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.”