Going Public

updated 07/17/2000 at 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 07/17/2000 01:00AM

At a recent ceremony marking the arrival of Morocco's King Mohammed VI for a state visit, a voice boomed lover the South Lawn of the White House, "The President of the United States and Miss Clinton." A band struck up "Hail to the Chief," and all heads turned to see President Clinton stride onto the red carpet accompanied by his 20-year-old daughter, Chelsea. After the two greeted the king and his sister Princess Lalla Meryem, Chelsea placed a hand gently on the princess's back and guided her toward Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and other dignitaries assembled on the grass.

Throughout, Chelsea carried herself with the ease of a seasoned hostess. But, in fact, the June 20 state visit was a signal event. With First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton campaigning for the Senate in New York, it was the first time Chelsea, home for the summer after her junior year at Stanford University, had stood in for her mother at an official function. "We were all raving about her poise," says filmmaker Ken Burns, 46, who shared a table that night with a lavender-gowned Chelsea. "I was happy to be invited to dinner with the king, but the highlight of the night was being around Chelsea. She has her father's all-encompassing intelligence. She is scary bright."

Since 1992, when the nation first encountered her as a 12-year-old with wild curls and braces, Chelsea has been a visible yet largely remote figure. Without hiding her in the White House attic—Chelsea has accompanied her parents on foreign trips and campaign swings—the Clintons have guarded their daughter's privacy. But in recent weeks, despite the White House contention that Chelsea is playing the same supporting role to her parents that she always has, there has been something of a sea change. She still doesn't sit for interviews, but she has edged farther than ever into public view, whether standing in for her mother in Washington, D.C., or joining her on the campaign trail in New York.

"You'll be seeing some of me," Chelsea told reporters outside New York City's City Hall on June 26, where the First Lady met with Democratic and Jewish leaders. "She's going to be coming and going as she chooses," her mother said. "You'll see her sometimes, which will be a delight for me." And, it seems, for others. "She charms everyone," says ex-White House social secretary Letitia Baldrige. Adds Carl Sferrazza Anthony, a historian of First Ladies: "She has a wonderful, direct sort of voice. She looks like one of those old-fashioned girls who was trained to walk with a book on her head."

Indeed, Chelsea follows a long line of First Daughters who, officially or not, have played hostess—from Patsy and Maria Jefferson, who helped out their widowed father, to Susan Ford, who worked a 1974 state dinner while her mother, Betty, recovered from breast-cancer surgery. Before the Moroccan king's visit, Chelsea had attended just one state dinner, in 1996 for Irish President Mary Robinson. But in March she took a more public role, accompanying her father on a state visit to India. While there she even sported a traditional red dot on her forehead and scattered rose petals over the memorial of Mahatma Gandhi. "She had a lot of confidence," says Navtej Sarna, the Indian minister of external affairs. "She seems very deft at facing the camera and the media."

It remains to be seen how large a role Chelsea will play in the months to come. Neel Lattimore, Hillary's former press secretary, says that, as always, "she does as much or as little as she wants to do." And unlike Karenna Gore Schiff, a key player in her father's current run for the Presidency, Chelsea will certainly have no formal part in her mother's campaign. Still, some speculate that because her father's term is drawing to a close and because her mother just might need her to woo voters, we may see a lot more of her this summer. "She's not going to overexpose herself and have criticism that her parents are exploiting her for the campaign," says Baldrige. At the same time, she adds, Chelsea's appearance at a campaign stop can be "terribly helpful to Hillary Clinton. It warms her up in the public eye."

Richard Jerome
Macon Morehouse, Linda Kramer, Jane Sims Podesta and Sarah Skolnik in Washington, D.C., and Bob Meadows and Jennifer Longley in New York City

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