One of the many downsides to adulthood is the lack of successful grown-ups assuring us that we show much promise, that our lives have purpose, and that our future is bright. The upside is that we have access to the internet, where we can watch such grown-ups tell younger, smarter people those things and pretend we still have our whole lives ahead of us to set the world on fire, seize every moment, believe in the beauty of our dreams, etc.
I’m talking about commencement speeches, obviously, and the one Hillary Clinton gave at Wellesley College, her alma mater, on Friday is a paragon of the form. She made several crowd-pleasing references to dorms and dynamics specific to Wellesley, but her address was broad enough feel like an encouraging pat on the back for everyone. It was as if all of America was graduating with tens of thousands of dollars in student debt and the crushing sense that the world was about to eat us alive, and Clinton stepped in to say, no, you can do it, with all the optimism of Tim Kaine’s encouraging dadditude.
Clinton started out with some charming, vulnerable admissions: that she called home after her first month in college to tell her parents she wasn’t smart enough to be there, and that “chardonnay helped a little” in the months after her election loss. “Things didn’t go exactly the way I planned, but you know what, I’m doing OK,” she said. “Here’s what helped most of all: remembering who I am, where I come from, and what I believe.”
Those beliefs were shaped by the political climate surrounding Clinton’s own graduation in 1969, a few months after Richard Nixon’s inauguration. “We were asking urgent questions about whether women, people of color, religious minorities, immigrants would ever be treated with dignity and respect,” she recalled. “And by the way: We were furious about the last presidential election of a man whose presidency would eventually end in disgrace, with his impeachment for obstruction of justice, after firing the person running the investigation into him at the Department of Justice.” Future failed presidential candidates: They’re just like us!
At times, Clinton seemed to speak directly to anti-Trump activists and the newly energized resistance movement. In the years after Clinton left Wellesley, she said, “we turned back a tide of intolerance and embraced inclusion,” establishing rights and protections for wider circles of Americans, and “the ‘we’ who did those things were more than those in power who wanted to change course. It was millions of ordinary citizens, especially young people who voted marched and organized.” She added later, “One of the things that gave me the most hope and joy after the election, when I really needed it, was meeting so many young people who told me that my defeat had not defeated them.”
Clinton took some time to bash the Trump administration, as every good 2017 commencement speech should. She called his budget proposal “a con” and “an attack of unimaginable cruelty on the most vulnerable among us … shrouded in a trillion-dollar mathematical lie.” She shouted out to the history majors, who should know that “when people in power invent their own facts and attack those who question them, it can mark the beginning of the end of a free society.” She spoke eloquently about the importance of voting rights, freedom of speech, and open-mindedness.
Then came the good stuff, the inspirational cocaine that keeps us (me?) coming back to commencement speeches long after we’ve (I’ve?) aged out of whippersnapper territory. “I believe with all my heart that the future of America, the future of the world, depends on brave, thoughtful people like you insisting on truth and integrity right now, every day,” Clinton said. “You didn’t create the circumstances, but you have the power to change them.” YES. Yes I do! “Don’t be afraid of your ambition, your dreams, or even your anger. Those are powerful forces, but harness them to make a difference in the world.” My dreams have meaning and can make great things happen! “You are valuable, and powerful, and deserving of every chance and opportunity in the world. Not just your future, but our future depends on you believing that.” Please tape this to my cubicle. Clinton is the self-affirmation morning mirror mantra we (I?) need at this demoralizing moment in American history.