WELLESLEY — Forty-eight years after she gave the first student commencement speech at Wellesley College, alumna Hillary Clinton returned for a repeat performance — this time, as the first woman who won the popular vote for president, but not the presidency.
In a defiant speech, Clinton made several references to the troubled administration of the man who vanquished her, now-President Trump, urging graduates to fight for truth and integrity.
“You are graduating at a time when there is a full-fledged assault on truth and reason,” Clinton said. “Some are even denying things we see with our own eyes, like the size of crowds, and then defending themselves by talking about ‘alternative facts.’ But this is serious business.”
Delivered under a tent on a dreary, rain-drenched day, Clinton’s commencement address was one of the few speeches she has given since the election and followed the recent launch of her own political action group, Onward Together. She began with a coughing fit and an unsteady voice that she explained away to the crowd by saying, “We’ll blame allergy instead of emotion.”
Still, she addressed head-on her recuperation from her bruising defeat.
“You may have heard that things didn’t exactly go the way I planned. But you know what? I’m doing OK,” Clinton told the crowd. She credited time spent time with her grandchildren, long walks in the woods, and organizing her closets.
“I won’t lie: Chardonnay helped a little,” she joked. “But here’s what helped most of all: remembering who I am, where I come from, and what I believe.”
Harkening back to her first commencement speech, she likened this moment in history to the turbulent time of her 1969 speech.
“We were asking urgent questions about whether women, people of color, religious minorities, immigrants, would ever be treated with dignity and respect,” Clinton said. “And by the way, we were furious about the past presidential election, of a man whose presidency would eventually end in disgrace with his impeachment after firing the person running the investigation into him at the Department of Justice. But here’s what I want you to know: We got through that tumultuous time.”
Her reference to former President Nixon soon drew criticism, because — though he is the only president to have been forced out by impeachment proceedings — Nixon resigned before he could be impeached. (The full House had yet to take up the three articles of impeachment that had been adopted by the Judiciary Committee.)
Only two presidents have actually been impeached, though both were acquitted by the Senate, and one of them is married to Clinton.
The current president’s son, Donald Trump Jr., quickly chided Clinton for her misstatement and omission.
“The irony of Hillary claiming Nixon was impeached (he wasn’t) but neglecting the fact that Bill actually was impeached is priceless,” the younger Trump wrote on Twitter Friday afternoon.
Though Clinton never directly named President Trump, she aggressively targeted his administration with many of her comments. She criticized his proposed budget (“an attack of unimaginable cruelty on the most vulnerable among us”), his refusal to confront climate change (“it puts the future of our nation and our world at risk”), and his relationship with the truth.
“As the history majors among you here today know all too well, when people in power invent their own facts and attack those who question them, it can mark the beginning of the end of a free society,” Clinton said. “That is not hyperbole. It is what authoritarian regimes throughout history have done. They attempt to control reality — not just our laws and our rights and our budgets but our thoughts and beliefs.”
She also delivered the 1992 commencement speech, in a year when her husband won the presidency.
It was, of course, a friendly crowd at the all-women’s college where Clinton is, as graduate Lucia Ortega put it, “one of the most respected alumnae that we have.” This year’s student speaker was Tala Nashawati, a daughter of Syrian immigrants, whose remarks about inclusivity were met with snaps, rather than applause, so as not to interrupt her speech.
During her introduction, Wellesley President Paula A. Johnson said she has known Clinton for more than 20 years but has never been more inspired by her than she is now. “She. Does. Not. Give. Up,” Johnson said.
“She reminds us both of our capacities and how far we have to go,” Johnson said.
Clinton encouraged the graduates to use the critical thinking skills they honed at Wellesley as they go out into the world, and to also listen to — and learn from — people with whom they disagree politically.
“Many feel left behind, left out, looked down on. Their anger and alienation has proved a fertile ground for false promises and false information,” she said. “Their economic problems and cultural anxiety must be addressed, or they will continue to sign up to be foot soldiers in the ongoing conflict between ‘us’ and ‘them.’ “
If their outreach isn’t welcomed, she said, the graduates should keep trying.
“We’re going to share this future,” she said. “Better to do so with open hearts and outstretched hands than closed minds and clenched fists.”
Some of the graduating seniors were pleased that Clinton directly addressed the issues of the election.
“There were no euphemisms,” said Navisha Gupta, a 22-year-old graduate from Singapore. “It was just straight-up, and I think that’s what we all appreciated.”
“Here is this woman who has fought and struggled and has never given up,” said Shannon Smith, 27, of Rochester, N.Y., who said Clinton struck the perfect tone in her “honest and witty, but passionate remarks.”
“Because what we are dealing with, as she so eloquently put, is a lot of what’s come before,” Smith said. “I think it’s sort of a challenge and rallying cry to say, ‘We have been here. You can, too, and move forward.’ ”