Audio excerpts of Hillary Clinton’s 1969 student commencement address at Wellesley College have been released for the first time by the college.
The excerpts, as well as a full transcript that was previously released, reveal some of Clinton’s early thoughts on politics and the political process. In it, she attempts to find a a balance between idealism and practicality and tries to moderate an activist message. She refers repeatedly to what’s “possible” and “impossible” and the gap her generation faced between “expectation” and “reality.” Those are tensions many would say she’s still fighting on the campaign trail today.
Clinton, who was a campus activist, also describes her class having come of age in the early ’60s, which she calls “years dominated by men with dreams.” Arriving at Wellesley, a selective women’s college, “we found … that there was a gap between expectation and realities.” But, she continues, “it wasn’t a discouraging gap and it didn’t turn us into cynical, bitter old women at the age of 18.”
Excerpts from the were included in a Life magazine feature titled “The Class of ’69.” The speech reportedly received a seven-minute standing ovation.
Listen to or read fuller excerpts below. (Note: Audio excerpts have been cut together from various parts of Clinton’s speech by Wellesley College.)
‘Empathy doesn’t do us anything’
Part of the problem with just empathy with professed goals is that empathy doesn’t do us anything. We’ve had lots of empathy, we’ve had lots of sympathy but we feel that for too long our leaders have viewed politics as the art of the possible. And the challenge now is to practice politics as the art of making what appears to be impossible possible.
(Here, Clinton was responding to Sen. Edward Brooke, who also spoke at the commencement).
‘It didn’t turn us into cynical, bitter old women’
The question about possible and impossible was one that we brought with us to Wellesley four years ago. We arrived not yet knowing what was not possible. Consequently, we expected a lot. Our attitudes are easily understood having grown up, having come to consciousness in the first five years of this decade —years dominated by men with dreams, men in the civil rights movement, the Peace Corps, the space program — so we arrived at Wellesley and we found, as all of us have found, that there was a gap between expectation and realities. But it wasn’t a discouraging gap and it didn’t turn us into cynical, bitter old women at the age of 18. It just inspired us to do something about that gap. What we did is often difficult for some people to understand. They ask us quite often: ‘Why, if you’re dissatisfied, do you stay in a place?’ Well, if you didn’t care a lot about it you wouldn’t stay. It’s almost as though, my mother used to say, ‘You know I’ll always love you but there are times when I certainly won’t like you.’ Our love for this place, this particular place, Wellesley College, coupled with our freedom from the burden of an inauthentic reality allowed us to question basic assumptions underlying our education.
‘We have made progress’
We worked for a say in some of the process of academic decision-making. And luckily we were at a place where, when we questioned the meaning of a liberal arts education there were people with enough imagination to respond to that questioning. So we have made progress. We have achieved some of the things that we initially saw as lacking in that gap between expectation and reality.
‘Fear is always with us but we just don’t have time for it’
The struggle for an integrated life existing in an atmosphere of communal trust and respect is one with desperately important political and social consequences. And the word consequences of course catapults us into the future. One of the most tragic things that happened yesterday, a beautiful day, was that I was talking to a woman who said that she wouldn’t want to be me for anything in the world. She wouldn’t want to live today and look ahead to what it is she sees because she’s afraid. Fear is always with us but we just don’t have time for it. Not now.