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What Really Makes Chelsea Clinton Run (but not for Public Office)

A Commentary By Joe Conason

Thursday, August 15, 2013

To discover what Chelsea Clinton is doing with her life -- and why -- shouldn't pose much of a challenge to any reasonably industrious journalist. In recent months, after all, she has stepped into the spotlight to advance the causes that excite her. Yet the political press still seems far more inclined to ruminate over her supposed ambitions rather than report her real concerns.

Which, according to her include, among other things, an unshakeable obsession with diarrhea.

Speculation over the potential political future of the former First Daughter erupted Tuesday in Politico, on the CNN website and on the Washingtonpost.com political blog The Fix, which published "Where Chelsea Could Run" -- a close analysis of residency requirements for a New York City Council seat and her obvious lack of credentials to seek the New York state attorney general's office (she isn't a lawyer). It is true that she gave an opening for such stories by responding candidly to a question from CNN and the BBC, saying that she has no current plans to run for office but might consider entering politics "someday."

"I'm ... grateful to live in a city and a state and a country where I really believe in my elected officials and their ethos and their competencies," she said. "Someday, if either of those weren't true and I thought I could make more of a difference in the public sector, or if I didn't like how my city or state or country were being run, I'd have to ask and answer that question."

She went on to explain: "I really felt like I could make a difference and then I should make a difference. And I had very much led a deliberately private life for a long time, and now I'm attempting to lead a purposely public life."

As both news outlets noted, her response was exactly the same answer she has given to the same question in past interviews. Still the Post blogger insisted, "It's also clear she is leaving that door open." Yes, perhaps, but so what?

Comically enough, this flurry of pointless prognostication coincided with her latest trip to Africa, where she demonstrated precisely what she means when she mentions a public life -- namely, her role as the Clinton Foundation's vice chair and, increasingly, as its public face and spokesperson. She spent nine days with her father and a large contingent of foundation donors and press (including me) on a fast-paced, exhilarating and occasionally grueling tour through Malawi, Tanzania, Zambia, Rwanda, and South Africa, touching down at the sites of health clinics, agricultural projects, youth service organizations and other efforts to improve the lives of Africans.

The tumultuous welcome received by the Clinton delegation at every stop suggested the impact of the foundation's work, from life-saving AIDS medications and quality health services provided to millions across the continent to pioneering agricultural support for small farmers to major renewable energy projects -- as well as a newly announced initiative to produce and manufacture fortified foods in six African countries with the aim of ending child malnutrition on the continent.

All of the Clintons have visited Africa repeatedly -- at least nine or 10 times for the former president -- creating relationships that will serve their own country well as that continent's economic and political importance grow. This year, however, marked the 15th anniversary of Bill Clinton's historic 1998 presidential visit, which had been preceded by a tour that Chelsea and Hillary Rodham Clinton undertook the year before. While the American media covered some of those visits and ignored others, the wide-ranging philanthropic endeavors of the former president -- and now his daughter -- have almost always gotten inadequate attention (with CNN as the honorable exception).

Interviewed in Johannesburg on the current trip's final evening, Chelsea said she is bemused by all the strained conjecture about her prospective candidacy.

"Reading those stories, I just found it a bit bewildering, because what I said in my CNN interview as well as in my BBC interview are things I've said before and have said repeatedly before, whenever I've been asked. ... I keep saying the same thing because it continues to be true."

Having offered the same answer for two years whenever a reporter has asked whether she plans to run for elected office, she wonders, "Why is that news? I understand why maybe it was news the first time, but not now. And I understand why the CNN correspondent and the BBC correspondent would have asked about it, but not why it would have had kind of a ripple effect -- because it's something to which I've had a consistent answer and something I've had a very consistent feeling about."

Instead of recycling stale political guesswork, she says, "I wish that there was more interest in the work we're doing here [in Africa] on the part of the mainstream press -- the work that we're grateful to do and the work that I personally am now grateful to be part of. "

And if that doesn't attract more journalistic attention, she is willing to confess that "I personally am obsessed with diarrhea" -- meaning the symptoms of waterborne disease that leads to diarrhea, dehydration and death for millions of children annually across Africa. Aside from her growing experience in the field, she holds a master's in public health from Columbia University. "I wish that someone wanted to talk about diarrhea and why I think we really have the chance to eradicate diarrhea, even before every country across the African continent or across the world has strong public health systems of sanitation and clean water. ... Yes, I wish the mainstream media were interested in things like our growing work in diarrhea or the work that we're doing in agriculture or the work we're doing on HIV/AIDS and how important that is."

No wonder she is puzzled. If media outlets think their readers find Chelsea Clinton so fascinating, why don't they just report what she is actually doing?

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