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Written by Ed Lengel

William Jefferson Clinton’s Child


William Jefferson Clinton, the forty-second president of the United States, was born on August 19, 1946, in Hope, Arkansas. His birth name was William Jefferson Blythe III, after his father, who had been killed in a traffic accident before his son was born. His mother, Virginia Cassidy, subsequently married Roger Clinton, whose family name “Bill” Clinton adopted in high school. He graduated from Georgetown University with a degree in foreign service; received a Rhodes Scholarship to Oxford University, and earned a law degree from Yale University in 1973. Clinton immediately entered politics in Arkansas, but his first bid for election to Congress failed in 1974.

On October 11, 1975, Clinton married Hillary Rodham, whom he had met at Yale. His first major political post was as Attorney General of Arkansas from 1977-1979; subsequently, he served as governor of Arkansas from 1979-1981, and again from 1983-1992. Defeating George H.W. Bush in the presidential election of 1992, Clinton went on to serve two terms as president, from 1993-2001. Although the economy boomed under his watch, and he easily won reelection, Clinton garnered mixed reviews for his handling of a series of foreign policy challenges; his reputation was marred by sexual misconduct scandals, and an impeachment in 1998.

Hillary Rodham Clinton, meanwhile, defied convention of previous First Ladies by pursuing a political career of her own. A graduate of Wellesley College and Yale Law School, she maintained an active public role as First Lady of Arkansas, and the United States; in 2000 she was elected to the first of two terms as a U.S. Senator from New York and served until 2009. That year, President Barack Obama appointed her Secretary of State, a role in which she continued until 2013. In 2016, her long-anticipated bid for the presidency was defeated by Donald Trump.

Chelsea Victoria Clinton

Bill and Hillary Clinton’s only child was born on February 27, 1980, in Little Rock, Arkansas, while her father was governor. She attended public schools in Little Rock, but was also raised to be politically active and socially conscious. She started reading newspapers at the age of four, and, as she said, “my parents expected me to have an opinion about what I thought the most important stories were, and then to be able to muster an argument in support of what I thought was right or wrong. They taught me early on the difference between opinion and fact.” At age five, she wrote a letter to then-President Ronald Reagan imploring him not to visit a military cemetery in Bitburg, Germany, in which Waffen-SS soldiers were buried. Chelsea’s schoolteachers said she was “precocious,” albeit not in a good way, although her parents approved. [1]

Perhaps no presidential child has ever been exposed to as much public scrutiny—and criticism—as Chelsea Clinton. When her father became president in 1993, she was described as a typical twelve-year-old girl who “likes ballet and plays a solid third base in softball, [and] eats macaroni and cheese and broccoli, and giggles and dotes on her father.” Her parents asked the media to stay away from their daughter, but the request was only partially honored. Among others, Saturday Night Live aired a skit mocking her appearance and awkwardness. When Chelsea entered the private Sidwell Friends School in 1993, critics immediately accused her parents of elitism, and prying reporters looked to garner information on her many visits to the White House, including birthday parties. Children polled for their thoughts on whether they would trade places with her overwhelmingly said no because, as one respondent said, “I personally don’t think I could take the media pressure.”[2]

The pressure would only increase, for just after Chelsea Clinton graduated from Sidwell in 1997, her president was plunged into sexual misconduct scandals and impeachment. In February 1999, People magazine ran a cover story titled “Grace Under Fire” that investigated how Bill Clinton’s family was handling the scandals, despite criticism from the family and some members of the press. Her decision to go to Stanford University, where she studied history, also came under scrutiny. She would subsequently receive a master’s degree and Ph.D. from Oxford University in international relations. [3]

Although she tried to stay out of the limelight during her father’s presidency, Chelsea Clinton has pursued an active public life since then, and worked for her mother’s 2008 and 2016 presidential campaigns. She has promoted numerous national and international charities; written several books for children and adults; served as a special correspondent for NBC; and worked on behalf of the Bill, Hillary, and Chelsea Clinton Foundation. In 2010 she married Marc Mezvinsky, with whom she has three children. Through it all, Chelsea Clinton has tried to maintain the high ground. “For me, maybe because I’ve had so much vitriol flung at me for as long as I can literally remember, people saying awful things to me even as a child, I’ve never found it productive, personally, to engage in that way,” she told an interviewer in 2018. “To retaliate with crass language or insult someone personally—I just don’t think I’m built that way.”[4]

Ed Lengel is the Chief Historian at the National Medal of Honor Museum; Arlington, Texas

[1] People.com, April 26, 2018, https://people.com/books/chelsea-clintons-letter-to-ronald-reagan-revealed-in-her-new-book/; Guardian (U.K.), May 26, 2018, https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2018/may/26/chelsea-clinton-vitriol-flung-at-me

[2] Associated Press, November 6, 1992; February 28, 1994; Hartford Courant, August 15, 2000; https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/documents/remarks-the-cbs-this-morning-town-meeting; San Bernadino County Sun, June 13, 1995.

[3] New York Times, February 4, 1999; Chicago Tribune, February 9, 1999; Associated Press, February 4, 1999.

[4] Guardian (UK), May 26, 2018, https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2018/may/26/chelsea-clinton-vitriol-flung-at-me