not Shuster's comments are acceptable, drawing the line on good taste, slang and political correctness, an issue we'll return to time and again--if that's really true. After all, Chelsea is an adult, she makes her own decisions.

Chelsea's been in the news lately because all of sudden she's in the spotlight, campaigning for her mom, but she frustratingly won't give reporters what they want. She refuses to speak to all media, even declining an interview request by an eight-year old boy for Scholastic News, that little paper we got in elementary school as an introduction to the far-off world of current events. I’m sure many people thought it was silly, but she was sticking to her guns.

Chelsea is now 27, a hedge fund manager in New York City. While she has always been private—and opposite of those “hard-partying” Bush twins, she has been profiled in Talk magazine back in 2002, and even wrote a piece on her Sept. 11 experience. Since she was young, she was shy, yet the media tried to bring her into focus, as they are naturally inclined to do just as we are naturally inclined to be interested in the only child of one of the most powerful families in the world.

Despite going to Stanford and getting a degree at Oxford, like her father, she has managed to keep most of her life private. Good for her. Although the Clintons say that she isn’t a public figure, she’s put herself in that role, and knowing that by being their daughter, she runs certain risks. As the daughter of a presidential candidate, there will be some media attention. Any time you are a relative of a public official you run the risk of getting some media attention; it comes with the territory. Yes, it’s unfair, but that’s life. Heck, even President Truman’s daughter Margaret had her own obituary recently, and I bet not many people knew anything about her.

But once you thrust yourself in a role where you are talking to large groups of people to change their minds on a topic—actively campaigning—you lose your right to say you are completely a private figure.

The definition of a public figure differs by state, but generally, according to the AP Style Handbook, in New York "a public figure is one who has thrust himself or herself into the vortex of a public issue or controversy or has taken affirmative steps to attract public attention." In Texas, it's "one who has assumed a role of prominence in the affairs of society; California, "one who has voluntarily and actively sought in connection with any matter of public interest, to influence resolution of the issues involved."

That's exactly what Chelsea Clinton is doing. She's thrust herself in the limelight, so to speak, in a prominent role to influence a huge matter in society for the public interest.

While the notion that the Clintons and their machine are using their daughter for political game has some merit, it’s largely discredited by the fact that Chelsea is…their daughter. Children campaign for their parents. Did anyone mock all the hands-on effort any of the Romney sons did for dear ol’ dad? While Meghan McCain has gotten the most press because she writes a blog detailing all the wacky antics of going on the campaign trail, McCain has seven other children, ranging in age from 48 to 16. Other than the fact that all these kids are incredibly lucky in terms of the opportunities offered them (seriously, those are all the people getting all the internships at top-tier magazines…and Chelsea makes a six-figure salary), it's up to them if they're old enough if they want to campaign for their parents, and many of them take the opportunity. I would--what an experience! Remember when Giuliani’s kids made news because they refused to back up their dad—and his daughter listed that she supported Obama instead? That’s controversial.

Some might question why haven’t other presidential children gotten so much scrutiny. Meghan McCain, despite her blog, talks less about issues and more about what’s on her iPod. She also is much more behind-the-scenes than Chelsea is, and most people have never heard of her. McCain’s other children do not have an active role. Kerry’s children, when they were in the spotlight, were criticized. Obama’s children are too little. The Bush twins have had their fair share of media attention, the majority of it negative, with the exception of Jenna’s wedding announcement. And frankly, Chelsea’s been in the public eye for so long that she’d garner attention even if her mom wasn’t running for president.

Once Chelsea decided that she was going to actively make speeches on behalf of her mother, write articles, or otherwise make herself a visual, audible presence in her mother’s campaign she is seen as a public figure. She can, for the most part, continue what she’s doing. She’ll still lead a relatively quiet life compared to most other notable public figures, especially if her mother doesn’t get the nomination, and if she does—she’s an adult. She has her own apartment, her own, separate life.

If I was Chelsea, I’d speak to the press, because I believe that usually speaking is better than not saying anything. You can try to correct the record. Not speaking often just parlays into suspiciousness on behalf of those waiting for an answer: What are you hiding? While I don’t think Chelsea is hiding anything—she’s just private, and there is a difference, talking to the press might get them off her back.


Emily said...

First off, I love that you quoted the AP Style Handbook.

Chelsea is a public figure, but she wants to be able to have her cake and eat it too: talk when it is convenient for her or her mother, but then not have to deal with questions from the press. She wants to be able to give speeches to thousands of people and support the campaign, but then not have anyone criticize her. It can't happen that way.

I also think she's put in the spotlight more because America watched her grow up when Bill was president- and it's a pretty unlikely situation that one of the previous first daughters might become a first daughter a second time.

John said...

My gosh, I'm so far behind in my comments! (Actually, I commented on this and the chicken fingers entry already, but for some reason they never showed up.)

If I were still at WRPR and a new DJ asked me whether or not Chelsea Clinton is a public figure, I would unhesitatingly answer that she is. Anyone campaigning in the public eye, attempting to sway super-delegates is public enough for broadcasting. While I think that the comment by David Shuster was both inappropriate and bizarre, it should not have caused the media uproar that it did. Keith Olberman's apology was so exaggeratedly apologetic that it became an insult of its own. To warrant that level of apology, he (Olberman, not Shuster) would have had to call Chelsea a skank-whore-bitch to her face on national television and then slap her! But that's a discussion for another day...

mikhailbakunin said...

Chelsea Clinton isn't just campaigning for her mother, she's lobbying superdelegates on her mother's behalf. Of course she's a public figure.

That's the point that David Shuster was trying to make.

Also, I remember there was a pretty big uproar when Keith Olbermann said that President Bush was "pimping" General Petraeus. So, he really shouldn't be casting aspersions.