On Chelsea's Case
My piece last Thursday, warning about the lurking threat of Chelsea Clinton, got a lot of attention. Howard Kurtz harrumphed at me in the Washington Post. Numerous people emailed in calling for me to be horse-whipped on the steps of my club, or whatever the American equivalent is. Andrew Sullivan, by sly excerpting, left his readers — most of whom, being liberals, would be too stupid to locate the original text — with the impression I had called for the extermination of the entire Clinton clan.
I thought I would just put here, together in one place, responses to some of the commonest critical points, so I don't have to keep repeating myself in email. I also, of course, want to thank the many readers who liked the piece — a strong majority, until the liberals were woken from their dogmatic slumbers.
• That wasn't funny. Well, it wasn't meant to be a thigh-slapper. I had a point to make: There could be another Clinton in our future, and on present evidence (admittedly rather scant), it would be a chip off the old block. That's fair comment. However, my tone was partly tongue in cheek. Listen: "As an Englishman, I naturally start from a base of resentment against anyone with perfect dentition." The alert reader would have grasped at this point that he was not looking at a Heritage Foundation policy paper. Now, a writer's job is to get his tone and meaning across to the reader. Even the best don't always succeed — scholars are still arguing about what Shakespeare meant by "Put out the light, and then put out the light." And best, middling or worst, we all face the sad fact that there is an irreducible minimum of people out there who are cloth-eared to anything more subtle than simple declarative sentences. You can't get through to everyone. You do your best, that's all. Humor and irony are especially tricky. I grew up among people who spent Christmas Day telling each other that Bob Hope wasn't the least bit funny. Plainly a lot of other people disagreed with them. I personally feel that I am doing pretty well if I bat .750 — that is, if three readers out of four get a piece in the spirit I intended it. To judge from email responses to the Chelsea piece, that's about what I'm batting. If it was .250, I'd hang up my keyboard.
• Chelsea's only a kid. No she isn't. She will be 21 next week. At 21, I had been out in the world on my own for three years. At 21, my father had fought as a front-line infantryman in a war and failed in business. At 21, my mother had been a working hospital nurse for four years, and had seen many people die — more than Dad, probably. At 21, my grandfather had been a coal miner for seven years, had served a brief spell in jail, and had two children. At 21, Pitt the Younger was in Parliament. At 21, Monica Lewinsky … Well, never mind her. Chelsea is old enough to vote and old enough to die for her country (if that was a thing Clintons did). She's old enough to take a little mild ribbing from an obscure web journalist. She's been living large, and getting a swank education, on my dollar and yours. There's a price for that, and it's not a high one.
• How would I feel if someone mocked my girl in public? I'd be spitting furious. But then, my princess is only 8. If she was 20, I would not be furious. I'd tell her to suck it up. It's a jungle out here, and by 20 you'd better know how to swing a machete. If you don't, your parents have let you down. Something tells me Chelsea Clinton's parent have not let her down in this particular way.
• She's defenceless; I am a coward. This one cracks me up. Defenceless? A Clinton? Where have you been for eight years? The Clintons are very well able to defend themselves, don't worry about it. Dad may be out of office, but he has some mighty powerful friends. And Mom's in the Senate, remember. I expect my audit notice from the IRS shortly. Defenceless? 'Scuse me while I roll on the floor a little.
• Imagine how her parents must feel. Please. Everyone has parents at some point. George W. Bush has parents. On this argument, who can we mock? Only people whose parents are dead? This is ridiculous.
• Chelsea is a non-combatant. Is she? Politicians' offspring are not automatically immune from public mockery. A presidential daughter who stayed resolutely at home would be. One who published a novel, started a dot-com or joined the Spice Girls would not be. Chelsea is at neither extreme, so her case is, I grant you, arguable. (This is, in fact, the only point of substance in the whole silly business.) She was out on the campaign trail last year with Mom, pressing the flesh, greeting the punters, doing her part to keep my state safe for socialism. She didn't have to do that. She could have stayed home, or buckled down to her studies, as less favored 20-year-olds have to do. No: by her own free choice, she was out there working the crowds. Some unknowable number of the votes that elected Hillary were inspired by Chelsea. She represented this country at the Sydney Olympics. She didn't have to do that, either. She's been sitting in on some pretty high-level stuff — without, as I noted, any constitutional authority to do so. Yes, it's arguable, but in my book, the woman is a public figure. If she really doesn't want to be, she should have stayed home more, and concentrated on learning a useful trade.
• Lunatics might take the piece as an incitement to assassinate Chelsea. This underestimates the subtlety of the lunatic mind, which ranges much wider than this in its search for inspiration. Charlie Manson thought that the Beatles song "Helter Skelter," which is about a fairground attraction, was telling him to murder movie stars. If we tailor our writing to the sensibilities of lunatics, nothing will get published.
• We don't mock the President's family. She's not President's family. She's ex-President's family.
• I am not a gentleman. We are a broad church here on the Right, and some of us are more gentlemanly than others. While I do my honest best with the gentleman thing, it is a truth universally acknowledged, that you can take the boy out of the Bronx but not the Bronx out of the boy. I also come from England, where the journalistic culture is much more spirited, much less top-heavy with stuffy self-important bores, and much less deferential to public figures, than it is here in what Florence King calls "The Republic of Nice." One exemplar of that culture, whose work I immensely admired, was Auberon Waugh, who died last month. Here is an extract from the obituary by his friend, Richard Ingrams:
[Waugh] was deprived of his greatest ambition, which was to star in a libel action. The nearest he came to it was a brief appearance in one of Sir James Goldsmith's many court actions, after he wrote a piece in The Spectator claiming that the great financier had a very small penis.
(It was Waugh who defined the skill set of the opinion journalist as "the vituperative arts." And come to think of it, it was Waugh's father, Evelyn Waugh, of whom Logan Pearsall Smith, asked to give an opinion, said: "Not a gentleman. No, not a gentleman.")
• Have I no shame? More than a room-full of Clintons.
• Do I intend to apologize? In your dreams. I make it a point of principle never to apologize to hysterical nitwits.
• Are the editors going to fire me? They say no. This may change when their audit notice arrives.