“Chelsea Clinton Startled by Monica Query”

The Taboo Question finally got asked; why was that such a shock?

It was entirely predictable. The specter hovering over Chelsea Clinton’s new role as her mother’s stump surrogate was bound, at some point, to make its way out of the shadows; mention of Monica, the Ghost of Scandals Past, was nearly guaranteed to materialize on the campaign trail. And, yesterday, materialize it did: while answering audience questions at Butler University in Indiana, Chelsea was asked about LewinskyGate—and about whether, to be specific, the scandal spoke to her mother’s credibility.

Its predictability notwithstanding, the question, according to the AP’s assessment of it, left Chelsea “startled.” Which was evidenced by the longish, somewhat awkward silence with which Clinton initially greeted its asking, and also—and even more so—with the indignation that seeped into her voice as she responded to it: “Wow, you’re the first person, actually, that’s ever asked me that question in the, I don’t know, maybe seventy college campuses I’ve now been to.”

Then, after a dramatic pause, and with a stern voice, Clinton continued, “I do not think that is any of your business.”

Chelsea handled things well, as far as The Answering of Unseemly Questions goes: disparage, address, move on. But Clinton’s initial reaction to the question—the sheer fact that she seemed so “startled” by it—is, given that question’s predictability, a bit startling in itself. Why the shock?

You could be cynical about it; you could say that the indignation Chelsea displayed in answering the question was orchestrated, a ruse to play the Hillary-as-victim card through her daughter. (The Clinton campaign isn’t known, after all, for its fondness of campaign-trail improv; it’s entirely possible that they’d prepared Chelsea’s answer to the Monica question in advance—and that Chelsea’s being “startled” at its asking was part of their pre-fab shtick.) Chelsea’s answer, in other words, could have been a small skirmish in the Battle for Umbrage.

Or, to be less cynical about it, there’s the possibility—remote in politics, maybe, but a possibility nonetheless—that Chelsea’s indignation was genuine.

Except—is that the less cynical view? If Chelsea was, indeed, so shocked to be asked such a predictable question—one so commonly posed to her mother and father—what does that say about Chelsea’s own view of her role in her mother’s campaign? Though the question was asked by an audience member, a BU student, the umbrage it evoked in Chelsea speaks just as much to the way she approaches the press. Her indignation at being asked the Taboo Question serves as a reminder of the kid-glove treatment Chelsea-the-surrogate has been receiving in the press (recall the indignation that greeted David Shuster’s comment that Chelsea was being “pimped out” by the Clinton campaign—and that the indignation in that case was often just as strong when expressed by the media as by Team Clinton itself)—and it suggests, more to the point, that Chelsea feels she deserves such treatment. Indignation’s complementary color is, after all, entitlement.

When she was First Daughter, the hands-off approach the media generally took toward Chelsea (tempered, unfortunately, with the occasional all-too-hands-on treatment) was entirely appropriate: Chelsea didn’t choose a public life for herself, the thinking went; why inflict the spotlight on someone who seemed to prefer at most a bit part in politics? There was something decent, even noble, in the distance the press afforded Chelsea in this regard: respecting her space was a classy, human thing to do—and it never hurts for members of the press to remind both their sources and the public that they are, you know, human.

But Chelsea is now twenty-eight years old. She’s stumping for her mother on, whatever Shuster may say about it, her own accord. Still, though, in that surrogacy—Clinton the Younger embracing what many see to be her Politico-Genetic Destiny—Chelsea’s kid-glove press treatment continues. (See the glowing profiles of her in New York magazine, Newsweek, and elsewhere.) She’s a Political Revelation, she’s Another Natural, she’s a perfect blend of the tenacity of the mother and the charm of the father—on top of which, she’s funny!

Chelsea’s write-ups have been write-arounds: she still refuses to do press interviews, Team Clinton’s logic being, as The Nation’s John Nichols put it, “that the daughter of the candidate could…handle questions from crowds but not from journalist—apparently on the theory that the journalists would be indelicate.” And on the specific assumption, Nichols wrote, “that a reporter would have asked Chelsea Clinton about her father’s affair with a White House intern.”

Yeah—at some point, one probably would. But why should that be such a problem? Why, really, should the press treat Chelsea differently than they do other campaign surrogates?

You could say, on the one hand, that Chelsea’s is a particular case demanding a particular brand of reportorial delicacy, that the kid gloves befit someone who—on the campaign trail, at least—is playing the role of, well, a kid. (“My Mom” is perhaps the most common utterance Chelsea makes on the stump.) Still, it seems to me, a surrogate’s a surrogate. When Chelsea chose to stump for her mother, she effectively relinquished her right to be sheltered from the press’s spotlight, uncomfortable questions and all. If her surrogacy makes a campaign issue of Hillary-Clinton-as-Wife-and-Mother, in particular, then it’s only fair to ask her questions about the very issue she’s raised. (And the corollary to Hillary-as-Wife is Monica-as-Mistress.) No question should be off-limits, for Chelsea or any other campaigner—as long as those being questioned reserve their right to a “no comment.” A surrogate who is allowed to speak without push-back from the press skews the checks and balances of campaign-trail discourse. Even when that surrogate’s name is Chelsea.

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Megan Garber is an assistant editor at the Nieman Journalism Lab at Harvard University. She was formerly a CJR staff writer.