When the introductory music stopped Friday night at the Clinton Foundation’s latest meeting Friday, the star who took the stage in Miami before a hundreds of young activists wasn’t a former president, governor, senator or secretary of state. Rather it was Chelsea Clinton, the daughter who had watched her parents inhabit all of those roles, ready to claim her own moment in the spotlight. “All sorts of sounds are very welcome,” she told the crowd to hoots and cheers. “Interactive is what we love.”
Former President Bill Clinton still might be the biggest draw at the Clinton Foundation, and Hillary Clinton is certainly the most talked about, as she prepares a second campaign for the White House. But at the Clinton Global Initiative University meeting, Chelsea Clinton took the lead role, playing host, judge, motivational speaker and master of ceremonies through much of the first day. While her father was scheduled to host four of the weekend’s sessions, Chelsea was scheduled to take five. On a cleared-out University of Miami basketball court, where bleachers and ballers had given way to a sea of students and green chairs, she was playing point guard. About 1,100 students from more than 80 countries came to listen to panels and learn how to organize their own aid projects, and the sitting area was packed. She told crowd that she hoped they would come to all the speaker sessions—“not just the ones where my dad will be on stage.” The students cheered in response.
“She makes you feel like you’re the only one in the room,” Nick Pugh, a 19-year-old American student studying at the University of Edinburgh, said of the 35-year-old on stage. “And in that way she reminds me of her father.”
Chelsea played an active role in Hillary’s 2008 campaign, giving stump speeches and question-and-answer sessions on colleges campuses across the country. Seven years later, after a stint as an on-air correspondent at NBC News, Chelsea, now 35, is a far more experienced speaker with a penchant for connecting with young crowds, a skill that could come in handy in the upcoming race, particularly with a mother who has often struggled to engage personally with audiences. Her ubiquity at the sun-soaked campus at the University of Miami over the weekend reflected the new role she is playing in the philanthropic endeavors her father began in 14 years ago. She became vice chair in 2013, the same year the charity was renamed the Bill, Hillary and Chelsea Clinton Foundation.
Her opening remarks ran just 10 minutes, and it was her father who got a standing ovation among this activist-minded crowd when he later appears on stage. But she ran the show at an earlier, smaller event in the glass-sheathed student center hours earlier, where Chelsea judged a so-called Codeathon from a sunlit room on the building’s top floor, as students nursed cups of beer nearby. She was plainly excited: students had been working on apps like “SeaZar,” which would crowd source data on coral reefs’ health status from smartphone-wielding diving instructors, and “Tik,” which aims to educate mothers in rural Mexico on nutrition. Most of the presenters were younger than 25, and they had come from London and North Dakota for this Chelsea-organized event.
Chelsea sat at the judge’s table, taking notes notes between sips of San Pellegrino seltzer, dabbing celery into a hummus dip as she listened. Young attendees said later they were won over by her pragmatic questions: How do you actually incentivize dive shops to take part in SeaZar’s coral reef data collection? Where’s the funding for that quit-smoking app going to come from? She told students she loved math, and mentioned her own motherhood several times; her daughter, Charlotte, was born in September. “I believe mothers will do anything and everything for their children, and that’s a universal unimpeachable truth around the world,” Chelsea said.
Left unspoken was the question that Chelsea will soon need to answer for the world. Are children willing to do the same for their mothers, especially when they run for the highest office in the land?