Columns » Max Brantley

Chelsea Clinton and the lucky sperm club

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The New York Times carried a glowing profile Sunday about Chelsea Clinton's decision to step fully from the shadows and seek a public life.

She's joined a corporate board, gotten a job as a correspondent for NBC and has her pick of gatherings of the mighty or simply important just about anywhere on the globe.

Reactions tended to fall along partisan lines. Fans of Bill and/or Hillary Clinton were happy for their 31-year-old daughter. Non-fans weren't impressed. She'd done nothing to deserve her good fortune except choose good parents, they said. The really ugly ones criticized everything from her hairstyle to her speech.

I'm not impartial on the subject. I've known Chelsea since she was an infant, though most of my exposure came before her move to Washington in junior high. She's remained friendly with my daughter and has been good to her. That's enough for me.

But Chelsea is smart and poised. She's worked hard at demanding schools and jobs. Would she be precisely where she is today without her famous parents? Of course not. She hasn't claimed otherwise. (I do like how often she credits her Grandmother Rodham for sage advice.)

But she now has made the important decision to accept inheritance of her parents' considerable public franchise. If nothing else, her growth in the larger public world might position her to someday take leadership of the Clinton Foundation. If she's lucky — if we're all lucky — she will continue to amass the resources her father has raised for fighting significant global problems. If she should decide to try politics, she's been homeschooled by the best and brightest.

Make no mistake. Chelsea Clinton is a one percenter, if not precisely in the net worth category, close enough. She is also, if you prefer, a lucky sperm club member. But she manages to send a signal that she understands how much of her stature is owed to her parents. She signals a generosity of spirit about her good fortune that is more reminiscent of a Buffett than a Koch.

We will always have the 1 percent. There's nothing inherently evil about being in that small number. The question is how much the 1 percent is willing to allow the 99 percent to share. And how much they understand on their sometimes inherited perches that it takes more than a non-union school teacher or sweat of manual toil to overcome childhood deprivation.

You need not be wealthy to be a lucky sperm. I've been awfully lucky. Grandparents on both sides went to college or professional (nursing) schools, despite roots as descendants of pea patch farmers, mule skinners and German immigrants. My parents were both college graduates, one thanks to night-shift work in a Boeing factory, the other thanks to the G.I. bill.

My mother worked, but she also helped start a pre-school program with a trained teacher for children of working parents. We had shelves full of books. College wasn't a question of if, but which.

My dad, a salesman, got some pleasure out of measuring his success by the size of his commission checks. But he knew life held other satisfactions — family, travel, history, the life stories of any and all he encountered. He also shared my love for newspapers. He had no complaint when I bypassed his business for a job in a field not known for its riches.

What a lucky sperm I was. Inheritances are measured by more than checking accounts.

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