THE BLOG
01/06/2015 01:30 pm ET Updated Mar 08, 2015

When Edward Met Hillary

Former U.S. Senator Edward Brooke (R-Mass.) died Jan. 3 at age 95; he was lauded as the first African American elected to the Senate and as a moderate voice in the Republican Party. He has another historical moment as well: he was present at, and a catalyst for, an early spontaneous statement of political values by Hillary Rodham (later Clinton).

Brooke was the featured speaker at the Wellesley College Commencement in 1969. Hillary Rodham was the elected senior class speaker who would follow him. At the peak of anti-war sentiment and in a setting where new roles for women were being defined by the very audience he faced, Brooke's speech told the young women of Wellesley to be very leery of political demonstrations: "Protest without purpose is a perversion of democratic privilege." Rhetoric, the art of public speaking, focuses on carefully matching one's message to the audience and situation. The Vietnam War backlash and women's liberation meant that the Senator's go-slow worldview was at odds with the opinions of Wellesley women.

And that is when Edward met Hillary. After his remarks, Rodham rose to speak, postponed her prepared text, and extemporaneously critiqued Senator Brooke's arguments. Often commencement speakers are most notable for their presence and credentials, adding luster to a memorable photo-op. Their content is often forgettable and perfunctory -- that was not to be the case with Senator Brooke.

Senator Brooke misread his audience and its sentiment at the occasion. His speech was titled, "Progress in the Uptight Society: Real Problems and Wrong Solutions." Brooke begins by ingratiating himself to the audience, even if in a tone-deaf way:

Wellesley has even more admirers than its girls have beaux, and I am pleased to be among this college's most enthusiastic boosters. But your commencement from this great school is not a moment to indulge in lavish praise of the fine education you have acquired here, though fine it is. Nor is it a time for extravagant rhetoric about the glorious future which awaits you, though glorious I hope it will be. Rather I think you and I might better spend this time in a more sober assessment of the kind of society which is developing around us all.

His subsequent analysis of the rise of protest in America was generally negative. He referred to riots at the 1968 Democratic national convention as "Pyrrhic victories at best." Protesters' motives are dubious, according to Brooke: "Social and political problems become vehicles to be ridden instead of barriers to be overcome." He also doubted the long-term focus of protesters: "To demand change without some reasonable notion of what specific kind of change is possible and desirable amounts to little more than primitive breast-beating."

Brooke concluded by calling the bright young women of Wellesley back from the path of demonstrations: "Let us not dissipate these energies on phony issues or misguided missions... Let us not mistake the vigor of protest for the value of accomplishment... Let us forsake false drama for true endeavor." Those were his words of wisdom for the class of 1969.

Wellesley president Ruth M. Adams then introduced the senior class speaker: "There was no debate so far as I could ascertain as to who their spokesman was to be... She is also cheerful, good humored, good company, and a good friend to all of us and it is a great pleasure to present to this audience Miss Hillary Rodham."

Rodham began, "I am very glad that Miss Adams made it clear that what I am speaking for today is all of us -- the 400 of us- - and I find myself in a familiar position, that of reacting, something that our generation has been doing for quite a while now. We're not in the positions yet of leadership and power, but we do have that indispensable task of criticizing and constructive protest and I find myself reacting just briefly to some of the things that Senator Brooke said."

She observes, in contrast to Brooke's view of student protests: "There's a very strange conservative strain that goes through a lot of New Left, collegiate protests that I find very intriguing because it harkens back to a lot of the old virtues, to the fulfillment of original ideas. And it's also a very unique American experience. It's such a great adventure. If the experiment in human living doesn't work in this country, in this age, it's not going to work anywhere."

"There's that mutuality of respect between people where you don't see people as percentage points. [Brooke had made a point of praising the reduction of poverty in the U.S. from 22% in 1959 to 13.3% in 1967.] Where you don't manipulate people. Where you're not interested in social engineering for people," Rodham added.

In later years, Hillary Rodham Clinton has reinforced the point that her remarks were not an attack on the senator but a statement of her classmates' approach to social change. As for Wellesley, this event was the last and only time that the student speech followed the featured speaker.