Before She Was Famous: Hillary Clinton’s Political Launch

“She would have been discovered no matter what happened,” says Peter Edelman, but he gave her one of her first big breaks.

Caption:WELLESLEY, UNITED STATES: Hillary Clinton, a 1969 graduate of Wellesley College, greets friends in the faculty before joining the academic procession to the 1992 commencement exercises where she was the keynote speaker 29 May. Clinton graduated with high honors from Wellesley, in Massachustts where she was president of the student government.
National Journal
Alex Seitz-Wald
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Alex Seitz-Wald
April 22, 2014, 3:47 p.m.

It was 1969 and Peter Edel­man needed to find a bright young per­son. He was help­ing the League of Wo­men Voters or­gan­ize its 50th-an­niversary con­ven­tion, and needed someone in their 20s to com­ple­ment a roster of more-es­tab­lished speak­ers and con­nect with young­er voters. “At the time, the man­tra was, don’t trust any­body over 30,” he re­called this week.

The event’s or­gan­izers were already con­sid­er­ing some names when the class pres­id­ent at Welles­ley Col­lege grabbed na­tion­al head­lines with a com­mence­ment speech that cri­ti­cized the event’s pre­vi­ous speak­er, Re­pub­lic­an Sen. Ed­ward Brooke of Mas­sachu­setts, for be­ing out of touch with her gen­er­a­tion. The speak­er was a young seni­or named Hil­lary Rod­ham, who would en­roll in Yale Law School that fall.

Edel­man thought he might have found his “young lead­er of the fu­ture,” as the event billed its youth­ful speak­er. “I called her and in­tro­duced my­self and said would she be will­ing to come? And she said she would,” he told Na­tion­al Journ­al. And just like that, Clin­ton was booked for the first high-pro­file speech of her nas­cent polit­ic­al ca­reer.

“She would have been dis­covered no mat­ter what happened,” says Edel­man, a one­time Sen­ate aide to Robert Kennedy who is now a lead­ing an­ti­poverty ad­voc­ate and pro­fess­or at Geor­getown Law School. But he still likes to joke to friends that he’s the guy who “dis­covered” Hil­lary Clin­ton.

That speech would carry ripples through Clin­ton’s long ten­ure in pub­lic life. The con­ven­tion’s key­note ad­dress came from Mari­an Wright Edel­man, Peter’s wife, who would go on to give Clin­ton her first job out of law school at the Chil­dren’s De­fense Fund, which Wright Edel­man foun­ded a few years later.

The group played a key role in the form­a­tion of Clin­ton’s polit­ic­al iden­tity. “[Clin­ton] has been a tire­less voice for chil­dren and was with the Chil­dren’s De­fense Fund at the be­gin­ning as a young staff at­tor­ney, then board mem­ber and board chair,” Wright Edel­man said last year when the group honored Clin­ton for her work at an event in Wash­ing­ton.

Also present at the League of Wo­men Voters speech was Ver­non Jordan, a 34-year-old law­yer and civil-rights act­iv­ist who later be­came a con­fid­ant of Hil­lary and her fu­ture hus­band, Bill Clin­ton.

The Edel­mans and the Clin­tons re­mained close friends and al­lies, and when Bill won the pres­id­ency in 1992, Peter Edel­man went to work for the ad­min­is­tra­tion in a seni­or post at the Health and Hu­man Ser­vices De­part­ment, where he could put his think­ing on poverty in­to prac­tice.

The re­la­tion­ship began to fray, however, when Clin­ton signed the 1996 wel­fare re­form bill in­to law. Peter Edel­man and an­oth­er seni­or of­fi­cial resigned in protest.

That was a long time ago, though, and Edel­man has come back around, join­ing many oth­er Demo­crats who had gripes with the Clin­tons in 2008 but will now sup­port Hil­lary if she de­cides to run for the pres­id­ency in 2016.

While it was im­possible to know 45 years ago how pres­ci­ent he was in se­lect­ing Clin­ton as a “young lead­er of the fu­ture,” Edel­man said he was im­pressed from the start. “She was ob­vi­ously — and is — quite a for­mid­able per­son.”

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