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Hillary's First Encounter with a U.S. Black Senator -- She Came Out Swinging and Strident in 1969

In a new, candid and engrossing memoir, Bridging the Divide, former Massachussetts Senator Edward W. Brooke, now eighty-six years old, takes readers on a fascinating trip that retraces his fast climb in politics-- and then his crushing, unexpected fall from grace.

In his political prime, Brooke was a star politician blessed with an unlikely pedigree--a black, moderate Republican who championed consensus among both parties. He was the Barack Obama of his time--polished, popular, charismatic, twice appearing on the cover of Time. But a nasty divorce with his first wife--an Italian war bride -- which the press maliciously covered contributed to his defeat when he ran for a third term.

In his memoir, he discusses reaching out to the youth of America at a time when protests against the Vietnam War were splitting apart the nation. On May 31, 1969, he spoke at Wellesley College's commencement. He writes, "I felt close to Wellesley, many of its students had worked in my campaigns," and despite "widespread student demonstrations" on many college campuses, "I chose to speak about student dissent in a free society. I attempted to make a distinction between productive dissent and disruption. I told the graduates, their families, and friends that as long as a society retains a capacity for nonviolent political change, violent political action is unacceptable. I ended my remarks {by mentioning} that the poverty rate of 22 percent in 1959 had fallen to 13.3 percent in 1967. This decline, I suggested reflected a society that was concerned about all its people. But I said we must do much more."

Brooke then discusses what happened next. "The next speaker was the student government president and the first student ever to speak at a Wellesley commencement. She was blonde, slight in her academic robe and wore the round oversize glasses that were popular then. What she had to say took me and most of the audience by surprise. The young woman was not rude but her tone was strident. She challenged my comments as if we were in a debate. "What does it mean that 13.3 pecent of Americans are poor?" she demanded. "How about talking about the humans, not the statistics!"

Hillary Rodham's speech netted her local media coverage in the Boston papers and a photo in Life. But, according to Brooke, "Wellesley's President Ruth Adams and several members of the faculty and graduating class apologized for the stridency of the young woman's speech, which could only be taken as an affront to me. I was a little stunned by her anger and wondered how my rather mild remarks could have generated such fury."

Brooke adds the following personal observation. "Biographers of Hillary Rodham Clinton have cited the "The Speech" as a watershed moment in her political development. I think that no matter who the commencement speaker had been that day, or what he or she had said, Hillary Rodham planned to use the situation to her advantage. She certainly has no reason to criticize me or my record in the Senate; she had been a volunteer in my 1966 Senate campaign. I recall {her} as a supremely confident young woman who knew where she wanted to go and how she wanted to get there. Nothing she has done or said since has changed my impression."

This essay is cross-linked with which debuted March 2, 2007.