Chelsea Takes Center Stage She’s Poised, Articulate In Impromptu Q&A;

The words had all the familiar ring of a presidential sermon, the plaintive concern about “hopelessness and cynicism” in modern American society followed by a spirited testimonial to the individual’s capacity to rise above the forces of despair.

But the preacher in this case wasn’t Bill Clinton. It was Chelsea.

After more than four years spent largely in the shadows of the White House, the first daughter emerged on the public stage Tuesday in a way she never has before.

Accompanying mother Hillary Rodham Clinton on a two-week tour of Africa, Chelsea was invited to answer questions from a group of local teenagers and weighed in with an eloquent discourse on the troubles in her home nation.

“We have big problems with violence in our country, in all spectrums,” she told her African peers during a brief meeting in an airport building in this East African city. “We have a big problem with drugs and people not thinking they have a future. There’s a lot of hopelessness.”

Asked by a young girl what was being done about these issues in the United States, Chelsea talked first about efforts by parents and teachers. “But,” she said, “I think with our problems with hopelessness and cynicism that (the solution) ultimately has to come from the young people themselves. I think that’s something we have to work on. We’ve got to realize we are the future and we make of our future what we make of it, and ultimately we have to do it for ourselves.”

If this was something of a public coming-out party, it was strictly an accident. Hillary Clinton was meeting with a group of teenage girls who had scaled Mount Kilimanjaro, led by a Peace Corps volunteer. The first lady shocked everyone in the room - including, as it turns out, herself - by turning to her daughter and suggesting she might have something to say.

That Chelsea responded like a seasoned pro, though, was less of a surprise to those who know her. After all, her father has been campaigning for or holding elective office from the day she was born. And as she has come of age in her own right, the 17-year-old high school senior has quietly impressed many in Washington with her maturity, poise and down-to-earth quality.

Despite Tuesday’s polished performance, Chelsea apparently has no plans to follow her parents into politics. She’s focused on pre-med instead. She’s already been accepted by Harvard University and probably will have replies from some of the five other schools she applied to when she returns from Africa on Sunday.

Georgetown, her father’s alma mater and the you-can-live-at-home suggestion of her parents, didn’t make Chelsea’s final cut. Neither did her mother’s school, Wellesley College, whose single-sex tradition didn’t hold as much appeal for the younger generation.

Aides say the suspense is killing her parents, who are dreading her eventual departure this fall no matter where she ends up.

“There’s no doubt about it,” said Melanne Verveer, the first lady’s deputy chief of staff. “Hillary has always said she’s often asked about all these difficult experiences and there’s no more difficult experience for her and the president than Chelsea leaving for college. She said the most devastating thing recently was going to college night and realizing it was real. That was hard.”

This, then, has been a special, and sometimes melancholy, trip for them, one final spring break for mother and daughter before Chelsea leaves home.

Today, they visited a Masai village in Tanzania and both were given ushangaa - stiff, Frisbee-like neck ornaments that usually are a symbol that a young woman has been circumcised and is either married or ready for marriage. Mother and daughter graciously put them on without commenting on their meaning.

While Hillary Clinton earnestly sits through long round-table discussions with local leaders, Chelsea usually has ventured out on her own, taking in a jazz club or a horseback ride or a museum tour, usually with her gal-pal Capricia Marshall, one of the first lady’s young and energetic assistants.

The White House has relentlessly guarded Chelsea’s privacy over the past four years, and with few exceptions media organizations have respected that.

Still, there are moments when her parents have not been able to protect her. In South Africa last week, a newspaper suggested in a front-page article that Chelsea was ugly. Some on the first lady’s staff were appalled, but said Chelsea took it in stride.

There were other things to focus on. The curios for sale at a bazaar in Harare, Zimbabwe. The human skull in a museum in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. The tiny Zulu children in a schoolhouse in Soweto, South Africa.

“She’s like a sponge,” Verveer said. “She’s interested in so many things, she just wants to soak it all up.”

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