A Chelsea Morning

GRAMMY-WINNER SHERYL CROW WAS there. So was stand-up comic Sinbad. But on a muddy day in Bosnia last week, it was a quiet girl with corkscrew red hair who ran away with the show. "Your name is Chelsea?" Sgt. Maj. Jack Tilley, the master of ceremonies, asked coyly as he called her onstage before 1,000 listless soldiers. "Something like that," the girl said smartly. Tilley had already tried--and failed--to rally the troops by leading them in a war chant. So he turned to Chelsea and asked her to help with a yelp. The 16-year-old took the microphone and wailed, "Hoo-ah!"--the lusty military cheer--with the gusto of a fire-breathing recruit. Then to get the crowd really going, she did it again.

Is this the same awkward, orthodontically challenged girl who moved into the White House three years ago clutching her cat? Despite remarkable odds imposed by life in a fishbowl, Chelsea Clinton is growing up to be a poised, funny and normal-young woman. The people who toured with the Clinton women last week say Chelsea's charm comes naturally. "I'm so impressed. She's a lovely, graceful young lady--very centered," Crow says. But her seemingly easy slide into adulthood is no accident. The Clintons have made rearing Chelsea even more of an obsession than health care or Whitewater. "If you bungle raising your children," Mrs. Clinton writes in her book "It Takes a Village," "I don't think whatever else you do matters very much." She borrowed that line from another famously protective mother: Jacqueline Kennedy.

If you overlook the Secret Service agents who drive her to Sidwell Friends School, Chelsea is not unlike many 11th graders. A brainy student who wants to study medicine, she takes ballet lessons and attends a church youth group. Her mother interrupts meetings when she calls. Despite living most of her life in mansions, Chelsea seems oblivious to the trappings of her station. When she wanted to attend the State of the Union address, she called her father's office to ask if there were any extra tickets. (They found one.) In Turkey, she fretted when her camera ran out of film, even though she can have countless copies of the shots snapped by the White House photographer.

It's not easy to foster selfless independence in a First Child. The Clinton method is to doggedly guard their daughter's privacy. Chelsea doesn't give interviews, and Mrs. Clinton won't answer probing questions about her (though she told TV's Regis and Kathie Lee that Chelsea has started to date). Chelsea has never campaigned for her parents--and won't this year. Most important, the Clintons maintain as normal a home life as possible, including eating most meals together. When Chelsea and friends spilled popcorn in the White House movie theater, Mrs. Clinton made them pick it up. The president--the easygoing parent--is teaching her to drive. "How's the driving going?" one soldier in Bosnia yelled to her. "It's going. I haven't had much time to practice. But beware if you come to D.C.," she said. Washington shouldn't worry. Chelsea seems to know where she's going.