Tom Kacich: Hillary made news even when she was 22

Tom Kacich: Hillary made news even when she was 22

By the time she was 22 years old Hillary Rodham had been elected student body president at Wellesley College, had given the first-ever student commencement speech at the Massachusetts college that is still exclusively for women, had been featured in an issue of Life magazine, had been accused on the front page of the Boston Globe of upstaging a U.S. senator and had been denounced in an editorial by her hometown newspaper, the Chicago Tribune.

Even 900 miles away at the University of Illinois, Rodham was mentioned by Illinois Gov. Richard Ogilvie in a commencement address as representative of the student idealism of that time.

All of that attention 47 or more years ago undoubtedly prepared Rodham — the future Hillary Clinton — for a lifetime in the public eye, including a historic run for president.

The one-time "Goldwater Girl" from Park Ridge shed her conservative values while at Wellesley and within four years had moved 180 degrees politically, backing anti-war Democrat Sen. Eugene McCarthy for president in 1968. She became a student leader, ran for president of the student government and on May 31, 1969, gave the commencement speech that attracted so much attention.

Ruth Adams, the president of Wellesley, introduced Rodham as "cheerful, good humored, good company and a good friend to all of us."

In her prepared remarks Rodham talked mostly of her classes' time at Wellesley, of protests and demonstrations, and shared power and responsibility, and of the value of education.

But it was her extemporaneous remarks about the earlier address by Sen. Edward Brooke, a moderate, black, Republican senator from Massachusetts, that drew the greatest attention.

Near the end of his lengthy speech, Brooke — an ally of President Richard Nixon — suggested that society and government were making progress in at least one important area.

"If one takes what might be called the summary problem of our society, the persistence of poverty amid affluence, there has been measurable progress in these years. In 1959 some 22 percent of the nation's households were poor; by 1967 those below the poverty line totalled 13.3 percent," he said. "One can properly state, in viewing this trend that the bottle of poverty is still more than half full, but it is worth noting that it is less full than before.

"Special services to the disadvantaged have also been expanding, but the key point is that the total number of poor is now sufficiently small to contemplate rapid and large-scale action to end poverty. The Council of Economic Advisors now estimates the poverty gap, the sum required to lift all Americans out of nominal poverty, is less than $10 billion a year. That figure is not vastly beyond the recent increases in annual expenditures on domestic programs. For example, in the coming fiscal year, despite the tremendous budgetary competition, President Nixon is proposing to expand human resources funding by $5.5 billion, a 10 percent increase over 1969."

Rodham obviously was not impressed and early in her speech she remarked, somewhat vaguely and gently, "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.

"What does it mean to hear that 13.3 percent of the people in this country are below the poverty line? That's a percentage. We're not interested in social reconstruction; it's human reconstruction. How can we talk about percentages and trends? The complexities are not lost in our analyses, but perhaps they're just put into what we consider a more human and eventually a more progressive perspective."

The next morning The Boston Globe's headline was that Rodham had "upstaged" Brooke and challenged his views on protests.

Worse was the reaction of the Chicago Tribune.

"Miss Rodham's discourtesy to Sen. Brooke was unjustified," said the conservative Tribune. "To judge from published quotations from the senator's speech, Miss Rodham heard a sound, encouraging and timely address."

The Tribune said that Brooke "had developed a position in constructive contrast to that of campus hotheads so despairing that they try to pull the roof down on all heads, including their own."

It noted that Rodham said that she was going to Alaska for the summer "to find what it is that we all seem to have lost such a long time ago."

The Tribune taunted, "At the age of 21 she cannot personally have lost anything all that long ago. More likely, what she lacks she has not lost but has just not acquired."

The response from Ogilvie, a tank commander in World War II but a moderate Republican whose home was about 10 miles from where Hillary Rodham grew up, was much gentler.

He focused on the issue of trust.

"To Hillary Rodham, and to each of you I say this: We do trust you. We believe in you and we back you," said Ogilvie, then 47 years old and in the midst of his single term as governor. "Sometimes, it is true, some of you puzzle us. Your language is often strange to us. But the core of your idealism is not. Your ideals may be cloaked differently than were ours in our world — a world so close in time and yet so far removed by the rapid changes wrought during our lives. But it is because we too felt compassion and concern and commitment in our own youth that we trust and believe in you."

Ogilvie's final mention of Rodham was about her insistence that politicians "practice politics as the art of making what appears to be impossible possible."

He referred to his ongoing effort — an idea profoundly out of step with Illinois Republicans today — to enact a state income tax.

"If that is impossible," Ogilvie told the UI graduates, "so is this great university. And so is the best kind of education that our society demands of young people today."

In his closing remarks Ogilvie (who died in 1988) offered a message that surely Hillary Rodham Clinton could embrace.

"Twenty-five years from now you can expect to be called to account for what you have done, and what you have failed to do. And it won't be I or others of my generation who question your performance. The questions will be asked by your own children.

"All of us are asking more of life, both for ourselves ad for others. The price is what it has always been — to give more of yourself to what you believe.

"By staying alive all your lives, by being dedicated to an ever-greenness of the mind and spirit, you will have learned to live. And you will be prepared to render your own accounting."

Tom Kacich is a News-Gazette reporter and columnist. His column appears on Sundays and Wednesdays. He can be reached at 351-5221 or at kacich@news-gazette.com.

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