Back on campus 48 years later, Hillary Clinton didn’t hold back.
In a fiery commencement speech at her alma mater of Wellesley College on Friday, Clinton went after President Donald Trump and the controversies that are swirling around him, comparing his imperiled presidency to that of Richard Nixon’s.
“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,” Clinton said, discussing the sentiment on campus the year that she graduated.
The former presidential nominee’s sharp remarks — met with thunderous applause and cheers from the graduating class — was yet another sign of Clinton’s increasing eagerness to publicly take on the man who handed her a second failed presidential bid.
Clinton’s comments also appeared to suggest she might even be relishing the deepening crisis at the Trump White House as it confronts a barrage of accusations of colluding with the Russians. Clinton’s reference to Nixon’s firing of an investigator was a clear knock at Trump’s controversial decision to sack his former FBI Director James Comey. Since Comey’s ouster, the President has been accused of urging Comey to end a probe into his ex-national security adviser, Michael Flynn.
Clinton went on to take other thinly veiled digs at Trump, saying that “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,” she added. “They attempt to control reality. Not just our laws and our rights and our budgets, but our thoughts and beliefs.”
Just how close Clinton came to the presidency was a running theme throughout Friday’s ceremony.
Wellesley College president Paula Johnson noted in her introduction of Clinton that the famous alum almost broke the “highest, hardest glass ceiling.”
“And she won the popular vote,” Johnson added for good measure.
The student speaker, Tala Nashawati — a Middle Eastern Studies major from Ohio and the daughter of two Syrian immigrants — quoted from Clinton’s concession speech to Trump.
“In the words of Secretary Clinton: Never doubt that you are valuable and powerful and deserving of every chance in the world to pursue your dreams,” Nashawati said. “To add to her wise words, let me say: Never doubt that you are durable. You are valuable. You are and unique.”
Clinton’s commencement speech came more than six months after her defeat to Trump, and almost five decades after a young Hillary Rodham’s speech at her own graduation thrust her into the national spotlight.
Clinton, now 69, got her diploma from the women’s liberal arts college outside of Boston in 1969. The fact that Clinton, who was class president, would speak before her peers on graduation day was remarkable on its own: Prior to that year, the college had never had a student commencement speaker.
But it was her now-well known decision to improvise — and publicly take a US senator on from the stage — that gave Clinton her first real taste of national recognition, fame and controversy, perhaps a defining moment that helped set young Clinton on a path to politics.
Massachusetts Republican Sen. Edward Brooke had just given his remarks, urging the young women who were about to receive their diplomas not to protest the Vietnam War (antiwar demonstrations and sentiments were widespread at the time, particularly among young people).
Clinton, seemingly with little effort, delivered an impromptu response to Brooke, specifically latching on to Brooke’s message that he had “empathy” for those who opposed the Vietnam War.
“Part of the problem with just empathy with professed goals is that empathy doesn’t do us anything,” Clinton said, according to a transcript available on the college’s website. “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.”
Those off-the-cuff comments, inserted into the middle of her prepared speech, made Clinton both a hero among some on campus and also drew her scorn. The remarks also no doubt put Clinton on the map: She was featured in LIFE Magazine’s spread on the class of 1969 that summer.
Just as she had in 1969, Clinton on Friday called on the graduating class to be active in the political process.
“Don’t sit on the sidelines,” she said. “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.”
Her criticism of Trump aside, Clinton finished her remarks on a note of optimism.
“I believe in you with all my heart,” she said. “I want you to believe in yourselves. So go forth, be great, but first, graduate.”