The commencement ceremony for the Wellesley College Class of 1969 found a young Hillary Diane Rodham behind a tall podium offering a stern rebuke to the nation’s most prominent black politician, who just happened to be sitting next to her. As her classmates looked on with a combination of admiration and horror, the 21-year-old Rodham extemporaneously responded to Sen. Edward Brooke’s denunciation of “coercive protests by anti-war college radicals.” Straying from her prepared speech, the valedictorian turned to Brooke and took up the mantle for a generation of agitated students. “We’re not in the position yet of leadership and power, but we do have that indispensible task of criticizing and constructive protests,” she explained. “The challenge now is to practice politics as the art of making what appears to be impossible, possible.” The Washington press, expecting more of the same humdrum commencement fare, was delighted by the speech and christened the young graduate a leader in the making.
The woman who became Hillary Clinton possessed an early preciousness for public service and controversy. And her talent for both certainly has not waned. Before the national spotlight began to magnify her every foible, Clinton served the children of Arkansas. She founded the Arkansas Advocates for Children and Families and introduced a pioneering program called Arkansas Home Instruction for Preschool Youth, which trained parents to work with their children in preschool preparedness and literacy. But by the time the former first lady of Arkansas left the White House, she was stained by scandal. Her conduct touched off an investigation into the White House Travel Office and her personal finances. Just last month, she was knee deep in the pardoning quagmire that met her husband Bill Clinton LAW ’73 on his way out the Oval Office door.
All of this makes the New York senator’s selection as Class Day speaker for the tercentennial Class of 2001 so bold and laudable. Americans, and presumably, Yalies, remain deeply riven over their feelings about her. She is an avatar of the modern working woman, balancing family, career, marriage and one of the nation’s most trying jobs: first lady. She is also a symbol of the cycle of White House scandal that has defined the last eight years, rightfully so or not. Few would disagree, no matter where they fall on the Hillary spectrum, that she remains America’s most prominent female political leader.
For those reasons, she makes an ideal Class Day speaker. She is as complicated and conflicted as the world graduates are about to enter, and she will likely speak to the ethical, political and personal dilemmas that have bedeviled her throughout her public life. She will also likely speak to a lifetime of public service.
Clinton is also, of course, a graduate of the Yale Law School, where she served on the Board of Editors of the Yale Review of Law and Social Action and met her future husband. Her status as an alumna is notable but unimpressive. It is her record of service and incredible public saga that make her a sound choice for Class Day speaker.