May 31, 1969
There was a feeling I got before I spoke in front of an audience and sometimes also before an event that was less public but still important, an event that could have consequences in my life—taking the LSAT’s, for example, which I’d done in a classroom on the Wellesley campus. The feeling was a focused kind of anticipation, it was like a weight inside my chest, but it never exactly came from being nervous. I always had prepared, and I always knew I could do it. Thus the feeling was a sense of my own competence blended with the knowledge that I was about to pull off a feat most people thought, correctly or not, they couldn’t. And this knowledge contributed to the final aspect of the feeling, which was loneliness—the loneliness of being good at something.
My college graduation occurred on the quad, and I was scheduled to speak after Senator Edward Brooke, who was from Massachusetts. As I listened to him, I sat near the stage in my black gown and mortarboard. My father had traveled from Park Ridge, Illinois, without my mother or brothers, and was seated many rows behind me. I would be the first-ever student speaker at a Wellesley graduation.
I’d slept little the night before, between finishing my speech and being gripped by nostalgia. Even though Wellesley had, during the upheavals of the last four years, come to seem an almost embarrassingly cloistered place, I’d loved being a student there, loved the green lawns and the lake; loved the wood-paneled classrooms where I’d listened to lectures on Spinoza and quantum mechanics and argued about what it meant to live in a just society; and, of course, loved my friends, who were now headed in many directions.
Senator Brooke’s speech was winding down, and he still hadn’t explicitly mentioned recent protests or assassinations, civil rights or Vietnam. I understood then that addressing them fell to me. In a way, I’d understood this before the ceremony even started, and it had been the reason that my classmates and I had pushed for a student speaker. But the speech I’d written suddenly seemed inadequate, and I knew I needed to start with a rebuttal, a generational rebuttal, to the Senator’s evasiveness. Because I was the one who’d be standing at the podium, doing so was my obligation.
Wellesley’s president, Ruth Adams, introduced me by saying that I was a political science major, president of the college government, and—perhaps this was a warning or form of wishful thinking on her part—“good-humored, good company, and a good friend to all of us.”
Walking to the podium seemed endless and then was already finished, forever finished. So many people sat in front of me, most of them strangers and some my confidantes. I began by saying, “I am very glad that Miss Adams made it clear that what I am speaking for today is all of us, the four hundred 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 element of criticizing and constructive protest and I find myself reacting just briefly to some of the things that Senator Brooke said. This has to be quick because I do have a little speech to give.”
“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.”
I could feel a shifting in the audience, a taking of sides: those who considered it disrespectful for a college student to chide a senator and those who, given the stakes, considered it admirable. There were also, and this may have been the majority of people, those not paying attention; there are always those people. But the division I’d created—it would be a lie to say I didn’t find it bracing.
I knew I’d do at least a good job delivering the rest of my speech and maybe a great job; good I could control, while great was more nebulous and chancy, arising from the feedback loop of energy between me and the audience. But I didn’t know yet that my speech, probably due to the extemporaneous part, would cause my classmates to give me a standing ovation; I didn’t know that the standing ovation would offend or anger many of my classmates’ parents, remaining in some cases a point of intra-family contention for decades to come (my father said afterward, with derision, “You sounded like a hippie up there”); and I didn’t know that my speech would attract national media attention, including from Life magazine. Yet I clearly remember that I felt the feeling: the focused anticipation, my competence, my loneliness. I understood how I appeared to other graduates and their families, a confident and idealistic young woman standing behind a podium, even as I inhabited my own body, as I was me and could hear my voice magnified throughout the quad. The feeling was in the collapse, the simultaneity, of how I seemed to others and who I really was. In retrospect, I think what I felt in that moment—I’d felt it before, but never quite so brightly—was my own singular future.
The first time I saw him, I thought he looked like a lion. He was six foot two, though I knew then only that he was tall. And in fact, his height seemed even greater because he was big-tall, not skinny-tall. He had broad shoulders and a large head and his hair was several inches longer than it would be later, which drew attention to its coppery color; his beard was the same shade. I suppose I thought he looked like a handsome lion, but even from a distance, he seemed full of himself in a way that cancelled out his handsomeness. He seemed like a person who took up more than his share of oxygen.
This sighting took place in Yale Law School’s student lounge, in the fall of 1970— my second year of law school and his first. I was with my friend Nick, and Bill was speaking in his loud, husky, Southern-accented voice to a group of five or six other students. With great enthusiasm, he declared, “And not only that, we grow the biggest watermelons in the world!”
Nick and I looked at each other and began laughing. “Who is that?” I whispered.
“Bill Clinton,” Nick whispered back. “He’s from Arkansas, and that’s all he ever talks about.” The next thing Nick said was actually, at Yale Law School, less notable than being from Arkansas. “He was a Rhodes Scholar.”
I’d been accepted at the five law schools I’d applied to, and my final decision had been between Harvard and Yale. At that point, I’d turned to a rule I’d established for myself at such an early age—probably in third or fourth grade—that I had trouble remembering a time when I hadn’t abided by it. Though I’d never discussed it with anyone, I thought of it as the Rule of Two: If I was unsure of a course of action but could think of two reasons for it, I’d do it. If I could think of two reasons against it, I wouldn’t. Situations arose, of course, where there were two or more reasons both for and against something, but they didn’t arise that frequently. Should I, as a high school freshman, take Latin? Because I’d heard the teacher was outstanding and because it would help me with the SAT’s—yes.
Should I attend my church youth group’s retreat at Gebhard Woods State Park if it meant missing my friend Betty’s sweet sixteen party? Because the date of the retreat had been announced first and because a church event was inherently more moral than a party—yes.
Should I style my hair in a beehive? (Yes.) Should I major in history? (No.) Should I major in political science? (Yes.) Should I start taking the Pill? (Yes.) After Dr. King’s assassination, should I wear a black armband? (Yes.) That my “reasons” were often simply articulations of my own preferences wasn’t lost on me. But in the privacy of my own head, who cared?
The reasons I’d ultimately chosen Yale were 1) its commitment to public service and 2) when I’d attended a party at Harvard Law after my acceptance there, a professor had declared that Harvard didn’t need more women. As with Yale, the number of female law students at Harvard was then at about ten percent, and I was slightly tempted to enroll just to spite this professor. But only slightly.