Self-isolating at her Chappaqua, N.Y. home, the 2016 presidential candidate "committed to the role" of commencement speaker—as her teddy bears looked on

By Sandra Sobieraj Westfall and Sandra Sobieraj Westfall
May 19, 2020 06:41 PM
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Credit: Paul Marotta/WireImage

The 2020 commencement season may be playing out over Facebook, YouTube and Zoom, but Hillary Clinton is keeping it old school when it comes to her advice for adulting.

"...Thank people for what they do for you. And send thank-you notes. Being polite is not the same as being politically correct so treat others as you would want to be treated. Learn how to sew on a button. ... ," the 2016 Democratic presidential candidate says in her installment of the iHeartRadio podcast series, Commencement: Speeches for the Class of 2020.

Clinton, who was the student speaker for her own Wellesley College class of 1969, drew on that experience as she undertook a very different 2020 address — recorded from her social-distancing self-quarantine from coronavirus in the Chappaqua, N.Y., home she shares with her husband, the former president Bill Clinton.

Wearing the full academic regalia of her Yale Law School graduating class—"including the hat," she noted—Clinton spoke from a spare room with full bookshelves (a dictionary, a thesaurus, and an encyclopedia) overseen by teddy bears dressed as his-and-her political candidates.

She said she hesitated to accept the podcast invitation: "In this unprecedented time, what can anyone say about the future? ... Then I thought back to my own graduation in the midst of the Vietnam War, the assassinations of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Sen. Robert Kennedy, riots in our streets and an overall sense of confusion and uncertainty."

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And if the Class of 2020 is "feeling overwhelmed by what you'll be walking into, well, I'm a little familiar with that feeling," Clinton said. Richard Nixon was president when she graduated.

"My classmates and I didn’t trust the government, authority figures, or really anyone over 30. We were asking urgent questions about whether women, people of color, religious minorities, immigrants would ever be treated with dignity and respect," Clinton recalled.

"We were protesting a president who thought he was above the law," she said, adding after a pause and a small wry chuckle, "So, you know, a totally different world."

She saluted this year's graduating class for already responding to both Trump's presidency and the global health crisis with activism.

Clinton called out several initiatives this spring by college seniors helping the vulnerable in their communities—"Yes, your generation will always be remembered for graduating during a pandemic, but you'll also be remembered for the way you responded to this crisis with resilience and creativity," she said and noted how, in the 2018 midterm elections, voter participation in the 18-29 age group went up by nearly 80 percent.

Hillary Clinton

"This is a generation of voters. And, believe me, there is nothing more powerful than that," said Clinton, who won the 2016 presidential election's popular vote by 3 million votes. But just under 80,000 votes cast in three battleground states made the difference in denying her victory in the Electoral College.

Her practical advice for the class of 2020 drew on what she herself learned from weathering that bitter 2016 campaign:

"Good friends will get you through even the worst of times so stay in touch with them.  Thank people for what they do for you – and send thank-you notes. Being polite is not the same as being politically correct so treat others as you would want to be treated. Learn how to sew on a button. Check the source of everything you read or share. Vote in every single election — not just the presidential ones. Believe in science, including vaccinations. Wash your hands! And if all else fails, try meditation or alternate-nostril breathing. I did it before three debates with Donald Trump so trust me it really is a good technique for dealing with stress."

"Seriously, Google it."

RELATED VIDEO: The Obamas Will Give Virtual Commencement Speeches for the Class of 2020 amid Coronavirus

Finally, the grandmother of three exhorted the class to hold onto what they've learned during this time of their own loss.

"Is there something you’re doing just because it brings you joy? Are you painting or making sourdough starter or gardening or playing the piano? Well keep doing it.

"Have you been talking to your grandparents once a week on Facetime? Well keep that weekly date. When you go to the grocery store, do you find yourself treating your neighbors, those who are working there on the front lines, with a little extra kindness? Keep reaching for that sense of compassion," Clinton advised graduates.

"We’re going to need your empathy, your energy and your activism more than ever in the days and months and years ahead."