This article was updated.
In perhaps the most soft-spoken speech of the night, Chelsea Clinton delivered on her task of painting an intimate image of her mother on Thursday (July 28), offering glimpses into her childhood in the political spotlight. In a speech sprinkled with anecdotes, and small, moving moments, she revealed to the world far more of the private Hillary than another presumptive first daughter, Ivanka Trump, did of her father. While Ivanka seemed more of a First Lady to Donald Trump in her speech, Chelsea embraced her role of First Daughter—one that she knows so well.
“My earliest memory is my mom picking me up after I had fallen down, giving me a big hug and reading me Goodnight Moon,” she said.
Chelsea’s speech was the climax of a motherhood theme that had permeated the entire convention, as Hillary’s campaign sought to humanize her, and make her seem more relatable. “Every day that I spend as Charlotte and Aiden’s mother, I think about my own mother, my wonderful, thoughtful, hilarious mother,” Chelsea started off.
Hillary, through Chelsea’s words, emerged as a wise, kind mother and a devoted grandmother, who will suspend campaigning to FaceTime with her granddaughter. “She’ll drop anything for a few minutes of blowing kisses and reading ‘Chugga-Chugga Choo-Choo’ with her granddaughter,” she said. “I loved that my parents expected me to have opinions and be able to back them up with facts. I never once doubted that my parents cared about my thoughts and my ideas. That feeling of being valued and loved, that’s what my mom wants for every child.”
And then, in Chelsea’s touching conclusion, Hillary became a daughter herself: “Mom, Grandma would be so, so proud of you tonight.”
A week ago, Ivanka Trump took the stage at the Republican National Convention in Cleveland to introduce her father as the party’s official presidential nominee. Depending on whom you talk to, Ivanka did a solid job. But her evaluation period isn’t over: Tonight, Chelsea Clinton will do the same for her mother.
Comparisons are inevitable, particularly given that this dueling daughters setup is unprecedented. In taking on these speeches, both women have shouldered enormous burdens.
Even in a normal presidential election year, cueing up the nominee’s acceptance speech is usually a critical role—a peak prime-time moment to endear the candidate to the public, a final chance to defuse damaging perceptions. This year, the American public really dislikes both Donald Trump and, to a lesser extent, Hillary Clinton.
So how does a kid redeem their parent’s character? The answers tell us a lot about the fundamental struggles of this election.
What the people want to know
For most presidential candidates, the convention is a chance to introduce their family—and usually themselves–to the American public. Not so this year. Pretty much everyone knows who Clinton and Trump are. The problem they face is, whatever they’ve done so far to reveal their personal side to voters, it’s not exactly winning over the masses. Experts on political speech largely agree that a key way to do that is to make people relate to you. And getting to know the candidate’s family is a big part of that.
“In the television age there’s been a progressive move toward personalization [of politics],” says Kathleen Hall Jamieson, director of the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania and a professor of political rhetoric. “As you make that move and you expect to learn more about your candidates, it’s natural that you’d see more family members speaking on behalf of candidates.”
To some extent, the Trump clan has an advantage thanks to the long-running reality TV show, The Apprentice. Plus, pere Trump and his children are very active on social media, an increasingly important avenue for building the candidate’s public persona.
As for Clinton, it’s kind of astonishing that, even after being in the national public eye for nearly 30 years, people still don’t feel like they get her. And actually, her high profile might be part of the problem, says Robert Rowland, a professor of political rhetoric at the University of Kansas.
“Polls suggest that people find her calculating and believe that she acts based on politics not her personal values,” he says. “In addition, she has been on the national stage for such a long time that it is difficult to change her image.”
“Chelsea is in a unique position to show us the softer and therefore more authentic side of Mrs. Clinton,” says Rowland.
So how do you do that—especially if you’re Trump or Clinton, whose lives resemble the typical American’s hardly at all? Focusing on parenthood is a good place to start.
Being like us
Bill Clinton’s speech on Tuesday left us with an indelible image: Hillary kneeling on the floor of Chelsea’s freshman dorm room, trying to find another surface to put drawer-liner in so as not to have to leave.
That fragile moment the nest goes empty is one most parents can relate to (if they ignore the uber-elite setting). And Bill was building toward the biggest, most carefully crafted theme of the convention so far: the paramount responsibilities of parenting—and that Hillary is “the best mother in the whole world.”
The anecdote’s great, but the messenger isn’t. Most people already have a strong opinion about Bill, whether because of his presidency or his knack for sexual scandals. Chelsea’s challenge is to paint a similar image of a deeply devoted mother—one Americans can see themselves in.
Contrast that with the only real anecdote of Ivanka’s speech: “In the same office in Trump Tower where we now work together, I remember playing on the floor by my father’s desk, constructing miniature buildings with Legos and erector sets, while he did the same with concrete, steel and glass.”
The rhetorical basis for this vignette was Ivanka’s image of her father as a builder of skylines. But particularly coming after her brother, Donald Jr., said something similar, it came across more as a glum reminder that Trump wasn’t exactly the Norman Rockwell picture of American fatherhood.
“[Ivanka and her siblings] didn’t tell stories about all the wonderful things their father did that are ordinary childhood experiences—there was no coaching soccer team or taking them to ballet classes. They were sitting on floor of his office and playing with things that look like his buildings,” says Jamieson.”If the purpose of the speech is to establish that the candidate shares your values and is good at parenting, being able to fill in those specific details is important.”
It’s not exactly Ivanka’s fault that, having been raised hardly at all by Trump, she had lousy material to work with. Plus, since the Republican convention came before the Democrats’, she had to set the competitive bar. On top of that Trump followed her speech with a grim, dystopian epic that cast him as a cosmic sheriff, the country’s only hope for law and order. That pretty much dashed Ivanka’s primly laid case for her father’s empathy and compassion.
Finally, with the exception of one of Trump’s business partners, no other RNC speakers tried to illustrate Trump’s personality much at all—which stacks the odds of having the more effective speech strongly in favor of Chelsea, says Tammy Vigil, political communications professor at Boston University.
“Chelsea’s challenge is less so than Ivanka’s because so many other speakers have already started the process. The 9-11 speakers and the Mothers of the Movement ladies on Monday tied the personal to the political and tried to show the caring side of Clinton. Bill was all about the humanizing,” she says. “Chelsea is part of a team of humanizers while Ivanka kind of had to stand alone.”
In other words, when Chelsea steps up to the podium tonight, she come armed with far richer experiences with which to illustrate her mother’s character. It’s highly likely that Hillary’s speech will amplify Chelsea’s, rather than taking off, Trump-style, in a totally different direction. And if her speech focuses on describing her mom as a superior parent, she will be riding the crest of a theme of the importance of motherhood that has been building all week.
Then again, it might not really matter. As with so much else in this campaign, the rules don’t seem to apply to Trump. His problem, points out Rowland, is that some think he’s an unqualified extremist, not that he’s seen as inauthentic, the way Clinton is. The skeptics aren’t likely to changed their minds because of he coached a kiddie soccer league. His authenticity, on the other hand, comes from his claim to strength and tenacity—and that he’ll govern America with the same legendary—or perhaps more appropriately, mythical—knack for running his businesses.
Maybe Ivanka wasn’t testifying to Trump’s hidden humanity at all. In many ways, her speech makes less sense as a paean to a father than to a boss—one who who raised not children, but heirs to a multi-billion-dollar Trump brand empire that she and her siblings happen conveniently to embody. America too can thrive under the strong hand of this great, benevolent corporate overlord, Ivanka told voters last week.
“Judge his values by those he’s instilled in his children. Judge his competency by the towers he’s built, the companies he’s founded and the tens of thousands of jobs he’s created,” she said. “He is the single most qualified person to serve as the chief executive of an 18-trillion-dollar economy.”
Tonight, Chelsea might perfectly advance the case for America’s first mother in chief. But if Ivanka’s bet is right, it’s a chief executive the people want.