In Little Rock, it’s impossible to forget the Clintons.
There’s always something to remind you about them in the city—the airport, libraries, schools and streets are named for either Bill or Hillary, or both. Their only daughter, Chelsea Clinton, who was in town on Friday, doesn’t have anything in her honor but just give the city’s leaders time.
While seemingly every Arkansan of a certain age has a story to tell about meeting Bill Clinton, that’s not the case for Chelsea despite spending the first 12 years of her life in Little Rock when her father was governor. The closest one get’s is a few millennials who remember staying at the Governor’s Mansion for sleepovers with Chelsea in elementary school and appearing in a play or playing softball with her on the Hillcrest Softball Team but even these stories are vague at best.
She’s a mystery to most Arkansans—just that curly-headed girl of Bill and Hillary’s who was off limits to the press for years whose accent definitely doesn’t sound like a native of Arkansas.
"Because Chelsea left Arkansas before she gave any interviews or had a public life beyond being on stage with her parents, she is not someone with a deep persona except with those young people she knew and their parents,” Jay Barth, a political science professor at Hendrix College, said. “Thus, most Arkansans are not unlike other Americans in their knowledge of Chelsea.”
Chelsea’s out to change that.
She visited Little Rock on Friday to promote her new book “It's Your World: Get Informed, Get Inspired & Get Going!" for tweens and teens. She barely mentioned her parents at three book promotional stops on Friday that included an elementary school she once attended, a children’s library named in honor of her mother and a lecture series connected to her father’s public school of service.
Instead, Chelsea was her own one-woman show, trying to reclaim her Arkansas roots and connect with teens on activism like a cerebral version of Taylor Swift.
The 35-year-old packed the city’s downtown convention hall with 1,500 people on Friday night when most people have high school football on their minds instead of listening to a former president’s daughter. The Clinton Foundation said that it was a record attendance for its Kumpuris Distinguished Lecture Series, which has featured Bill, Hillary, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and other politicians.
“I’m excited more people came to see me than my parents,” Chelsea said. “We’re a very competitive family.”
Cynics see her return to Arkansas—she doesn’t come often—as a sly maneuver to subliminally promote her mother’s presidential race. Arkansas Republicans, who still live by the rule that it’s not nice to publicly speak unkindly about Bill and Hillary’s daughter, said that her visit and the timing of her book’s release was clearly politically motivated.
“She's nowhere near being Arkansan,” one conservative mover-and shaker said. “She is as usual using her parents as a spring board for her career. It's how she got her TV gig, and now she makes her living off their foundation.”
During her speech, Clinton shared stories about reading the state’s two newspapers—now there is only one—while growing up in Arkansas because she was curious and her parents were always talking about the world. She showed a slide from when she played softball for a Little Rock neighborhood team. She tried to play volleyball but was horrible in the sport, she said.
Sitting before the crowd in a blue dress and black cardigan, she confessed that she once cheated on a spelling test but felt so ashamed she confessed it to her teacher. She told the audience, which included many of her parents’ old friends, political supporters and teenage girls, that she started a recycling program at her school and cut up plastic soda rings so that birds in Louisiana and Mississippi wouldn’t choke on plastic. She felt like she made a small difference in the world and so could other kids.
Moms in the audience rocking Hillary Clinton 2016 t-shirts may have been disappointed that Chelsea didn’t discuss her mother’s presidential campaign at all, but their daughters fell in love with her.
“I didn’t even know who she was,” Samantha Steinberg, 13, said. “But I think she is pretty cool now.”
Chelsea impressed Steinberg, who wants to one day own a business that will positively change people’s lives.
“She showed me you can have an effect in everyday life,” Steinberg said.
Hundreds of people including gaggles of Girl Scouts stood in line for more than two hours for Chelsea to sign their books.
“I thought she was really interesting,” Girl Scout Morgan Mitchell, 11, said. “Especially how she has helped all of these young girls around the world. She’s saying women can be more like men, they aren’t appreciated enough and we need to change that.”
While girls may be all about the empowerment Chelsea preaches, the Chelsea is the sole heir to the Clinton political dynasty, and the girls who now are charmed by her don’t want the Clintons’ reign to end with Hillary whether she wins or loses in 2016. They want Chelsea to run. Many wanted to know why she wasn’t running for president now instead of her mother.
One little girl even asked Chelsea if she would run for president while she signed her book. Chelsea answered that she didn’t plan to but never say never—spoken like a true Clinton.