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07.28.10

Father of the Bride

Bill Clinton, whose daughter was perhaps his only friend in his darkest days, says walking Chelsea down the aisle is the “most important job I’ll ever have.” Rebecca Dana and Lloyd Grove on their unshakable bond.

Amid all the speculation about this weekend’s long-awaited Rhinebeck wedding—the furtive trip to Vera Wang, the involvement of the MOTB—the sweetest storyline has been that of Chelsea and Bill. He, the sentimentalist, will try not to cry. She, the family stoic, has ordered her father to lose 15 pounds.

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At a cocktail party in New York one night this spring, surrounded by his usual crush of donors and admirers, Bill Clinton was asked about his daughter’s upcoming wedding.

“I’m getting ready for the most important job I’ll ever have: walking Chelsea down the aisle,” he said, with that uniquely Clintonian mix of pride and practice—as if it were the truest thing in the world and a line he’d uttered a thousand times before.

We’ve glimpsed evidence of their uniquely tight, unshakable bond over the Clintons’ decades in public office. It’s not just that she thinks like he does, or that she looks like he does, or even that at the darkest times of his presidency, she was pretty much his only friend. Bill and Chelsea are in their own world.

“He’s a doting dad, and about as proud a dad as you can imagine,” said a casual friend of the president’s, in attendance at that cocktail party. “He was basically talking about what a terrific young lady she is; he could not have been more positive and happy.”

Bill has always been positive and happy talking about his daughter, and has often seemed to prefer that subject over any other. “The president gave benignly cerebral responses on difficult topics of late, such as the aftermath of Deng Xiaoping’s death,” wrote Taylor Branch in his book The Clinton Tapes: Wrestling History with the President.  “Then he lingered on Chelsea’s 17th birthday.”

One story Clinton told Branch was from the family’s early years in the White House, when Chelsea was actively studying ballet. She set her mind on getting a part in The Nutcracker and devoted all waking hours to preparing for the audition. When she didn’t get it, she was crushed, depressed, unable to sleep.

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One night, a note appeared under her door, written on White House stationery and datelined “3 am” (a fateful hour for the Clintons). He couldn’t sleep either, he said, because he was so hurt by her hurt. He said he loved her and was proud of her. In her senior year at Sidwell Friends, the elite private school the Obama girls also attend, in a speech before her classmates and their fathers, Chelsea said she still reread the note every day.

“Chelsea was the only bright spot in the painful months following the election [when Bill lost the governor’s seat in 1980],” Hillary wrote in her 2003 book, Living History. It was just one of many times their only daughter helped keep the family upbeat during trying times.

“There is no question about his being a doting dad,” said a source close to the family. “He dreaded facing Chelsea when he finally had to ’fess up,” the source added, referring to the Lewinsky scandal.

From the famous picture of her holding both of her parents hands walking across the south lawn during that period to her clutch appearances with her mother during the end-times of the 2008 Democratic primary, she has often been the glue holding her family together.

In an interview with Dan Rather in December, 2000, at the end of Clinton’s second term, the CBS Evening News anchor asked about Chelsea.

“I love her, and I’m really proud of her,” Clinton replied.

“Do you expect her to run for something someday?” Rather asked.

“Oh, Lord, I kind of doubt it,” Clinton said. “She cares about public issues and public life, and she’s got a big heart. And she’s really interested in all of it, but I don’t know that she would ever run for office. But if she did, if she wanted to do it, I’d sure support her and do whatever I could to help her. But it’s totally up to her."

When Chelsea was 14, a group of people was watching Al Gore debate Ross Perot on Larry King Live in the White House residence, a witness recalls: “I remember that he was helping her with her math homework while we were watching the debate. He was doing what every parent does.”

In response to a question at a 1993 town hall meeting about why the Clintons chose private school for Chelsea, Bill went into Papa Bear mode.

“My daughter is not a public figure,” he said. “She does not want to be a public figure. She does not like getting a lot of publicity. And frankly, she has more privacy and more control over her destiny where she is than she would if she were at the public school that she was also interested in attending.”

At the spring cocktail party in New York, after Bill described his role in this weekend’s wedding as the most important of his life, a guest ventured another question—“Have they set a date?”—but Bill deflected, offering a five-minute disquisition on catfish farming in Haiti.

On the matter of Chelsea’s big day, the president has shown uncharacteristic message discipline, keeping his public comments short and sweet. As always, his demeanor suggests his bond with Chelsea while keeping it far from public view.

It recalls a scene from the 2007 book party for Terry McAuliffe’s memoirs. Held at the Four Seasons restaurant in New York, the event drew a vast thrall of Clintonites, many of whom will be in Rhinebeck this weekend. Bill and Chelsea arrived and schmoozed, surrounded by their respective entourages. At one point, they made eye contact across the crowded room and managed a private moment. A fellow guest watched him blow a kiss at her. In response, amid the clamor, Chelsea mouthed, “I love you.”

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Rebecca Dana is a senior correspondent for The Daily Beast. A former editor and reporter for The Wall Street Journal, she has also written for The New York Times, The New York Observer, Rolling Stone, and Slate, among other publications.

Lloyd Grove is editor at large for The Daily Beast. He is also a frequent contributor to New York magazine and was a contributing editor for Condé Nast Portfolio. He wrote a gossip column for the New York Daily News from 2003 to 2006. Prior to that, he wrote the Reliable Source column for the Washington Post, where he spent 23 years covering politics, the media, and other subjects.