Stump and Circumstance


In the spring of 1969, Hillary Rodham, then 21, gave her first graduation speech, at her own exit from Wellesley College, offering up fiery words that would later be featured on the pages of Life as a kind of counter-commencement for the era. She stunned the old folks by chastising the day’s main speaker—Senator Edward Brooke, of Massachusetts—for delivering irrelevant remarks.

“We’re not in positions yet of leadership and power,” she said at the time, “but we do have that indispensable task of criticizing.”

This spring, Hillary Clinton, New York’s junior senator, has taken to the graduation podium again—but as the featured politician who gets criticized. When she delivered her remarks at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, in Troy, New York, she was interrupted by a heckler who shouted, “It’s your war, Hillary!” Some students described her address as “too political.” Others, like Andrew Mott, considered it irrelevant.

As Mott put it in an e-mail to the Voice, “The speech was solely meant as a way to convince others that she is a moderate, and had very little, if anything, to do with the students.”

Of course Mott, an avowed Republican, doesn’t speak for the many fans who made Clinton a hot commodity on the graduation circuit this year. The putative presidential candidate ranked among the most popular speakers around, crisscrossing New York from upstate to Manhattan and back again. She delivered four commencement addresses here and a fifth to an all-women’s college in Decatur, Georgia.

Clinton pretty much stuck to the traditional script, largely steering clear of politics and focusing on words of exhortation, counsel, and caution. Transcripts of the addresses range toward seven pages, yet her staff says she delivers them without notes. She’s clearly developing a certain style on the stump—tailoring her remarks to fit the audiences, saving commentary about September 11 for Manhattan students, or thoughts on the state’s decaying tree canopy for forestry graduates. She personalizes her talks in a way that might surprise some, poking fun at herself, laughing along.

The senator also brought a somber political tone to some campuses, decrying the increasing financial barriers the poor face in obtaining a college education, lamenting the perils of gender inequities here and abroad, and issuing warnings about the “misuse and politicization of science.”

Here are outtakes from what could be a dress rehearsal for a 2008 White House run.

Sage advice

Go through your life with kindness. Give it wherever you can, even if you don’t expect it in return. Show compassion for those who are not as fortunate or as lucky. Understand that many of us have blessings we had nothing to do with. They’re a gift from our creator; they were in our genes, and we didn’t pick our parents. —AT AGNES SCOTT COLLEGE, MAY 14

None of us has all the answers. There’s a play on Broadway now in which there’s a great line. One of the characters says, “There are three truths in this world—your truth, my truth, and the truth.” None of us will know the truth about everything. What we have to do is work toward understanding not only our truth, but the others’ truth. . . . We now have to see ourselves as others see us. —AT MARYMOUNT MANHATTAN COLLEGE, MAY 20

Bear in mind that today truly is a beginning; it’s a place along the road you’re traveling that really marks accomplishment and achievement. But you will not always be successful in everything you try. And I believe it is often your failures, your mistakes, that will teach you more, so long as you remain resilient and committed to being all you can be to live up to your God-given potential. —AT RENSSELAER POLYTECHNIC INSTITUTE, MAY 21

Grand ideals

You cannot have a democracy if half the people are shut out. You cannot have freedom if half the people are told at birth they are inferior. You cannot have peace where half the people can authoritatively decide how the other half lives. It is imperative that we stand—not just rhetorically—for peace and freedom and democracy, but that we work to help educate young women to take their places in free, democratic societies. —AT AGNES SCOTT

America is more than the sum of individuals. America is not just a place; it is an idea of historic significance. Its values and its ideals of sacrifice, of liberty, of freedom, of democracy have called upon previous generations to do their part. And those generations have answered that call. —AT PAUL SMITH’S COLLEGE, MAY 1

For the entire history of the United States . . . our country has believed in the power of science and research to serve humanity; to make it possible for more people to live healthier lives; to transform processes and agriculture and industry to put more people to work; to make work more rewarding; to create more wealth. . . . I agree with that, because at the root of democracy is free inquiry, open debate, and dialogue. —AT RPI

She said, she said

Last week, Senator Clinton whipped up loyalists at a Manhattan fundraiser for her 2006 re-election bid, bashing President Bush and company for “consolidating and abusing power to further their own agenda.” She dished out such white-hot rhetoric to the 1,000-strong crowd at the “New York Women for Hillary” event that she elicited comparisons to Democratic Party chair Howard Dean, now catching flak for his remarks about Republicans being mostly “white Christians.”

Yet some of Clinton’s June 6 talk sounded awfully familiar. Like when she said the administration “wants to turn Washington into an evidence-free zone.” She added, “We are living in a time when the other side doesn’t want us to see the facts. Facts are inconvenient—facts about global warming, facts about mercury in the air . . . if you believe that decisions should be made on ideology.”

The senator, it seems, borrowed the ideas from a graduation speech she’d given at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute on May 21. Consider her earlier words:

Oftentimes today, it feels as though there are some among us in powerful positions who would like to turn Washington, D.C., into an evidence-free zone, where the facts are subordinate to opinions. . . . We cannot afford in the 21st century to undermine scientific inquiry, to turn our back on what may be, from time to time, inconvenient and disquieting facts.

Clinton continued, citing the issues of global climate change and mercury pollution as “examples of science being caught up in politics . . . where we rely on distorted science to feed a political agenda.”

She didn’t exactly throw red meat at her RPI audience, as she did at the fundraiser. Still, she didn’t shy away from national politics, either—traditionally a taboo on the graduation circuit.

“That may be reflective of today’s more partisan, charged atmosphere,” suggests Lee Edwards of the Heritage Foundation, who tracks politicians’ commencement speeches.

Or it may reflect a candidate laying groundwork for future campaigns. —K.L.

Backhanded Bush whacks

Scientific integrity, specifically with regard to public policy making, has been under attack, under almost constant criticism. Interference in and abuse of publicly funded science, suppressing or disregarding scientific evidence, manipulating scientific advice, politicizing scientific advisory panels, are all on the rise. Oftentimes, it feels as though there are some among us in powerful positions who would like to turn Washington, D.C., into an evidence-free zone, where the facts are subordinate to opinions. —AT RPI

Abraham Lincoln . . . never lost his commitment to the importance of education. In the middle of the Civil War—which was the bloodiest conflict in our nation’s history—he decided to ask for legislation and funding to create a system of land grant colleges. Now one would think that a president . . . would be focused completely on issues of war. But he understood something that some leaders forget: that in America we have to be investing today for a better future tomorrow. —AT CITY UNIVERSITY OF NEW YORK HONORS COLLEGE, MAY 31

So many distinguished Americans have stepped up to this podium, and some are particularly well known for the speeches they gave from here. We all remember the speech that President Abraham Lincoln gave here that really tried to outline the importance of pursuing our highest ideals as the country was splitting apart over the question of slavery. Other presidents have also stood here: Grant, Cleveland, Taft, Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, and, of course, Bill Clinton. In fact, President Clinton spoke here on May 12, 1993, about the importance of dealing with the federal deficit. We’ll have to hear that speech again. —AT CUNY


What I’ve tried to do is join the resources of our colleges and universities with our employers to create opportunities for new jobs, and new economic prosperity. And here in the North Country, we’ve been experimenting. . . . What we did was work with businesses and help them become part of the global marketplace by marketing their wares on eBay. [I]t shocked me that there were so many people who had good services and products to offer here but didn’t have a year-round marketplace . . . because of the seasonal nature of tourism. —AT PAUL SMITH’S

I am still convinced that we have yet to tap the full potential of the tourism market in New York. . . . We have not only the beauty of the Adirondacks, the beauty of so much of the rest of the state . . . but we have the historical heritage and the culture as well. And we need to be smarter about how we present tourism to the rest of the world. And we have some assets that nobody else has. But we haven’t yet put them together in a way I think is most effective in attracting people here. —AT PAUL SMITH’S

RPI has over $40 million in current annual research funding, much of which comes from industry. I was pleased to be a partner in helping to obtain federal funding to enable RPI to invest by purchasing high-speed computers needed to do today’s complex biological research [and] to attract new faculty members. —AT RPI

Funny ha-ha

I was never very good in science. . . . When I was a very young girl, I wanted to be an astronaut, so I wrote off to this new agency called NASA and asked how a 12-year-old girl could become an astronaut. I got an answer back saying, “We’re not accepting women into the astronaut program.” I was somewhat comforted by my mother, who told me that my eyesight was much too bad anyway.

I next decided that I wanted to be a nuclear physicist. . . . But for me, there were a few obstacles along the way, you know, like the periodic table and things like that. Then I decided that I wanted to be a doctor, and I took all of the science courses in high school, planning to be a doctor, until I actually had the opportunity to shadow some doctors in our local hospital and passed out at the first sight of sickness.

So clearly, there wasn’t anything left for me than to become a lawyer. —AT RPI

You might wonder what Gerry Ferraro and I were talking about as all of the graduates’ names were called and they walked by. Could it have been a matter of great national or international significance? . . . No, actually, we were commenting on all of the shoes. I confess, having quite a few years separating me from my own graduation, to a bad case of shoe envy. I can’t even remember when I was limber and young enough to wear some of those shoes. —AT MARYMOUNT