First Time Out

Chelsea Clinton Makes Her Low-Key Debut on NBC’s ‘Rock Center’

She’s a bit reserved for television—but still has that classic Clinton poise. Howard Kurtz on the former first daughter’s premiere on NBC.

Daniel Berehulak / Getty Images

After devoting her life to shunning the spotlight, Chelsea Clinton eased onto the public stage Monday night in a new and unaccustomed role: journalist.

The former president’s daughter made her debut on NBC’s Rock Center, the newsmagazine hosted by Brian Williams, who introduced her as one of his two new colleagues: “Ted Koppel and Chelsea Clinton.” Rarefied company indeed.

Chelsea campaigned hard for her mom in 2008, but the truth is that most Americans have never heard her voice. So how’d she do?

Her “Making a Difference” segment focused on Annette Dove, a spunky African-American woman in Pine Bluff, Ark., who is working with underprivileged kids. In the opening moments we saw Clinton hugging Dove; doing a walk-and-talk shot; helping Dove make cornbread in front of a class. “She’s created a model for how to meet all her kids’ needs under one roof,” Clinton informed us.

It was a typical, slickly produced network puff piece, the only bit of negative data being that Dove is so dedicated she had to declare bankruptcy.

Chelsea doesn’t “pop” off the screen, to use an industry term—her demeanor is reserved, she doesn’t project her voice like a broadcaster. Not that most viewers probably cared.

Her best moments were in the subsequent conversation with Williams. Though slightly nervous, she seemed sincere, and her careful cadence, empathetic gaze, and beaming smile were instantly reminiscent of Hillary.

The talk had a scripted quality, however. When Williams asked, in effect, why she was emerging from her protective cocoon, Clinton said: “For most of my life, I did deliberately lead a private life, and did inadvertently lead a public life”—almost the same words she used in her only interview, with The New York Times. She went on to say, as she had told the Times, that her late grandmother Dorothy Rodham, “had been cajoling and challenging me” to make something of her worldwide recognition, and “I hope to make her proud.”

Clinton’s hiring was a bit of a publicity gimmick for NBC, of course, and lots of journalists would have run over their grandmothers for the job that went to the secretary of state’s daughter. But in an era when Jenna Bush and Meghan McCain also made the leap from political offspring to television semi-stardom, name recognition is the coin of the realm.

Clinton (who recently joined the board of IAC/InterActive Corp., co-owner of Newsweek and The Daily Beast) has had reason to be wary of the media, which largely left her alone when she lived in the White House as an awkward teenager but has increasingly treated her as another celeb. She spoke to the Times about how she and her husband, Marc Mezvinsky, are “being hounded by the paparazzi for the silly reason du jour.”

Has Chelsea Clinton belatedly found her calling? She’s not going to cover politics, for obvious reasons. But if she can loosen up a bit, this could be a pretty good niche.