President-elect Barack Obama’s cabinet became a true team of rivals Monday, as Harvard Law School alumnus Obama appointed the first Yale alumna to his inner circle of advisers: New York senator — and now secretary of state-designate — Hillary Rodham Clinton LAW ’73.
After weeks of speculation, Obama tapped Clinton to serve as the nation’s top diplomat at a Monday morning Chicago press conference. The announcement was praised by Yale Law faculty and alumni, who recalled the activism and leadership Clinton displayed as a law student.
“She was a forceful leader in a student body known for having a large number of aspiring leaders, a complete standout,” said Law School professor and former dean Anthony Kronman LAW ’75.
Kronman remembered Clinton being active in the Barrister’s Union, a mock trial team. Clinton also worked with the defense team on the criminal trial of Black Panther leader Bobby Seale in the spring of 1970.
Although Clinton’s new role will make her the international face of the United States, many Yale Law alumni remember Clinton best for her work with domestic politics — especially children’s affairs .
After working at the Yale Child Study Center and political groups at the school, Clinton won a grant to work with Marian Wright Edelman LAW ’63, founder of the Children’s Defense Fund in the summer of 1970.
“Senator Clinton has been a lifelong advocate for children, women and disadvantaged people around the globe,” said Edelman, who would go on to be one of Clinton’s mentors. “I am so proud of Hillary and am pleased that President-elect Obama has chosen such a capable and dedicated woman to be our nation’s leading diplomat.”
Penn Rhodeen, a legal assistance attorney who worked with Clinton on juvenile rights when she was at the Yale Child Study Center, said he was disappointed that Clinton is leaving the Senate to become secretary of state, where she cannot advocate for issues such as universal health care.
Clinton, Rhodeen said, displayed an interest in politics in law school, working for the unsuccessful 1972 presidential campaign of South Dakota Sen. George McGovern.
“By the time I knew her, she was very savvy with lowdown politics,” Rhodeen said.
Indeed, both Kronman and Edelman praised Clinton’s ability to perform in the State Department’s top post. Kronman said Clinton’s experience as first lady and senator more than equip her with the necessary skills to succeed in the role.
“Clinton is deeply knowledgeable about foreign affairs, and her diplomatic skills … were honed and sharpened during the time she spent at her husband’s side [during his presidency],” Kronman said.
Clinton will be the first Yale graduate to serve as secretary of state since Cyrus Vance ’39 LAW ’42, who served under President Carter. Clinton is the next in a long line of Yale alumni who served as secretary of state, including John Calhoun 1804, Henry Stimson 1888 and Dean Acheson ’15.
Clinton’s appointment as secretary of state comes months after a contentious battle between her and Obama for the Democratic presidential nomination.
Heated primary debates between the two candidates centered on foreign policy, with Clinton attacking Obama’s inexperience and calling his proposal to meet with hostile foreign leaders “irresponsible and frankly naïve.”
Yale for Hillary founder Ben Zweifach ’09 called the pick “ironic” because Obama and Clinton were at loggerheads over foreign policy during the campaign.
“It’s hilarious that she was arguing with him over whether to set preconditions to meeting with Kim Jong-il or whomever, and now she’s going to be the one setting the final preconditions,” said Zweifach.
Kronman downplayed those differences, blaming the campaign for exaggerating contrasts in foreign policy. Kronman said the two are “temperamentally” different but should have no problem working together to shape America’s foreign policy.
Clinton will require Senate confirmation before she assumes her new post in January.