Like most of the rest of the world, a great many Americans spent much of the first half of 2013 obsessing about the birth of a great grandson to the queen of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. The spectacle of the American media going bonkers over Prince George of Cambridge’s arrival illustrated once again the way our celebrity-mad popular culture has embraced Britain’s monarchy as a somewhat classier version of homegrown reality television stars like the Kardashians. The disconnect between American republican traditions and the way we worship royals or other varieties of famous persons is a form of cognitive dissonance that may be mocked but can’t be denied. But while the inordinate attention given the Windsors is merely silly, the willingness of the same media to give American political celebrities the same kind of attention is slightly more troubling. It is in that context that we need to treat the hubbub over the announcement of Chelsea Clinton’s pregnancy.
The willingness of political commentators to opine on whether becoming a grandmother will help or hurt Hillary Clinton’s chances of winning the presidency in 2016 is in one sense merely a testament to the obsessive nature of contemporary political journalism in which everything, no matter how trivial, becomes fodder for analysis. But it also illustrates the way the Clintons have transitioned from a political brand to the sort of celebrity status that not even the Bushes—their putative dynastic rivals—have attained. Chelsea and her husband Marc Mezvinsky may not be quite the U.S. version of William and Kate. But the willingness of the press to hype the pregnancy as an event that dwarfs any attention given any Bush babies, let alone those connected to any other presidential contender, shows that the Clintons are now on a par with the Kennedys as personalities rather than merely political figures.
The notion that the arrival of a grandchild should influence voter opinions about a woman who has been a first lady, a U.S. senator, and a secretary of state with a long record that may not be as defensible as some Democrats had thought is risible. But it is pointless to pretend that the media embrace of the Clintons—as opposed to the abuse it generally lobs at most of the Bushes—will not be a factor in 2016. America’s political traditions are rooted in myths about log cabins and self-made men who rose from humble circumstances to power. But dynasties have also been a part of our political narrative since the inception of the American republic. If the Kennedys and the Clintons are a far cry from the dour and duty-obsessed Adams clan, it cannot be denied that famous names have always been an asset at the polls.
Yet the merger of politics with popular entertainment celebrity represents something slightly different than the usual drill in which those with greater name recognition obtained an edge in the polls. Those who think Hillary’s image will soften once she becomes a grandmother are probably ignoring the fact that most Americans have already made up their minds about her. Yet as we will see in the coming year, Chelsea’s transition from White House daughter to the new Princess Kate will allow the already ubiquitous Clinton brand to become even more pervasive. The Clintons are no more intrinsically glamorous then the generally unintelligent and not particularly attractive Windsor family. But the mainstream media’s investment in the notion of both Bill and Hillary is more than enough to compensate for any of their rather obvious shortcomings in terms of character. Like it or not, they are in the process of becoming American royals, with more than enough sleaze in their political baggage to match the Kardashians though without the pizzazz of the Kennedys.
But the problem with this public-relations coup is that being elected president is not quite the same thing as becoming ubiquitous. Celebrity status can make a person famous for being famous and get your picture on the covers of the magazines at the checkout line at the supermarket. But being a royal doesn’t necessarily bring with it a majority of electoral votes. Indeed, the arrival of the next generation of the Clinton family—a prospect that has caused many to joke about the baby facing off against a Bush grandchild in a mid-century presidential election—will not win over those who dislike the idea of another Clinton presidency or who want the nation to move on from a dependence on dynasties. Hillary already has all the name recognition anyone could desire. American voters are not stupid. They may like to gape at celebrities for entertainment but to the extent that Hillary tries to cash in on the baby hype, those not already in her camp may only be further alienated.