WELLESLEY — Their early days at Wellesley College were marked by uncertainty and feeling out of place, but Madeleine Albright and Hillary Clinton overcame their trepidation and went on to illustrious careers including serving as the country’s top foreign diplomat under different presidents.
On Saturday, the former secretaries of state addressed a campus gathering mostly made up of alumnae and urged the audience to speak up and take action to protect democracy from the threat of fascism under President Trump.
“The idea that, ‘Oh it can’t happen here,’ is just old fashioned, my friends,” said Clinton. “There seems to be no staying power for these really serious threats and that’s part of the strategy. You know, you do something today that’s even more outrageous than what you did yesterday. You say something that’s totally beyond the pale of what should be expected from any public official. And so what happened yesterday is quickly lost in what’s happening today.”
Albright and Clinton were on campus for reunion festivities at the women’s college. Albright, who graduated in 1959, was marking her 60th reunion. Clinton was there for her 50th. Shortly before her appearance, Clinton announced on Twitter that her brother, Tony Rodham, died Friday night. She didn’t discuss him during the event.
Albright and Clinton appeared onstage at Diana Chapman Walsh Alumnae Hall, where they took questions for more than an hour from Wellesley’s president, Paula A. Johnson.
They didn’t mention Trump by name, but the conversation turned to his leadership when Johnson asked about the polarization of the political climate and ways to move beyond it.
Clinton, who lost the presidential election to Trump in 2016, discussed the report of Special Counsel Robert Mueller, which examined Russian interference in the election and whether the president obstructed justice. Mueller declined to indict Trump, citing a Department of Justice guideline that shields a sitting president from being charged with a crime, but did not clear him of wrongdoing.
Mueller’s report lays out a case for obstruction of justice, said Clinton, adding that she worked on the impeachment inquiry staff in 1974 during the administration of President Richard Nixon.
“There is no doubt in my opinion that what the Founders were most worried about was anything that undermined the integrity of the government, that abused the power of the executive vis-a-vis the other branches of government, that really went to the heart of how you keep this delicate balance of a democracy going,” she said.
Albright discussed her book “Fascism: A Warning,” which was published last year. Adolf Hitler in Germany and Benito Mussolini in Italy came to power constitutionally, she said.
The book’s best quote, according to Albright, came from Mussolini, who said, “If you pluck a chicken one feather at a time, nobody notices.”
“I think there’s a lot of feather-plucking going on now,” Albright said.
She then delivered a laugh line: “By the way, you can’t say those two words quickly together.”
On a more serious note, Albright said fascism is not an ideology, but a “process for gaining power.”
The antidote, she said, is to call out fascism when you see it, run for public office or support people who are, talk to people with whom you disagree, and engage younger generations.
“I’m often asked if I’m an optimist or a pessimist,” Albright said. “I’m an optimist who worries a lot and so that’s why I decided to put out the warning.”
During other parts of the conversation, Albright and Clinton discussed the challenges they faced when they first got to Wellesley and how they forged their lives after college. They reflected on the United Nations Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing in 1995, where Clinton delivered a speech with the famous rallying cry, “Women’s rights are human rights.”
Clinton was first lady when she addressed the conference; Albright attended in her role as US ambassador to the United Nations.
The Wellesley audience gave Albright and Clinton an enthusiastic reception, including three standing ovations. At the conclusion of the event, Johnson presented the women with bound copies of the honors theses they wrote as college seniors.
Albright and Clinton have maintained ties with Wellesley over the years. The college has a global affairs institute named for Albright, and Clinton was the commencement speaker two years ago.
Clinton told the audience that everyone has a role in shaping the world, regardless of whether they seek elected office.
“People think, ‘I wasn’t a political science major. I’m not interested in politics, therefore, there’s not much I can do,’ ” said Erika Kahn, who had traveled from Paris to attend her 10th reunion. “She’s really reinforcing the message that that’s not true. Everyone has interests.
“Everyone has passions. Just use whatever you’re good at and try to make a difference.”
Her classmate, Joyce Chen, who lives in Cambridge, said the call from Clinton to fight for democracy and oppose fascism resonated with her.
“It’s something I really feel deeply as a woman and child of immigrants,” she said. “I’m also an optimist who worries a lot. Like they said on the stage, it’s so important for us to fight for and model the kind of world we want to live in.”