Taking On A U.S. Senator As A Student Propelled Clinton Into The Spotlight

Jul 28, 2016
Originally published on July 29, 2016 5:18 am

Hillary Rodham's 1969 commencement address at Wellesley College did not stand out because of what she said.

It stood out because of how she said it, and because she said it at all. This is a story not about words, but about context.

Before 1969, Wellesley had never had a student speaker at commencement. Administrators spoke and special guests spoke, but students at this women's college didn't have a voice on graduation day.

Eldie Acheson, a classmate of Hillary Clinton, then Hillary Rodham, led the effort to have a student speak at their commencement. She says the fact that they had never before had a student speaker seemed crazy. But it wasn't easy.

"We approached the administration and we asked if we could have a student speaker," Acheson said. "The administration said no, so we fell back and regrouped.

A Turbulent Time

The class of '69 had been through a lot together. When they started college, there was still a hint of the innocence of the early 1960s. By the time they were set to graduate, the Vietnam War and protests against it were in full swing; college campuses had become centers of activism and conflict; and both Martin Luther King Jr. and Bobby Kennedy had been assassinated.

Acheson says she and her classmates wanted to mark that and the transition to their adult lives. And eventually, Acheson says, the administration relented.

"The administration switched its position," she recalled. "The president of the college said, 'OK, we will afford that opportunity to the graduating class of '69.' "

Acheson doesn't remember how it came to be that Rodham was chosen to give the speech. But she was the student body president and was well-known by students and faculty alike.

Hillary Clinton wrote in her book Living History that she fretted over the remarks, worrying about how she could fit their tumultuous four years into a single speech. She wrote that classmates came by offering her ideas and often conflicting advice.

Her professor and adviser at the time, Alan Schechter, says he remembers it clearly.

"Hillary had read the speech to me beforehand. Not for my approval, but to get my reaction to it," Schechter said, "and I thought it was a perfect example of youthful idealism at the time, where young people were dissatisfied with what was happening in our society."

The Day Of The Speech

But the speech Rodham read to Schechter is only part of what she delivered at the commencement ceremony. And it's the part that wasn't planned that drew all the attention.

The special guest speaker that day was Sen. Edward Brooke. A moderate Republican from Massachusetts and the first African-American popularly elected to the U.S. Senate. His speech celebrated incremental progress and spent a lot of time arguing against protest. Ultimately, he said, he believed "the overwhelming majority of Americans will stand firm on one principle: Coercive protest is wrong, and one reason it is wrong is because it is unnecessary."

After Brooke, it was time for Rodham to speak. The school's president, Ruth Adams, introduced her with praise.

"There was no debate so far as I could ascertain as to who their spokesman was to be, Ms. Hillary Rodham," Adams said. She went on to describe Rodham as "good-humored, good company and a good friend to all of us."

When she stepped to the lectern, Rodham didn't go directly to her prepared remarks. She spoke extemporaneously instead:

"I'm very glad that Ms. Adams made it clear that what I am speaking for today is all of us. The 400 of us. And I find myself in a familiar position, that of reacting. Something that our generation has been doing for quite a while now. We're not in the positions yet of leadership and power, but we do have that indispensable element of criticizing and constructive protest."

She broke from her script to react to Sen. Brooke's remarks.

"This has to be very quick because I do have a little speech to give. Part of the problem with just empathy with professed goals is that 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 viewed politics as the art of the possible. And the challenge now is to practice politics as the art of making what appears to be impossible possible."

Schechter, her adviser, was surprised and impressed with how Rodham ad-libbed and then seamlessly moved back into her prepared remarks.

"She was able to go from one to the other without pausing at all," Schechter said. "I was particularly impressed with the skill, with the articulateness that she demonstrated."

And when it was over, others were impressed too. She got a standing ovation, from her classmates at least.

"And that was both in support of the speech and in support of her for going up there and taking it on for us," her classmate Acheson recalled.

The Reaction

But Schechter says not everyone was so pleased with Rodham's performance.

"The administration was not happy afterwards, or at least some people were not happy," Schechter said, "because they felt it was inappropriate for a student to criticize the commencement speaker."

Acheson says Rodham felt she had a responsibility to call out the senator's remarks as insufficient to the moment. But in 1969, it was surprising that a student, a young woman, would break protocol and openly disagree with the remarks of a U.S. senator on a public stage.

And it was news. It made the New York Times and the Washington Post. United Press International, a news wire, circulated a blurb about Rodham's remarks to papers around the country. The Chicago Tribune wrote "Miss Rodham's discourtesy to Senator Brooke was unjustified."

And this all led to Rodham's inclusion in a spread in Life magazine about the class of '69. The article has the subhead "With eloquent defiance, top students protest right through commencement."

Compared to other commencement speeches at the time, Rodham's words weren't all that defiant. It's the context that made them remarkable.

Time, which owns the Life magazine archives, dug up some notes from the photographer and reporter who worked on the story. Rodham said press accounts had been "vastly different from what she actually said," and she was "quite concerned that it be made clear she was not attacking Senator Brooke personally."

It would seem Hillary Clinton's first moment in the limelight was also the beginning of her difficult relationship with the press.

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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

And I'm David Greene in Philadelphia where the Democratic National Convention wraps up tonight. Hillary Clinton will accept the nomination. She'll be speaking to a convention hall full of ardent supporters as well as people ready to be won over. In many cases, the latter are younger delegates who came supporting Bernie Sanders. They include Shaher Ibrahimi, a delegate from Kansas, and Kimberly Stevens from Virginia.

In less than 30 seconds, tell me something about your life, personally, that brought you to Philadelphia and this moment.

SHAHER IBRAHIMI: You know, I was born and raised in Section 8 housing, and my family came from Afghanistan. And (laughter)...

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Here we go.

GREENE: OK. If you're tearing up, I'll give you more than 30 seconds...

IBRAHIMI: You're going to get me going here.

GREENE: ...'Cause I'm so sorry.

IBRAHIMI: But we are - you know, this is - this is important stuff. And I supported Bernie. And I will continue to support what he stands for because he stands for something with a solid spine. But at this point, it's really sad to see that he did not get the nomination. And, you know, we're going to work from there. We're going to work local. We're going to work in the communities. We're going to work in the states. And this - the Bern is not going to burn out.

GREENE: When did your family come from Afghanistan?

IBRAHIMI: They came to the states in '82. And I was born in '84. I'm really, really lucky to have been born in the United States.

KIMBERLY STEVEN: I mean, I agree. It's really easy to be disillusioned by our current political process. (Crying) You know, I - my parents were divorced when I was young. We struggled a lot. My mom was a single mom. I spent time as a single mom. And I just feel like there's so many people in this country that are really struggling, and there's nobody that's listening to them.

GREENE: Two delegates there, determined to carry on Bernie Sanders movement, ready for Hillary Clinton to embrace their ideas. They told us about their journeys to Philadelphia. Let's hear now about Hillary Clinton's journey. My colleague Tamara Keith takes us back almost 50 years to her first attention-grabbing speech.

TAMARA KEITH, BYLINE: Hillary Rodham's 1969 commencement address at Wellesley College stood out, not because of what she said but because of how she said it - and because she said it at all. Before 1969, the all-women's college had never had a student speaker at commencement.

ELDIE ACHESON: That just seemed, to me, crazy.

KEITH: Eldie Acheson was a classmate of Rodham's and led the effort to have a student speaker at their commencement.

ACHESON: The president of the college said, OK, we will afford that opportunity to a graduating Class of 1969.

KEITH: Hillary Clinton wrote in her book "Living History" that she fretted over how to fit their tumultuous four years into a single speech. The Vietnam War made college campuses centers of activism and conflict. And both Martin Luther King Jr. and Bobby Kennedy had been assassinated. Here's her professor and adviser Alan Schechter.

ALAN SCHECHTER: Hillary had read the speech to me beforehand, not for my approval but just, you know, to get my reaction to it. And I thought it was a perfect example of youthful idealism at the time.

KEITH: But the speech Rodham read to Schechter is only part of what she delivered. And it's the part that wasn't planned that drew all the attention. The special guest speaker that day was Senator Edward Brooke, a moderate Republican from Massachusetts and the first African-American popularly elected to the U.S. Senate. His speech celebrated incremental progress and argued against protest. He said, quote, "coercive protest is wrong. And one reason it is wrong is because it is unnecessary." After Brooke, the school's president, Ruth Adams, introduced Rodham.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

RUTH ADAMS: And it is a great pleasure to present to this audience Ms. Hillary Rodham.

(APPLAUSE)

KEITH: When she stepped to the lectern, Rodham didn't go directly to her prepared remarks.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

HILLARY CLINTON: I find myself in a familiar position, that of reacting, something that our generation has been doing for quite a while now. We're not in the positions yet of leadership and power, but we do have that indispensable element of criticizing and constructive protest.

KEITH: She went off-script to react to Senator Brooke.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

CLINTON: And this is just - has be very quick because, you know, I do have a little speech to give. But part of the problem with just empathy with professed goals is that 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 viewed politics as the art of the possible. And the challenge now is to practice politics as the art of making what appears to be impossible possible.

KEITH: And when it was over, she got a standing ovation - from her classmates at least. Again, Eldie Acheson.

ACHESON: And that was both in support of the speech but in support of her as going up there and taking it on for us.

KEITH: Schechter says not everyone was so pleased with Rodham's performance.

SCHECHTER: The administration was not happy afterwards. Or at least some people were not happy because they thought it was inappropriate for a student to criticize the commencement speaker.

KEITH: Especially a U.S. senator. It made papers across the country. The Chicago Tribune wrote, quote, "Ms. Rodham's discourtesy to Senator Brooke was unjustified." And this attention led to Rodham's inclusion in a spread in Life magazine about the commencement addresses of the class of '69. Time, which owns the Life magazine archives, dug up some notes from the photographer and reporter who worked on the story.

Rodham reportedly said press accounts of the speech weren't accurate. And she was, quote, "quite concerned that it be made clear that she was not attacking Senator Brooke personally." It would seem Hillary Clinton's first moment in the limelight was also the beginning of her difficult relationship with the press.

GREENE: NPR's Tamara Keith there. I'm joined in the studio by NPR's Don Gonyea and, on the line from Washington, NPR's Mary Louise Kelly. Let me just ask you both - bigger speech tonight for Hillary Clinton, I mean, what are you both listening for? Mary Louise.

MARY LOUISE KELLY, BYLINE: Sure, let me jump in on that one. I'm listening for - this - a huge challenge that Hillary Clinton has, which is, at the same time, to accept the torch that Obama passed her last night but also try to distinguish her record from his. I mean, her track record on foreign policy, for example, is more hawkish than Obama's has been. She's been more inclined to advocate for military force as a tool. I say that based on her pushing for military intervention in Libya, for example, pushing for safe zones in Syria.

So I'm curious to hear how she's going to thread that delicate needle in terms of - here I am. I'm Hillary Clinton. This is my record - and yet playing on the huge strength and popularity that President Obama still enjoys.

GREENE: Don.

DON GONYEA, BYLINE: This speech matters. It matters a lot. Certainly, we expect her to embrace and embody history. She'll do that. She needs to be gracious to the Bernie Sanders supporters. She needs to have a vision for what her presidency will look like. She needs to be tough. She says she's ready to take on Donald Trump. This is going to be a bar fight or a back alley fight or a WWE match...

GREENE: (Laughter).

GONYEA: ...It's going to be all of those things. She has to give people, even those skeptical of her, that she's ready.

GREENE: All right, we'll be hearing much more from Philadelphia as the morning goes on. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.