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Don't Look, It's Chelsea

Students and the press keep a distance as the Clintons take their daughter to school in California

By Joel Stein/TIME

Time cover

STANFORD, Calif. (TIME, Sep. 29) -- It was embarrassing enough when my parents, crying, holding baby pictures and stuffing a flowery note into my carry-on bag, dropped me off at Newark Airport eight years ago for my freshman year at Stanford. But Chelsea Clinton's parents showed up at her Stanford dorm last Friday night not only mushy but also in a motorcade flanked by security guards and nearly 250 of their closest journalists. I would have died.

Despite the weepy goodbye letter Hillary wrote in her syndicated column last week (I would have killed her before I died), asking journalists to leave her daughter alone, the Clintons permitted move-in day to be a public event. The Clinton Administration, after all, has fine-tuned an Oprah-style culture of public emoting. And emote they did. Mom shopped for supplies with Chelsea; Bill packed and then carried boxes. Last Wednesday, as Clinton was working on answers for questions on the tobacco settlement, spokesman Mike McCurry told him to prep for Chelsea questions as well. The President winced and asked, "Do I have to?" Then Al Gore asked, "So, are you doing O.K.?" Clinton replied, "I'm trying."

Even before Chelsea arrived at Stanford, every woman with curly, strawberry blond hair was getting even more double takes than usual. The rumors floating around campus the week of her arrival ranged between true and scary: bulletproof glass in her room (yes), cameras in the hallways (yes) and bathroom (no), massive construction on campus to transform the underground steam tunnels into escape routes (no), that she chose Stanford to be with some mystery frat-boy boyfriend (no), that Secret Service men live in the rooms around and above and below her to prevent people from drilling into her room and poisoning her, Mission: Impossible-style (no), and that she has a computer chip implanted in her neck to track her. (And this where 50% of students had a 4.0 in high school.) There was endless speculation, and at least one betting pool, about where she would live. But the thing that obsessed Stanford most was the Secret Service men, who, as they did for Jack Ford, will dress like students and live in the dorm. Will they listen in while Chelsea hooks up? If they go to class with her, will they have to do the assigned reading? And, most important, will they bust students for underage drinking?

Nevertheless, the California campus was trying to be as New York blase as possible. While the most laid-back school in the country started looking more like backstage at a Puff Daddy concert (metal detectors, guys in fatigues, and a laminated, neck-rope pass for everyone--students, parents, faculty, press), people tried to act cool. The school administration will say nothing besides one well-crafted sentence about "respecting the privacy of all our students." Chelsea's residence staff has been trained in press handling (tell them to leave, then call the police) to the point where they seem unfazed. Even Bill Shen, founder of the apolitical campus' small Stanford Democrats club, said his organization won't recruit her: "She's pre-med. She's got enough to worry about."

Perhaps more than anyone else, the campus newspaper, the Stanford Daily, has set the standard for Chelsea overprotection. It has declared the Chelsea beat off-limits and spent most of the past few months refusing comment to every media outlet that ever existed (Good Morning America alone called five times). Overcompensating in its Friday issue, it buried the Chelsea story behind four others, right after STUDENT SENTENCED IN GRAFFITI CASE. Yet Carolyn Sleeth, the editor in chief, not only has a picture of Chelsea as the sole decoration on her computer; she also has a roll of Chelsea-brand toilet paper planted on her desk. Like it or not, Chelsea is news.

In fact, a little industry emerged around the First Frosh. Senior Jesse Oxfeld, a former Daily editor, has worked feverishly to market himself as the official Chelsea pundit, appearing on the Today show, CBS, MSNBC and NPR. Husky, chest hair peeking up from his button-down shirt and punctuating sentences with one raised eyebrow, Oxfeld looks the part. "Ultimately, I want to be a pundit. But I didn't know where to find an entry-level job." Making the most of his opportunity, he has got his lines all worked out. "If I really wanted to be cynical about it," he says about Clinton's arrival on campus, lifting that eyebrow, "Al Gore needs the 64 electoral votes from California, and Leon Panetta wants to be Governor." Wow.

How much "Chelsea Goes to Stanford" can the country really take? "Hopefully," says Oxfeld, preparing for another gig on NBC, "a lot." But already the cameras are receding. And last week's public move-in may be the last story for a long while.

--With reporting by Karen Tumulty/Washington





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