Hillary Clinton’s political life began in 1968, when she was elected Wellesley College’s student body president. How she dealt with the tumult of that era, said journalist Michael Kruse, reveals a lot about her temperament.
When Hillary was president
IN THE FALL of 1968, in the wake of one of the most violent, volatile summers in American history, as young people clamored for an end to the war in Vietnam and for greater racial justice and women’s rights, the student body president at Wellesley College stood in front of the incoming freshman class and talked to them about the merits of conversation and committees.
“Although we, too, have had our demonstrations,” not-yet-21-year-old Hillary Rodham, the future Hillary Clinton, told the approximately 400 newest students of the country’s preeminent women’s college, “change here is usually a product of discussion in the decision-making process.” She had just spent much of her summer in Washington, interning on Capitol Hill. At a historic juncture of acute anti-establishment fervor, she told them to trust the system. Progress at Wellesley, she explained, “often results through action taken by the Senate of the College Government Association.”
The idea of “President Hillary” in 2016 is thrilling for some and scary to others. But for one small group—students at Wellesley in 1968 and ’69—it is a phenomenon they have already lived through. And while the student presidency has only so much in common with the job she’s bidding for now, what she did in elected office as a junior and senior in college turned out to be remarkably predictive of the kind of politician she has become.
Clinton has called the four years she spent on the secluded campus in this staid suburb of Boston “among the most exhilarating and informative of my life.” The most popular storyline from her college career is her shift from right to left on the ideological spectrum, but lots of her peers made the same transition. Much more telling is the way she ended up occupying an almost singular role in the school’s political life.
During a period of social upheaval, she was the most prominent intermediary between her increasingly radicalized fellow students and a change-resistant faculty and administration. “Hillary tended always to be what I will call a consensus person,” classmate Connie Hoenk Shapiro told me.
The college’s archives, including minutes of student government meetings and cover-age in the student newspaper, as well as interviews with professors and more than a dozen of her classmates and contemporaries, reveal a strikingly clear picture of the political personality that has defined the Democratic presidential nominee ever since: centrist, cautious, respectful of authority, progressive but never at the expense of maintaining access to the seats of power.
While some more disaffected students saw her as overly tame for the time—“way too mainstream, talking the language of the administration, co-opted,” one of them, who’s now dead, said in 1999—many of her classmates considered her more pragmatic style important and useful in the tumultuous atmosphere.
As she climbed the ranks of college government, from class representative to the student senate as a sophomore to chairman of the “Vil Juniors” organization and finally to student body president, she favored teach-ins over sit-ins, symposia over sign waving. She led successful initiatives that look somewhat small-bore now but felt like big deals then—persuading the college to eliminate antiquated curfew regulations; getting students more latitude in choosing courses. She was also supportive of a group of black students who pressured the administration to agree to admit more black students, hire more black professors, institute a black studies program, and end segregated room assignments.
And she did these things not only by listening to the concerns of fellow students but also by forging relationships with professors, deans, and a college president whom those same students saw as a stodgy obstacle to change.
“She was very pragmatic in terms of how do you approach the college administration,” said one of those professors, Alan Schechter, who was her political science thesis adviser.
The academic year that had started with her speech to the freshmen ended with a different speech on the last day of May—the much more written-about one that she gave at graduation. It was sufficiently noteworthy to land her in the pages of Life magazine, tapped as a bold voice of a new generation. The graduation speech offered a largely progressive message, but she delivered it in language that was far from incendiary— more a manifesto of moderation than a revolutionary’s battle cry. She talked about “constructive protest.” She noted a “conservative strain that goes through a lot of [the] New Left.”
And she invoked a poem by T.S. Eliot, “East Coker.” She had excerpted the poem, in fact, at the beginning of the 92-page thesis she had turned in earlier that month— about Saul Alinsky, the countercultural community organizer who became a punching bag of conservative commentators. The thrust of the thesis was what Rodham viewed as the inherent limits of radical activism, and among the many resonant lines of Eliot’s work, one stands out for its applicability to the ambitious young woman who was speaking in the graduation gown: “So here I am, in the middle way...”
‘I JUST COULDN’T get her to reveal anything,” said Laura Grosch, a fellow Wellesley student who spent three onehour sessions painting Rodham’s portrait. Grosch was a junior and an art history major—she’s now a professional artist living in North Carolina—and Rodham was a freshman. They lived in the same Davis Hall dorm. Grosch wanted the practice and some extra money—she charged $30—and Rodham volunteered. Over the course of the sessions, Grosch tried through informal conversation to tease out of Rodham some essential truth to inform her painting, “something poetic”—but it was a challenge. Rodham talked a lot about politics, conservative politics, Grosch recalled.
At the time, though, what was there to reveal? Rodham wasn’t so sure herself. She was from the middle of the country, Park Ridge, Ill., outside of Chicago. She was a churchgoer, a Methodist. Her mother was a Democrat, but quiet about it, and preached to her children an even keel by using a carpenter’s level as a visual aid—“you try to keep that bubble in the center,” she would say—but her stern, taskmaster father, on the other hand, was resolutely a Republican. And by the spring of her freshman year, his daughter was the gung ho head of Wellesley’s Young Republicans organization. She worked to recruit student workers for state and local Republican campaigns.
In the spring of her sophomore year, Rodham gave a speech from the steps of the main academic building to a crowd of some 350 people about the need for fewer dictated curriculum requirements. “If we get this going, maybe we’ll see a change before we graduate,” she announced—one of the first public signals of her patient, incrementalist disposition. One of the organizers of the event, Leslie Pickering Francis, wanted her to participate in part because she was known on campus as a conservative, she told me—a student who could help show the administration that this was an idea with broad backing.
Less than three months later, having relinquished her affiliation with the Young Republicans, Rodham joined friends at a hippie get-together on the banks of the Charles River in Cambridge—“ a vast ‘be-in,’” as The Boston Globe put it. Rodham sat still as Grosch painted a flower on her chin.
Rodham’s junior year in particular was a turning point. In the fall, she took a new course, Sociology 220, Urban Society, which was unusual for Wellesley not only because of its larger size—40 to 50 students, according to Steve London, the instructor—but also because of its content. The term at the time was “the urban crisis,” but it was unavoidably a class about race relations, London told me. “These were young women who had this real thirst for knowledge about what was going on in the country at that time.”
Rodham also became increasingly anti-war, which put her at odds with her father. She still self-identified as a moderate Republican, but struggled to square this personal evolution with her political upbringing. In a letter to her youth pastor from Park Ridge, she posed the question, “Can one be a mind conservative and a heart liberal?”
She started to settle somewhere in the middle. Friends went into Harvard Square or down to New York or Washington to attend aggressive, tear gas–tense marches and rallies. They don’t remember Rodham joining them. “Hillary,” Shapiro said, “was by no means radical.” What she was, was a budding policy wonk—one who wanted to be student body president.
Her role as the chair of the Vil Juniors— which made her one of the more prominent upperclassmen on campus to new freshmen—allowed her to meet, talk with, and be known by students who now were potential voters in campus elections. Rodham didn’t rest. She spent three weeks walking the halls of dorms asking for votes.
Her platform, such as it was, leaned heavily on a faith in Robert’s Rules of Order. In committees. “As president,” she wrote in a statement about her candidacy in The Wellesley News on Feb. 15, 1968, “I would...like to explore the feasibility of having students as advisory members of committees directly concerning us such as the library policy committee.”
Rodham’s election surprised no one but (maybe) herself. She gushed to London. “She said, ‘Can you believe it?’” the sociology professor told me. “Those were her exact words: ‘Can you believe I was elected president of the student government?’”
That spring, when Rodham was a kind of president-elect, the campus grew increasingly anxious. Anti-war sentiment had surged to a point where even Wellesley—never close to a radical hotbed like Berkeley or Ann Arbor or Columbia—seemed like its own brand of tinderbox. “I stayed up all night,” she would say more than two decades later to a writer from the alumni magazine, “to talk students out of staging a Vietnam War protest that would embarrass our college.”
ALMOST HALF A century later, in the archives in the campus library, the typed-out minutes of the meetings Rodham ran as college government president show an interesting, unmistakable pattern: Rodham is mentioned actually relatively infrequently. She opens the meetings, and she usually closes them. The rest of the time, it’s almost always other people doing the talking. To the young women, professors, and administrators who had come to know her through her first three years on campus, this was not a surprise. She was a capable orator, many of them told me, but was much more comfortable as a listener.
“I think she was very good at bringing people along, explaining why process works, why it allows your voice to be heard,” said Eleanor Dean “Eldie” Acheson, another classmate and a lifelong friend.
As interesting as her absence in the minutes of the meetings is her presence—when she talked, what she talked about, and how. In a meeting in October, for example, members of a civil rights group called Ethos seethed at what they saw as school officials’ lack of urgency in implementing changes they had agreed to after a threatened hunger strike. One dean, according to the minutes, “talked of the problems that could arise in filling in the background gaps for students admitted with inadequate preparation.” The stance, and the implication, infuriated Ethos’ leaders. “WE WILL NOT BE RAPED,” read an Ethos-signed letter in the News.
Rodham’s response was considerably more measured. “Miss Rodham,” read the minutes, “expressed the hope that the Wellesley community as a whole would become more involved with the college and would work for the ideas expressed above.” The take in the News? “Rodham...remarked that it is because of the possibility and the potential of the College that ‘we are so frustrated.’”
Throughout that year, and especially in the second semester, the future 2016 Democratic nominee worked on her thesis about Alinsky, the radical activist. Today, more than her commencement speech, those 92 pages read like a capstone of her own intellectual and ideological evolution at Wellesley. “Alinsky’s conclusion that the ‘ventilation’ of hostilities is healthy in certain situations is valid, but across-the-board ‘social catharsis’ cannot be prescribed,” she wrote. “Catharsis has a way of perpetuating itself so that it becomes an end in itself.”
She continued: “This society seems to be in a transition period, caught between conflict and consensus.” It was clear where this 21-year-old stood: “...as our ‘two societies’”— the establishment, the anti-establishment— “move further apart contrived conflict serves to exacerbate the polarization.”
Later, in her first memoir, Hillary Rodham Clinton would make it plain. Alinsky “believed you could change the system only from the outside,” she wrote in Living History. “I didn’t.”
Excerpted from an article that originally appeared in Politico Magazine. Reprinted with permission.