Hillary Clinton Wellesley commencement speech: Robert Pinsky on the politician’s 1969 breakthrough.

Robert Pinsky on the Moment Hillary Rodham Became a Public Figure

Robert Pinsky on the Moment Hillary Rodham Became a Public Figure

Then, again.
July 2 2013 8:27 AM

When Hillary Was Already Hillary

Hillary Rodham’s 1969 commencement speech, and the young poetry professor who saw it.

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It was the radical spirit of 1969 that led Wellesley's administrators to invite a student speaker, an unprecedented move. Wellesley by tradition had no valedictorian. One alumna said, “Many of us are still recovering from the shock” of  having a student speaker, as Judith Martin (Wellesley '59), also known as Miss Manners, reported in her Washington Post piece about attending the event.

Brooke's talk was carefully middle-of-the-road: the safest route for a black politician elected in Massachusetts, with its 97 percent nonblack population. Not long before, he had explicitly denounced Georgia's segregationist Gov. Lester Maddox on one side of him and black separatist Stokely Carmichael on the other. In his Wellesley talk, Brooke stressed his conviction that things had been getting better: “When all is said and done,” he said (quoted in the Fitchburg Sentinel of June 2, 1969), “I believe the overwhelming majority of Americans will stand firm on one principle: coercive protest is wrong, and one reason that it is wrong is that it is unnecessary.”

His phrase “coercive protest” was a clever speechwriter's attempt to characterize the widespread student demonstrations (and other demonstrations) of the time—clever but horribly deficient in relation to the voter registration efforts in Mississippi, which had led to murder and police criminality. Brooke seemed to be averting his eyes from American forces napalming villages and defoliating forests in Vietnam, and from the violent disorder in segregated American cities. After the recent years of assassinations, urban riots, demonstrations, and student strikes, the words “coercive protest” were pusillanimous.


The senator accepted polite applause. Next, Wellesley's alumna-shocking innovation of a student speaker was briefly explained by Ruth Adams, the college president—a job made difficult by turbulent times, even on a genteel campus as pacific as Wellesley's. (Showing impatience with her alma mater, Judith Martin in her Post story wrote about Brooke's bland commencement address: “Given at Harvard, that speech would have invited a mass walkout.”)

Hillary Rodham came to the microphone and explained to the assembly of seniors, families, alumnae, faculty, trustees, and reporters that before her prepared remarks she would respond briefly to Brooke. What I recall vividly about her impromptu remarks is less what the 21-year-old student politician had to say than the shrewdly controlled way she formulated her objection to Brooke's performance. How could somebody so young have improvised a devastatingly courteous, even courtly critique of the senatorial bromides?

I remember a rhetoric of respectful regret, along the lines of: “Senator, we hoped you might have said something about conditions in our cities,” and “Senator, we need you to speak about the escalation of war in Southeast Asia.” She expressed sadness at her need to say that empathy was not enough, that she and the other students needed Brooke's guidance, not empty generalities. The “art of the possible” was not enough. Brooke had mentioned as good news that the percentage of Americans below the poverty line had decreased to 13.3 percent. “That's a percentage” she said, with polite disdain.

Her remarks worked, though the present Hillary Clinton might wince at young Hillary's scorn for percentages, her telling the senator he owed his audience something better than “a lot of rhetoric.” The poise, good manners, and fearless cogency of those improvised remarks gave them not just rhetorical power, but authority. Hillary Rodham's speech—the first ever given by a graduating senior at Wellesley—was interrupted by frequent applause and followed by a standing ovation that lasted (says the Fitchburg Sentinel, confirming my memory) for seven minutes.

No need to exaggerate: Hillary's language as reported in transcripts and news reports is not stirring or imaginative, though some may find some of the terms surprising:

“ ... a prevailing, acquisitive, and competitive corporate life, including tragically the universities, is not the way of life for us. We're searching for a more immediate, ecstatic, and penetrating mode of living. And so our questions, our questions about our institutions, about our colleges, about our churches, about our government continue.”

 For those of us who were there, this is pretty standard language of 1969. What was amazing, and not standard, was the gift for rising to an occasion: a political gift and a matter of talent surging toward its realization. As part of the prepared part of her speech, Hillary Rodham read a poem by a classmate, a composition also touchingly of that era. On that day in May, in other words, the notes that were struck may have been unremarkable, but the occasion was like hearing a very young, uniquely gifted musician play: something in the sheer, expressive command—a word used about athletes, as well as musicians—was extraordinary, unmistakable, and already formed.

Those poetry students had their idea of what a woman was or would be in their generation. The founders of Wellesley College and the trustees who revised its charter in 1969 had their ideas. So too did the alumni who were shocked by the tradition-breaking student commencement speaker, or approving, or some of each. In some vague way, I must have had my own ideas about such matters. But whether or not Hillary Clinton runs for president in 2016, it was Hillary Rodham who pointed the way in 1969.