“We don’t care about money here.”
“Well, that’s because you have it.”
“Would you repeat that?”
“You don’t care about money because you’ve always had it.”
—“The Aviator,” 2004
This Telegraph interview with Chelsea Clinton reveals a number of facets of the once and future first daughter which make her the perfect representative of her Millennial generation. She has the fickle but sincere flightiness over everything from career to diet, the waywardness of the overeducated and underchallenged, the comfort of comprehensive knowledge of the new sins, the inner child of Bart Simpson, the gluten allergy … but of course the gluten allergy.
“Fried chicken is my husband’s favourite food,” she divulges in her office at the Clinton Foundation in Manhattan, where she lives in a 10 million dollar apartment. The first time her then-boyfriend, now-husband, Marc Mezvinsky visited Little Rock, she whisked him off to her favourite childhood fried-chicken hole. In New York, she explains, he’ll now “gorge himself on fried chicken”. Chelsea insists she would too, were it not for an allergy to gluten. “I was a vegetarian for 10 years, a pescatarian for eight. Then I woke up one day when I was 29 and craved red meat,” says Chelsea, now 34, who recently announced she is expecting her first child. “I’m a big believer in listening to my body’s cravings.”
The primary difference between Chelsea and most of her fellow Millennials, of course, is that she has the luxury of having enough money to not care about money. She lives in a 10 million dollar apartment, had a 3 million dollar wedding, and gets paid 600,000 dollars a year to spend most of her time not working, and when she does work, it’s on camera… which, if you think about it, is pretty much the Millennial dream. Her career track reads like the resume of someone with more connections than she knows what to do with:
For a decade after graduating from Stanford in 2001, Chelsea experimented with the world beyond the Clinton machine. In peripatetic bursts, she tried out international relations, then management consulting, then Wall Street, then a PhD. She even signed on as an NBC News “special correspondent”. She rationalises this career promiscuity as a hallmark of being just another Millennial, experimenting until she figures out her professional purpose. But, of course, she’s not just another Millennial. She’s political royalty. And now, finally, she has decided to join the Clinton family business.
Yes, she’s now vice-chair of that little non-profit, the “recently rebranded” Bill, Hillary & Chelsea Clinton Foundation. Why did she choose to ditch the glamour of the go-go business life for the relative quiet of philanthropic endeavors?:
“It is frustrating, because who wants to grow up and follow their parents?” admits Chelsea. “I’ve tried really hard to care about things that were very different from my parents. I was curious if I could care about [money] on some fundamental level, and I couldn’t. That wasn’t the metric of success I wanted in my life. I’ve talked about this to my friends who are doctors and whose parents are doctors, or who are lawyers and their parents are lawyers. It’s a funny thing to realise I feel called to this work both as a daughter and also as someone who believes I have contributions to make.”
Within this conversation with Chelsea, meant to be little more than a puff piece, you see all the reasons for why Hillary Clinton lost the youth vote in 2008, and how she could lose the whole thing in 2016. How could her daughter’s generation have fallen for the inexperienced Barack Obama over the wiser, more tested woman? And how could a generation of wayward slackers once again pass on the opportunity to break that last glass ceiling? Chelsea shows us how. A fickle generation making up a sizable portion of a party’s voting base (and an expected third of voters in 2016) paired with an out of touch one percent candidate who hasn’t run for anything in eight years is looking like a worse deal all the time.
Hillary may, of course, cruise to the White House over a Republican Party that can’t decide what it is. Two months ago, she looked like a solid presidential candidate, with all the wind at her back and the clearing assistance of a generation of women in media dedicated to her advancement. But after the past few weeks of the contours of a crash-and-burn scenario are now in pretty clear view. She could still pull it off, of course – but the possibility of disaster, once so foreign to the conversation, now seems more feasible.
There’s something that Democratic leaders don’t seem to understand about Hillary now versus Hillary in 2008 or 2000. We’re a country that overwhelmingly caters to the biases of the youngest voters – terrified of growing old, we’re always chasing after the whims of the young. And it is going to be difficult to do so with a candidate who is so “old”. This has nothing to do with her age, mind you: it’s that her cultural apex came over a decade ago. It’s not that she’s decrepit, it’s that she’s terribly uncool. Shepard Fairey can’t do anything with this that won’t come across as a nostalgic meme. It’d be like rebooting Friends or trying to bring back slap bracelets. If the Hillary of 2000 was Seinfeld, the Hillary of 2016 is the Seinfeld Super Bowl commercial.
In the American past, experience, stability, and reliability in the public square was viewed as a virtue, something you wanted in a president. But presidential contests don’t look like that any more. The stable, solid, and familiar is just boring. A contest between old and busted versus new hotness is no contest at all. The kid glove questions which Hillary experiences when being interviewed by fawning female reporters are a far cry from what happens when someone asks her an actual, you know, question. Looking at how Hillary struggled with the gay marriage question is just a part of this. That’s an issue she was on the opposite side of in her electoral career because of the context of the times – but where she apparently expected that to play in her favor, it doesn’t at all for a generation of listeners for whom there is no history prior to Google. Hanging around TED, Gstaad, and the Aspen Institute, where Hillary is all women, no one’s going to be rude about it – but we’ll see what it’s like out on the trail.
What could that look like? There’s a hilarious little moment in Louis CK’s show where he’s trying and failing to hit on a nineteen-year-old NFL cheerleader who’s performing on a USO tour with him. He asks her about music, and she says she loves all kinds – he promptly names a series of prominent rock bands, none of which she’s ever heard of. When he asks about Aerosmith, he adds that the lead singer is Steven Tyler. Oh no, she says, as if correcting him – you mean The American Idol judge. That’s all she knows him as, and she has a hard time believing he was ever a singer.
Yes, Hillary Clinton could still get in touch with this generation. But the more her campaign resembles a fond resurrection of nineties nostalgia, the more it forces the “remember how great Windows 95 was” conversation, the more it reveals the dreadful truth that Hillary Clinton is quite possibly the least cool thing in American pop culture right now. The Clintons are morphing into Tom Wolfe characters before our eyes – except for the special unique snowflakes of Chelsea’s generation, Wolfe is 83 years old now, and his last book bombed.
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