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Chelsea Clinton: my life has never been an enigma

Thursday, 21 Mar 2013 | 9:47 AM ET
Ramin Talaie | Getty Images

For the average two-year-old, the relentless spectacle of the political and media world remains something unknown and unfathomable.

For Chelsea Clinton, it was the norm.

One of her earliest memories is driving around Arkansas with her father campaigning for governor.

It was a sign of things to come: "I have never thought of my life as being an enigma," she told CNBC.

By six, Clinton was fully part of her family's political discussions. "One of my iconic memories was during the 1986 gubernatorial campaign in Arkansas," Clinton told Tania Bryer, in a rare interview as part of CNBC Meets: President Bill Clinton.

"I remember that my mom, my dad and I would play different roles in mock debates, where one of us would be the moderator, one of us would be my dad - frequently not my dad - and then one of us would play his opponent."

Constantly in the public eye – first in Arkansas, then the U.S.and beyond - 33-year-old Clinton has traditionally shied away from the media.Her 2010 wedding to Marc Mezvinsky in upstate New York was held under tight security and wedding guests were not allowed cameras.

However, since joining NBC as a special correspondent in 2011 Clinton has tentatively stepped into the spotlight. For her, as she says, her life hasn't been the enigma it has been made out to be.

"I was leading a private life not to not lead a public life," she explains, "but because I was a student, or I worked on Wall Street, or I worked for McKinsey. It's because I was not leading a public life. And yet that then just fed all this interest."

For Clinton, just because she didn't allow countless interviews in her first three decades didn't meant she was a mystery: any observer could tell she was a well-educated and driven young person; a typical Clinton. She does admit, though, that she has instinctively shunned the media spectacle:"even my desk faced the wall in the Governor's office at the Capitol," she admits, laughing. "I was very proud to be there in my father's orbit…but I was part of it and apart from it."

(Read More: Bill Clinton: Republicans Can't Explain How Tax Cuts Help)

Indeed, for Clinton, it's not as if her younger years were that absorbing. While her teenage years were predominately spent in either the Arkansas Governor's Mansion or The White House, Clinton said her parents always ensured her life was as normal as possible.

"I have always been aware of how extraordinarily normal my life is and how extraordinarily extraordinary my life is," she said."Both of those have always co-existed. I grew up having dinner with my parents every night. We would talk about what each of us had done that day, and I think that was true for a lot of my friends growing up."

Of course, Clinton's more media-friendly persona is carefully managed by the family's PR team: she used the same line about her life being both extraordinarily normal and extraordinarily extraordinary in her profile for Vogue in 2012. Clinton's media shyness is not unusual given she was on the front pages of Arkansas' papers the day after her birth, and as a teenager in the White House she wasn't immune to media vitriol.

Last year, she retold a story from 1993 when conservative talk show host Rush Limbaugh had said, "Socks is the White House cat. But did you know there is also a White House dog?" He promptly held up an image of 13-year-old Chelsea.

Indeed, ever since her mother attempted to overhaul the U.S.health service during President Clinton's first term, the Clinton women have taken an unusually large amount of hammering from the American press,especially compared to the more balanced coverage that Michelle, Sasha and Malia Obama now receive.

Part of that change is probably down to Hillary, whose run for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2008 helped make "18 million cracks in the glass ceiling."

(Read More: Bill Clinton: Hillary Still the Most Interesting Person I Know)

Clinton says she is now channeling her family name in the best way possible by working with her father's Foundation:"now I'm doing something with it (fame), rather than being overwhelmed with it."

Marc Mezvinsky, Hillary Clinton, Chelsea Clinton and President Bill Clinton pose during the wedding of Chelsea Clinton and Marc Mezvinsky on July 31, 2010 in Rhinebeck, New York
Barbara Kinney
Marc Mezvinsky, Hillary Clinton, Chelsea Clinton and President Bill Clinton pose during the wedding of Chelsea Clinton and Marc Mezvinsky on July 31, 2010 in Rhinebeck, New York

Clinton is now heavily engaged in the on-going work of the Clinton Foundation, taking a six-day tour of Africa with her father last July as she increases her activity with the Clinton Health Access Initiative, a subsidiary of the Foundation and on whose board she serves.

Her current focus is on tackling diarrhea. She joined officials last year to publicize a huge effort to tackle one million preventable deaths in Nigeria, of which 100,000 are the result of diarrhea. Expanding access to zinc and oral re-hydration solutions (ORS) could help prevent over 90 percent of deaths related to diarrhea. Clinton sees links between her work in Nigeria and other pressing concerns throughout the world.

"By being engaged in the work of the Foundation, I am able to really think about how to solve problems in a real world way, to learn from people who are solving problems on the ground," says the Clinton heir. "How some of the work we're doing around organizing the ORS market in Nigeria to combat childhood diarrhea should inform how we think about different types of markets in Mozambique for rapid HIV/AIDS testing machines."

Move Into Politics?

Clinton's interest in solving problems in a "real world way" is a suitably vague hint at a possible move into politics, as the U.S. adjusts to the 2013 political landscape where no Clinton holds public office, a first since 1982. When asked about her future movements, Clinton simply says, "there are so many different ways to engage in the world and to make a difference," and emphasizes how the Foundation allows her to have an impact across many different spheres like health and education, in both the U.S. and the wider world.

Indeed, Clinton is just like her parents: a hard worker with an incredible capacity to never, ever stop. She teaches graduate classes at Columbia's Mailman School of Public Health; she is on the IAC board of directors; she is still a special correspondent for NBC with packages ranging from Judy Blume to boxing classes in Detroit; and, of course, she is a growing philanthropist.

Clinton's performance on the stump for her mother during the Democratic primaries in 2008 impressed many, and acted as a catalyst to rumors of where the Clinton dynasty might go next. In December 2012, Maggie Haberman wrote "Chelsea Clinton's Next Act" for Politico, in which she detailed numerous individuals, including former Ohio Governor Ted Strickland,lauding the young Clinton's talents and abilities. Haberman believed Clinton could become the public face for the family, at least until Hillary possibly emerges from the shadows to run in 2016.

(Read More: Bill Clinton: We Could Have Saved 300,000 Lives in Rwanda)

Clinton's move towards becoming the face of the family brand – something almost unimaginable three years ago after her top-secret wedding – is due to the passing of her maternal grandmother Dorothy Howell Rodham in November, 2011. Previously a firm believer that she should lead a private life, Chelsea was convinced to utilize the asset of the public's interest in her.

"She had for a long time, before she passed away, been pushing me to be more of a public person so that I could be a more effective advocate for things she knew I cared about," Clinton explains, "and assume the responsibility to actually do the work on a larger scale that she saw me already doing on a smaller scale.

"Then after she passed away, I very much felt the weight of that responsibility, but also the opportunity of that responsibility. So through being more public with the Foundation…I very much feel as if I'm trying to honor her legacy, but also to build a life that not only she would be proud of, but my parents will be proud of and hopefully someday my children."

As Clinton is more than aware, she has huge shoes to fill. Yet her superhuman capacity to juggle a whole range of tasks – a Clinton trademark – is surely a good sign that she shall help crack a couple million more cracks in the ceiling where her mother left off. For Clinton, the path to success hasn't changed since her father first became Attorney General of Arkansas in 1976.

"I think that he has always approached his life to think about how best he can match his talents to the challenges that he thinks are the most critical facing his community," Clinton ruminates. "How do we understand what we need to do first to solve a problem, and what should we do second? How do we get comfortable if we aren't the right actor to solve a certain problem? It's about trying to find who is best suited to do that."

When it comes to the future of the Democratic Party post-President Obama, the Clinton women could be the best-suited individuals.

Watch the full CNBC Meets interview with President Bill Clinton here.

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  • Tania Bryer is a guest presenter and executive producer of CNBC Meets. In this series, she profiles some of the world’s most successful business people to find out what makes them tick. Bryer previously worked for BBC and Sky Television.