What’s Changed Since Hillary Clinton’s 1969 Graduation Speech — And What Hasn’t

As a senior in college, Clinton was already making powerful enemies.

Hillary Clinton waves as she arrives at the New York University (NYU) 177th Commencement at Yankee Stadium in New York, May 13, 2009.
National Journal
Emma Roller
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Emma Roller
April 22, 2014, 1 a.m.

Col­lege com­mence­ment sea­son is com­ing up — and, with it, col­lege seni­ors will be furi­ously draft­ing their mas­ter­pieces to go down in his­tory in the hal­lowed halls of their alma ma­ters. Forty-five years ago, Hil­lary Clin­ton was one of those seni­ors.

In 1969, 21-year-old Hil­lary Rod­ham got up to give her com­mence­ment speech at Welles­ley Col­lege. She fol­lowed the main speak­er, Sen. Ed­ward Brooke — a Re­pub­lic­an, the first black sen­at­or to be pop­ularly elec­ted, and a man Clin­ton had cam­paigned for two years be­fore.

But as she stepped up to the po­di­um, something rankled. She thought Brooke’s speech de­fen­ded Richard Nix­on. At a lib­er­al-arts col­lege in 1969, that was the equi­val­ent of prais­ing Beelze­bub at a Baptist re­viv­al.

“I find my­self re­act­ing just briefly to some of the things that Sen­at­or Brooke said,” Clin­ton told her class­mates. “Em­pathy doesn’t do us any­thing. We’ve had lots of em­pathy; we’ve had lots of sym­pathy, but we feel that for too long our lead­ers have used polit­ics as the art of mak­ing what ap­pears to be im­possible, pos­sible.”

“The ques­tion about pos­sible and im­possible was one that we brought with us to Welles­ley four years ago,” she con­tin­ued. “We ar­rived not yet know­ing what was not pos­sible. Con­sequently, we ex­pec­ted a lot. Our at­ti­tudes are eas­ily un­der­stood, hav­ing grown up, hav­ing come to con­scious­ness in the first five years of this dec­ade — years dom­in­ated by men with dreams, men in the civil- rights move­ment, the Peace Corps, the space pro­gram — so we ar­rived at Welles­ley and we found, as all of us have found, that there was a gap between ex­pect­a­tion and real­it­ies. But it wasn’t a dis­cour­aging gap and it didn’t turn us in­to cyn­ic­al, bit­ter old wo­men at the age of 18. It just in­spired us to do something about that gap.”

At the end of her speech, Clin­ton read a poem by Nancy Scheib­n­er re­fer­ring to “the hol­low men of an­ger and bit­ter­ness” who must be aban­doned as rem­nants of a by­gone age. Brooke took per­son­al of­fense to this bit, as Chris­toph­er An­der­sen writes in Amer­ic­an Evita:

Brooke, ob­vi­ously singled out as one of the “Hol­low Men,” was stunned, hurt — and con­vinced that this was no ex­tem­por­an­eous speech. “As far as I could tell, she was not re­spond­ing to any­thing I was say­ing,” he later ob­served. “She came that day with an agenda, pure and simple.”

But her class­mates ap­plauded her speech and, as the next day’s Bo­ston Globe pro­claimed, she ut­terly up­staged Brooke. Clin­ton spoke at her alma ma­ter’s com­mence­ment ce­re­mony again, more than 20 years later — this time dur­ing her hus­band’s pres­id­en­tial cam­paign. Then, she at­temp­ted to put her com­mence­ment speech in con­text.

“I can’t claim that 1969 speech as my own,” she told the crowd. “It re­flec­ted the hopes, val­ues, and as­pir­a­tions of my class­mates. It was full of the un­com­prom­ising lan­guage you only write when you are 21. But it is un­canny to me the de­gree to which those same hopes, val­ues, and as­pir­a­tions have shaped my adult­hood.”

She went on to tell the full story about that com­mence­ment ad­dress she gave as a 21-year-old. After the 1969 speech, she went swim­ming in Welles­ley’s lake — a ver­boten activ­ity, but one of Clin­ton’s “fa­vor­ite rules to break” as a stu­dent. After she stripped down to her swim­suit and waded out in­to the middle of the lake, a se­cur­ity guard picked up her clothes and her sig­na­ture Coke-bottle glasses — per­haps in re­tri­bu­tion for her speech — and car­ried them off. She had to make her way back to cam­pus without her clothes and “blind as a bat.”

Clin­ton joked that, had news­pa­pers got­ten a hold of that story, the head­lines would have read: “Girl Of­fers Vis­ion to Class­mates, And Then Loses Her Own.”

Jokes aside, Clin­ton’s 1992 rhet­or­ic closely mirrored her 1969 rhet­or­ic in a way that mir­rors her 2014 rhet­or­ic. Today, however, her sights are set on a field much broad­er than the Welles­ley cam­pus. At an event last Thursday (be­fore Chelsea Clin­ton an­nounced her preg­nancy), Clin­ton stressed the im­port­ance of clos­ing achieve­ment gaps around the world. Some ceil­ings are set low, like girls who don’t re­ceive birth cer­ti­fic­ates.

And, sadly, the ar­gu­ment she made about sex­ism in polit­ics that she made 20 or 40 years ago still holds true today — just look at the cyn­ic­al in­sinu­ation that has painted her daugh­ter’s preg­nancy as a pub­li­city stunt for Hil­lary 2016. Wheth­er she’s speak­ing to fe­male col­lege stu­dents or the na­tion­al press, Clin­ton speaks gender polit­ics flu­ently. The only dif­fer­ence is that now she’s not just a war­ri­or against sex­ism in polit­ics — she’s its biggest tar­get.

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