Hillary Rodham Clinton ’69: Wellesley College 2017 Commencement Speaker

Hillary Rodham Clinton ’69: Wellesley College 2017 Commencement Speaker

August 30, 2019 0 By Stanley Isaacs


Now it is my great honor to welcome today’s speaker: Secretary Hillary Rodham Clinton, Wellesley Class of 1969. The Green Class of 1969. Madam Secretary, on behalf of all of us: Welcome. Welcome home. Forty-eight years ago, a young Hillary Rodham
delivered Wellesley’s first-ever student commencement
speech, the first of many ground-breaking firsts to distinguish
her career. At a time of great turmoil in this country,
she identified a singular challenge. It was—and I quote: “the art of making what appears to be impossible possible.” Last year, Hillary Clinton came closer than
any woman in history to breaking through what she’s so
memorably called “that highest, hardest glass ceiling.” She was the first woman ever nominated for
the U.S. presidency by a major party. — -And she won the popular vote! In this way—and in so many others—she’s
forever changed our sense of what is possible. Throughout her long career, she’s done this
again and again. As the first First Lady to have an office
in the White House’s West Wing, Hillary Clinton continued
her work on behalf of women, children, and families—work
that had been an abiding passion since her student
days. In a historic speech at the UN’s 4th World
Conference on Women in Beijing, she asserted that “Human
rights are women’s rights and women’s rights are
human rights”—words that still resonate today. Indeed, given current events, they feel newly urgent. Yet another first came in 2001, when she became
the first woman ever to serve as a U.S. Senator from
New York State. When terrorists attacked the World Trade Center only months later, then-Senator Clinton quickly
secured 20 billion dollars in aid to New York and
went on to assure that first responders got health care
for ailments that stemmed from exposure to toxic air and
dust. Many of us were deeply moved in March when
a student whose father was a first responder shared
how much these accomplishments meant to her family. In 2009, Hillary Clinton resigned her Senate
seat to become Secretary of State. Among her many accomplishments were sanctions
against Iran and an Israel-Hamas ceasefire. She made LGBT rights a focus of U.S. foreign
policy. It was under her leadership that the first
US Ambassador at Large for Global Women’s Issues was established. She is widely regarded as one of the
most effective Secretaries of State in the nation’s history. But for all her accomplishments, it would
be wrong to focus on these alone. At least as important is the spirit behind them, her deep grounding in faith,
family, and the vision of a better world. At the heart of Hillary Clinton’s life is a single goal: To help as many people as she possibly can. I am not the first to observe that she embodies
Wellesley’s Latin motto. Non Ministrari, sed Ministrare. Not to be ministered unto, but to minister. On my Wellesley desk, encased in a plastic
sleeve, I have a treasured letter from Secretary Clinton—a
response to my invitation to speak with Wellesley students
following the election. In the letter, she writes: “I won’t be
on the sidelines for long because I believe so deeply in my responsibility to keep doing my part to build a better, stronger, and fairer future for our country
and our world.” I have known Hillary Clinton for more than
20 years—and have admired her for far longer—but you
know what? Never has she inspired me more than she does today. She. Does. Not. Give. Up. Not when it matters. She reminds us both of our capacities—and
how far we have to go. And, as always, she continues to point the way towards that never impossible future. And now, Wellesley’s once and always, Secretary Hillary Rodham Clinton. Thank you. Thank you so much. Thank you Thank you very much for that warm welcome. I am so grateful to be here back at Wellesley,
especially for President Johnson’s very first Commencement, and to thank her, the
trustees, families and friends, faculty, staff, and guests for understanding and perpetuating
the importance of this college: what it stands for, what it has meant, and what it will do
in the years ahead. And most importantly, it’s wonderful to
be here with another green class to say, congratulations to the class of 2017! Now I have some of my dear friends here from
my class, a green class of 1969. And I assume, or at least you can tell me later, unlike us, you actually have a class cheer. 1969 Wellesley. Yet another year with no class
cheer. But it is such an honor to join with the College
and all who have come to celebrate this day with you, and to recognize the amazing futures
that await you. You know, four years ago, maybe a little more
or a little less for some of you— I told the trustees I was sitting with, after hearing
Tala’s speech, I didn’t think I could get through it. So we’ll blame allergy instead of emotion. But you know, you arrived at this campus. You arrived from all over. You joined students from 49 states and 58 countries. Now maybe you felt like you belonged right away. I doubt it. But maybe some of you did and you never wavered. But maybe you changed your major three times
and your hairstyle twice that many. Or maybe, after your first month of classes,
you made a frantic collect call (ask your parents what that was) back to Illinois to
tell your mother and father you weren’t smart enough to be here. My father said, “Okay, come home.” My mother said, “You have to stick it out.” That’s what happened to me. But whatever your path, you dreamed big. You probably, in true Wellesley fashion, planned
your academic and extracurricular schedule right down to the minute. So this day that you’ve been waiting for—and
maybe dreading a little—is finally here. As President Johnson said, I spoke at my Commencement 48 years ago. I came back 25 years ago to speak at another
Commencement. I couldn’t think of any place I’d rather
be this year than right here. Now, you may have heard that things didn’t
exactly go the way I planned. But you know what? I’m doing okay. I’ve gotten to spend time with my family,
especially my amazing grandchildren. I was going to give the entire Commencement
speech about them but was talked out of it. Long walks in the woods, organizing my closets, right? I won’t lie. Chardonnay helped a little, too. But here’s what helped most of all: remembering
who I am, where I come from, and what I believe. And that is what Wellesley means to me. This College gave me so much. It launched me on a life of service and provided
friends that I still treasure. So wherever your life takes you, I hope that
Wellesley serves as that kind of touchstone for you. Now if any of you are nervous about what you’ll
be walking into when you leave the campus, I know that feeling. I do remember my Commencement. I’d been asked by my classmates to speak. I stayed up all night with my friends, the
third floor of Davis, writing and editing my speech. By the time we gathered in the Academic Quad,
I was exhausted. My hair was a wreck. The mortarboard made it worse. But I was pretty oblivious to all of that,
because what my friends had asked me to do was to talk about our worries, and about our
ability and responsibility to do something about them. 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. 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. But here’s what I want you to know. We got through that tumultuous time, and once
again began to thrive as our society changed laws and opened the circle of opportunity
and rights wider and wider for more Americans. We revved up the engines of innovation and
imagination. We turned back a tide of intolerance and embraced inclusion. 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. Now, of course today has some important differences. The advance of technology, the impact of the
internet, our fragmented media landscape, make it easier than ever to splinter ourselves
into echo chambers. 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. And here’s what that means to you, the Class
of 2017. You are graduating at a time when there is
a full-fledged assault on truth and reason. Just log on to social media for ten seconds. It will hit you right in the face. People denying science, concocting elaborate,
hurtful conspiracy theories about child-abuse rings operating out of pizza parlors, drumming
up rampant fear about undocumented immigrants, Muslims, minorities, the poor, turning neighbor
against neighbor and sowing division at a time when 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 quote-unquote “alternative facts.” But this is serious business. Look at the budget that was just proposed
in Washington. It is an attack of unimaginable cruelty on
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 under-funds public education, mental
health, and efforts even to combat the opioid epidemic. And in reversing our commitment to fight climate
change, it puts the future of our nation 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? It matters because if our leaders lie about
the problems we face, we’ll never solve them. It matters because it undermines confidence
in government as a whole, which in turn breeds more cynicism and anger. But it also matters because our country, like
this College, was founded on the principles of the Enlightenment—in particular, the
belief that people, you and I, possess the capacity for reason and critical thinking,
and that free and open debate is the lifeblood of a democracy. Not only Wellesley, but the entire American
university system—the envy of the world—was founded on those fundamental ideals. We should not abandon them; we should revere them. We should aspire to them every single day,
in everything we do. And there’s something else. As the history majors among you here today
know all too well, 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. That is not hyperbole. It is what authoritarian regimes throughout
history have done. They attempt to control reality—not just
our laws and rights and our budgets, but our thoughts and beliefs. Right now, some of you might wonder, well
why am I telling you all this? You don’t own a cable news network. You don’t control the Facebook algorithm. You aren’t a member of Congress—yet. Because I believe with all my heart that the
future of America—indeed, the future of the world—depends on brave, thoughtful people
like you insisting on truth and integrity, right now, every day. You didn’t create these circumstances, but
you have the power to change them. Vaclav Havel, the dissident playwright, first
President of the Czech Republic, wrote an essay called “The Power of the Powerless.” And in it, he said: “The moment someone
breaks through in one place, when one person cries out, ‘The emperor is naked!’—when
a single person breaks the rules of the game, thus exposing it as a game—everything suddenly
appears in another light.” What he’s telling us is if you feel powerless,
don’t. Don’t let anyone tell you your voice doesn’t
matter. In the years to come, there will be trolls
galore—online and in person—eager to tell you that you don’t have anything worthwhile
to say or anything meaningful to contribute. They may even call you a Nasty Woman. Some may take a slightly more sophisticated
approach and say your elite education means you are out of touch with real people. In other words, “sit down and shut up.” Now, in my experience, that’s the last thing
you should ever tell a Wellesley graduate. And here’s the good news. What you’ve learned these four years is
precisely what you need to face the challenges of this moment. First, you learned critical thinking. I can still remember the professors who challenged
me to make decisions with good information, rigorous reasoning, real deliberation. I know we didn’t have much of that in this
past election, but we have to get back to it. After all, in the words of my predecessor
in the Senate, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, “Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not his own facts.” And your education gives you more than knowledge. It gives you the power to keep learning and
apply what you know to improve your life and the lives of others. Because you are beginning your careers with
one of the best educations in the world, I think you do have a special responsibility
to give others the chance to learn and think for themselves, and to learn from them, so
that we can have the kind of open, fact-based debate necessary for our democracy to survive
and flourish. And along the way, you may be convinced to
change your mind from time to time. You know what? That’s okay. Take it from me, the former president of the
Wellesley College Young Republicans. Second, you learned the value of an open mind
and an open society. At their best, our colleges and universities
are free market places of ideas, embracing a diversity of perspectives and backgrounds. That’s our country at our best, too. An open, inclusive, diverse society is the
opposite of and antidote to a closed society, where there is only one right way to think,
believe, and act. Here at Wellesley, you’ve worked hard to
turn this ideal into a reality. You’ve spoken out against racism and sexism
and xenophobia and discrimination of all kinds. And you’ve shared your own stories. And at times that’s taken courage. But the only way our society will ever become
a place where everyone truly belongs is if all of us speak openly and honestly about
who we are, what we’re going through. So keep doing that. And let me add that your learning, listening,
and serving should include people who don’t agree with you politically. A lot of our fellow Americans have lost faith
in the existing economic, social, political, and cultural conditions of our country. Many feel left behind, left out, looked down on. Their anger and alienation has proved a fertile
ground for false promises and false information. Their economic problems and cultural anxiety
must be addressed, or they will continue to sign up to be foot-soldiers in the ongoing
conflict between “us” and “them.” The opportunity is here. Millions of people will be hurt by the policies,
including this budget that is being considered. And many of these same people don’t want
DREAMers deported or health care taken away. Many don’t want to retreat on civil rights,
women’s rights, and LGBT rights. So if your outreach is rebuffed, keep trying. Do the right thing anyway. We’re going to share this future. Better to do so with open hearts and outstretched
hands than closed minds and clenched fists. And third, here at Wellesley, you learned
the power of service. Because while free and fierce conversations
in classrooms, dorm rooms, dining halls are vital, they only get us so far. You have to turn those ideas and those values into action. This College has always understood that. The motto which you’ve heard twice already,
“Not to be ministered unto, but to minister” is as true today as it ever was. If you think about it, it’s kind of an old-fashioned
rendering of President Kennedy’s great statement, “Ask not what your country can do for you,
ask what you can do for your country.” Not long ago, I got a note from a group of
Wellesley alums and students who had supported me in the campaign. They worked their hearts out. And, like a lot of people, they’re wondering:
What do we do now? Well I think there’s only one answer, to keep
going. Don’t be afraid of your ambition, of your
dreams, or even your anger – 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. So wherever you wind up next, the minute you
get there, register to vote, and while you’re at it, encourage others to do so. And then vote in every election, not just
the presidential ones. Bring others to vote. Fight every effort to restrict the right of
law-abiding citizens to be able to vote as well. Get involved in a cause that matters to you. Pick one, start somewhere. You don’t have to do everything, but don’t
sit on the sidelines. And you know what? Get to know your elected officials. If you disagree with them, ask questions. Challenge them. Better yet, run for office yourself some day. Now that’s not for everybody, I know. And it’s certainly not for the faint of heart. But it’s worth it. As they say in one of my favorite movies,
A League of Their Own, “It’s supposed to be hard. The hard is what makes it great.” As Tala said, the day after the election,
I did want to speak particularly to women and girls everywhere, especially young women,
because 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. We need your smarts, of course, but we also
need your compassion, your curiosity, your stubbornness. And remember, you are even more powerful because
you have so many people supporting you, cheering you on, standing with you through good times and bad. Our culture often celebrates people who appear to go it alone. But the truth is, that’s not how life works. Anything worth doing takes a village. And you build that village by investing love
and time into your relationships. And in those moments for whatever reason when
it might feel bleak, think back to this place where women have the freedom to take risks,
make mistakes, even fail in front of each other. Channel the strength of your Wellesley classmates
and experiences. I guarantee you it’ll help you stand up
a little straighter, feel a little braver, knowing that the things you joked about and
even took for granted can be your secret weapons for your future. 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. And I’m going to devote a lot of my future
to helping you make your mark in the world. I created a new organization called Onward
Together to help recruit and train future leaders organize for real and lasting change. The work never ends. When I graduated and made that speech, I did
say, and some of you might have pictures from that day with this on it, “The challenge
now is to practice politics as the art of making what appears to be impossible, possible.” That was true then. It’s truer today. I never could have imagined where I would
have been 48 years later—certainly never that I would have run for the Presidency of
the United States or seen progress for women in all walks of life over the course of my
lifetime. And yes, put millions of more cracks in that
highest and hardest glass ceiling. Because just in those years, doors that once
seemed sealed to women are now opened. They’re ready for you to walk through or
charge through, to advance the struggle for equality, justice, and freedom. So whatever your dreams are today, dream even bigger. Wherever you have set your sights, raise them
even higher. And above all, keep going. Don’t do it because I asked you to. Do it for yourselves. Do it for truth and reason. Do it because the history of Wellesley and
this country tells us it’s often during the darkest times when you can do the most good. Double down on your passions. Be bold. Try, fail, try again, and lean on each other. Hold on to your values. Never give up on those dreams. I’m very optimistic about the future, because
I think, after we’ve tried a lot of other things, we get back to the business of America. I believe in you. With all my heart, I want you to believe in
yourselves. So go forth, be great. But first, graduate. Congratulations!