October 10, 2013
In Clinton, NY, “the Hill” almost always refers to the school that sits atop College Hill Road. That is, when Hillary Rodham Clinton isn’t in town.
The former Secretary of State and Senator of New York spoke before 5,800 members of the greater Hamilton community on Friday, Oct. 4 in the Margaret Bundy Scott Field House as the Sacerdote Great Names Speaker for this academic year. Introducing the sold-out lecture, President Joan Hinde Stewart recalled the variety of influential figures Hamilton has hosted.
“We have welcomed to the stage prime ministers, Nobel Peace Prize winners United States presidents, like honoris Bill Clinton, and three former Secretaries of State—two of them women,” Stewart said. “Never yet a future president, but there’s a first time for everything.”
The talk was Clinton’s first public lecture since the end of her term as Secretary of State under President Barack Obama, against whom she campaigned for the Democratic Party nomination in 2008.
When President Stewart handed the stage over, Clinton forewent the podium and instead spoke to the audience with open arms. She opened by acknowledging Hamilton’s recent bicentennial and the “third century of excellence” that we are now embarking on as a college. Clinton gave hat-tips to Hamilton alumni whose time on the Hill prepared them for political careers: Elihu Root, Class of 1864, who served as both Secretary of State and Senator of New York (“I like that combination,” Clinton remarked); U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack ’72; and John Emerson, the recently-appointed U.S. ambassador to Germany. Clinton cited, on top of Hamilton’s contributions to the U.S. political domain, the College’s emphasis on improving written and oral communication skills and its need-blind policy as qualities that rank it among the top higher education institutions in the country. “Talent is universally distributed,” she said, “but opportunity is not.”
In addition to recognizing graduates, Clinton acknowledged current Hamiltonians whose commitment to helping others struck her. She first spoke about Jorett Joseph ’15, who developed a literacy program for the Humanitarian Foundation of Doctor Dufreny, an orphanage and community center in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, as part of her Emerson Foundation project this summer. Then she brought the notion of service to a more local setting with Nick Solano ’14, who works to revitalize housing for low-income elderly and disabled community members as executive director at Rebuilding Together Mohawk Valley.
Clinton used the notion of service as a jumping off point for a major theme of her talk: interconnectedness. And under that topic, she addressed gridlock, growth and global leadership—three sectors in which she feels a greater openness toward novel ideas and consideration of others’ needs is essential to success.
“It is hard to recall in our own lifetimes a previous time when politicians were willing to risk so much damage to the country to pursue their own agendas,” Clinton said, referring to the current U.S. government shutdown. She advocated for compromise, pointing to our founding documents as archetypal bi-partisan efforts. Additionally, Clinton suggested that many of the current arguments taking place in Washington, DC are not only irresponsible and unproductive but operate within an “evidence-free zone, where ideology trumps data and common sense.” If the United States wants to progress, Clinton said, the members of Congress need to overcome partisanship and reach a satisfactory agreement on the Affordable Care Act.
When she moved to the growth and global leadership sections of her talk, Clinton’s focus turned east. “Asia is where most of the 21st century is going to happen,” she affirmed. However, the shutdown, which forced President Obama to forego his trip to Indonesia for Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC), has indirectly limited the United States’ ability to take part in that development. She pushed for the country to open up its markets in order to stimulate economic growth and spread democracy. Additionally, she preached the significance of keeping our borders open—insofar as immigration creates jobs and infuses our country with new talent.
Though Clinton’s lecture was eloquent and, at times, very funny, she truly shined during the Q&A that succeeded it. She fielded community-sourced questions with apparent ease and honesty. Susan Temple ’13, who returned to campus for Great Names, was compelled by the way the former Secretary of State answered a question about the disproportionate amount of scrutiny women in the public eye face. “Overall,” Temple said, “the piece of advice that stuck out most to me was, ‘You should take criticism seriously but not personally.’”
Hannah Fine ’15 also traveled to hear Clinton speak, as she is currently taking part in the Hamilton College Program in New York City. “When I saw the Spectator headline announcing that Hillary was the 2013-2014 Great Names Speaker, my heart broke,” she said. “Hillary is one of my idols, but the speakers during my time at Hamilton had only ever come in the spring, and I knew I’d be in London next semester. However, someone walked by and said to his friend how excited he was that Hillary would see our school at its most beautiful: in the fall.”
Because of the speculation about a potential 2016 presidential campaign, the hype surrounding this year’s Great Names lecture was particularly, well, great. Some students were disappointed that the speech felt canned. “I’m not sure how many substantive insights I came away from the speech with, but I certainly got a better sense of how she’s approaching the next few years,” Jesse Stinebring ’14 said. “My guess is we’ll be hearing phrases from that speech again.”
But, for the most part, Clinton delivered. Student Assembly Vice President Sarah Larson ’15 said, “I was so impressed for Mrs. Clinton. She spoke well, appealed to her whole audience and played the field well politically. I did not agree with everything she said, but I am glad I had the opportunity to disagree with her. Hamilton was lucky to have her on campus.”