Forty-eight years after she spoke at her own Wellesley College graduation, Hillary Clinton returned to her alma mater for an impassioned speech about the importance of education, facts, open debate, service, togetherness, and never giving up hope.
There were jabs at President Donald Trump, of course — though the 69-year-old former Secretary of State never mentioned her former presidential opponent by name. Instead, she compared the political climate she and her classmates were living in during their graduation in 1969, under the reigns of now-disgraced President Richard Nixon.
“We didn’t trust government, authority figures, or really anyone over 30. In large part thanks to years of heavy casualties and dishonest official statements about Vietnam, and deep differences over civil rights and poverty here at home,” Clinton said. “We were asking urgent questions about whether women, people of color, religious minorities, immigrants, would ever be treated with dignity and respect.”
“And by the way, we were furious about the past 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,” she added — to the laughs and cheers of the crowd.
Back in 1969, her speech as a graduating senior dared to challenge a sitting United States senator — Edward W. Brooke — according to The Boston Globe.
“We feel that for too long our leaders have used politics as the art of the possible,” she had said. “And the challenge now is to practice politics as the art of making what appears to be impossible, possible.”
Though some parents and administrators did not take kindly to her message, Rodham’s classmates responded with a seven-minute standing ovation, who knew their speaker as a leader and campus activist, according to the Globe. She indeed acted as president of Wellesley Young Republicans prior to her evolution into a liberal Democrat.
The striking similarities in between these two times — 1969 and 2017 — allowed Clinton to provide guidance on how her generation got through “that tumultuous time” and “turned back the tide of intolerance and embraced inclusion.” Though, she admitted “today has some important differences.”
“The advance of technology, the impact of the Internet, our fragmented media landscape makes it easier than ever to splinter ourselves into echo chambers,” she said. “We can shut out contrary voices, avoid ever questioning our basic assumptions. Extreme views are given powerful microphones. Leaders willing to exploit fear and skepticism have tools at their disposal that were unimaginable when I graduated.”
“You are graduating at a time where there is a full-fledged assault on truth and reason,” Clinton said. “Just log on to social media for 10 seconds — it will hit you right in the face. People denying science, drumming up rampant fear about undocumented immigrants, Muslims, minorities, the poor. Turning neighbor against neighbor and sewing division at a time where we desperately need unity. Some are even denying things we see with our own eyes, like the size of crowds. And then defending themselves by talking about “alternative facts.’ ”
Launching into an attack of Trump’s administration, Clinton — who was class president at Wellesley and the institution’s first student commencement speaker ever in 1969— called the recently proposed budget “an attack of unimaginable cruelty of the most vulnerable among us: the youngest, the oldest, the poorest, and hard-working people who need a little help to gain or hang-on to a decent middle class life.”
“It grossly underfunds public education, mental health, and efforts to combat the opioid epidemic,” she said. “And in reversing our efforts to fight climate change it puts our future and our world at risk. And to top it off it is shrouded in a trillion-dollar mathematical lie. Let’s call it what it is: it’s a con. They don’t even try to hide it.”
Why does all this matter to Clinton? In her eyes, the dishonesty goes against the principles of enlightenment — in particular, the capacity for reason and critical thinking — our country is founded upon.
“If our leaders lie about the problems we face, we’ll never solve them,” she said. “It undermines confidence in our government as a whole. Which in turn, causes more cynicism and anger… That free and open debate is the life-blood of a democracy. …We should not abandon them — we should revere them. We should aspire to them every day in every single thing we do.”
Clinton also warned about what happens 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” — calling it “what authoritarian regimes throughout history have done.”
“They attempt to control reality — not just our laws and our rights and our budgets — but our thoughts and beliefs,” she said.
Telling the Class of 2017 this was important to Clinton, she said, because those students are the future politicians, technology inventors and leaders who have the capacity to bring change.
“You didn’t create these circumstances but you have the power to change them,” she told them. “If you feel powerless, don’t. Don’t let anyone tell you your voice doesn’t matter.”
That means, to use a phrase common by millennials, clapping back against the haters.
“In the years to come, there will be trolls galore,” Clinton said. “Online and in person. Eager to tell you that you don’t have anything worthwhile to say or anything meaningful to contribute. They even may call you a ‘nasty woman.’ Some may take a slightly more sophisticated approach and say your elite education means your out of touch with real people. In other words, sit down and shut up.”
“In my experience, that’s the last thing you should ever tell a Wellesley graduate.”
For a candidate who was often criticized about not being relatable, Clinton appeared candid and down-to-earth — making jokes about her time at Wellesley and self-depreciating digs about where she’s been since losing the 2016 presidential election.
“You may have heard that things didn’t exactly go the way I planned,” she said. “But you know what, I’m doing okay. I’ve gotten to spend time with my family, especially my amazing grandchildren. …Long walks in the woods. Organizing my closets. I won’t lie, chardonnay helped a little too.”
She also revealed how she’s been getting through the disappointment of loss. “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 said. “And I’m going to devote a lot of my future to helping you making your mark in the world … The work never ends.”
Recounting a note she received from Wellsely alums who had supported her in the campaign and wondered what to do next, Clinton advised her supporters to “keep going.”
“Don’t be afraid of your ambitions, your dreams, or even your anger,” Clinton said. “Those are powerful forces but harness them to make a difference in the world. Stand up for truth and reason. Do it in private — in conversations with your family, your friends, your workplace, your neighborhoods — and do it in public — in Medium posts, on social media, or grab a sign and head to a protest. Make defending truth and a free society a core value of your life every single day. …Don’t sit on the sidelines.”
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The former First Lady ended her speech talking about the cracked glass ceilings women still need to break.
“You are valuable, and powerful, and deserving of every chance an opportunity in the world,” she told the female graduates. “Not just your future but our future depends on you believing that. We need your smarts, of course. But we also need your compassion, your curiosity, your stubbornness. And remember you — you are even more powerful because you have so many people supporting you, cheering you on, standing with you through good times and bad.”
“I’m very optimistic about the future,” Clinton said in conclusion. “I believe in you with all my heart. I want you to believe in yourselves.”