Chelsea and Bill Clinton on ‘Change-Makers,’ the Youth Vote, and More

Eleanor Clift reports on a joint interview with Chelsea and Bill Clinton on youth involvement in politics.

If you want to have your spirits boosted about what is possible, bring together a thousand young people from around the world and get them talking about what they’re doing to create positive change.

That’s what the fifth annual Clinton Global Initiative University did earlier this month at George Washington University. There is a sense that to whom much is given, much is expected, said one of the meeting’s more famous attendees, Chelsea Clinton, recalling her volunteer work in her Stanford days. Now that she is somewhat of an elder stateswoman at age 32, she said, she sees today’s students looking not only for a way to contribute but to become “change makers” themselves.

“I hope that young people will also look to politics as a vehicle to not only have their voices heard, but actually to be the change makers that they want to see. They are disaffected, understandably, but I hope that young people will not only turn out to vote but also run for office,” she said in an interview with Tim Farley that ran over the weekend on SiriusXM.

Clinton cited an American University study that found women with similar credentials were two thirds less likely to think they were qualified to run than men, and that women had to be asked an average of seven times to become a candidate, while it only takes one ask for a man to throw his hat in the ring. Asked why, Clinton cited as one factor loss of privacy, “something that I’m not unempathetic to,” she said.

Though Clinton is now part of the media as a correspondent for NBC’s “Making a Difference” series, she remains press shy, very private, and parsimonious with her words. Asked if she is enjoying making a difference, she responded with one word, “Deeply.” Asked what it’s like being on that side of the camera, she said she feels privileged to be able to highlight people and projects that she believes are “scalable.” Then she steered the conversation back to the Clinton Global Initiative University, which she said embodies that goal.

President Clinton joined his daughter in the interview and spoke about the differences between his generation and the young people assembled for the CGIU. When people his age were young (Clinton is 64), they demonstrated for civil rights or against the war in Vietnam, trying to get the government to change. “It wasn’t like you were supposed to take affirmative action to step into the breach ... That’s what these kids do—they get that. They know they live in a world where they have to define their citizenship by not just telling other people what to do, but by doing something.”

It’s an activist generation, and their activism is enhanced because they are tech savvy, a term Clinton said couldn’t be applied to him when he took office in 1993. The average cellphone then weighed five pounds, and there were 50 sites on the Internet. “More than that has gotten added since this interview started,” he said. Congress subpoenaed White House emails, “so I sent a grand total of two,” he said. Clinton recalled Vice President Al Gore declaring that he wanted all of the Library of Congress to be on the Internet, “and people thought it was a fool’s errand. Now it seems like a puny aspiration.”

Each year’s CGIU challenges students to compete for the best new idea, and this year’s winners were three GW students who assembled a bamboo bicycle that is affordable and sustainable for use in developing countries. For next year’s challenge, Clinton is partnering with Pete Peterson, a prominent businessman and deficit hawk, to get students to come up with plans to reduce the deficit and compete in how to market and advertise their plans to the public. Clinton noted that Peterson is a Republican, and that while Clinton is more liberal, “he knows I don’t want America to be in bondage to unsustainable debt.” Clinton said. “I love working with him,” Clinton exclaimed, and said that the 83-year-old Peterson told him, “I’m too old to get in a fight. I just want to get something done.”

Asked whether he thought this generation is ready to go to the polls again and vote for an institution a lot of them have found wanting, Clinton acknowledged the disappointment, the result of high unemployment among young people, but said, “Their dropping out of politics is about the dumbest thing they can do.” And because these young people are smart and have figured out how things work, he believes they will come back into politics. “They want their lives to matter, and they understand, in a way that my generation didn’t, how interdependent we all are, both within America and beyond our borders ... They know if their ideas are good enough ... Who knows? Maybe it will be taken up by somebody and sweep the world.”