Former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton delivered the 2013 Sacerdote Great Names address on Oct. 4 to a capacity crowd of 5,800 Hamilton students and community members in the Margaret Bundy Scott Field House. This was Clinton’s first public speech after stepping down as President Barack Obama’s Secretary of State in January. During the course of her hour-long speech, Clinton touched on three main themes: “Gridlock, Growth, and Global Leadership.”
President Joan Hinde Stewart introduced Clinton by highlighting the former Secretary of State’s commitment to Upstate New York, which she last visited as a Senator from New York. The Great Names Series has welcomed a variety of speakers in the past, President Stewart said, including cultural figures like B.B. King and eminent politicians such as Condoleezza Rice and Rudy Giuliani.
“We’ve never yet had a future president speak,” Stewart said, “but there’s a first time for everything.”
Clinton began her remarks by praising Hamilton’s commitment to the liberal arts and praised the school for “not resting on its laurels.” She also congratulated the College for its commitment to need-blind admissions, because as Clinton noted, “talent is universally distributed, but opportunity is not.” The former U.S. senator for New York highlighted the achievements of several Hamilton students who have shared their opportunity with the community, including Jorrett Joseph ’15, who helped create a children’s library and literacy program in Haiti, and Nicholas Solano ’14, who is now the executive director of Rebuilding Together Mohawk Valley, a program dedicated to helping renovate homes and non-profits. “The skills he needed,” Clinton observed, “were enhanced here at Hamilton.”
After acknowledging that she felt very at home on the Hill—playing off the similarity between Hamilton’s location and her frequent sobriquet—Clinton discussed the current gridlocked state of our nation’s government.
“Increasingly, we have emphasized scorched earth over common ground,” she said. According to Clinton, the ability to reach political compromise has declined immeasurably in the past few years. “Many of our public debates are happening in what I like to call an evidence-free zone, where ideology trumps data and common sense,” she said. She compared the nation’s current government shutdown to the political situation that faced her husband, former President Bill Clinton, in 1995-1996. That particular crisis, Clinton noted, was resolved after the two sides were able to come to a compromise. “Neither side got everything they wanted, but the American people benefitted from that,” she said. “We can’t let partisanship override citizenship.”
One area where Clinton sees opportunity for bipartisan efforts, however, has been in strengthening the nation’s economy. “We need new strategies for a new economic revival,” she said. Clinton feels that the best way to revive America’s economy lies in opening the nation up to the world, allowing American goods and services to be bought in more places than ever before. The government must provide ways to facilitate the dissemination of American goods and products, she said, building on the strategy of “economic statecraft” that she pioneered during her time as President Obama’s Secretary of State. Economic statecraft, she emphasized, has no party lines. “I worked with anyone who had a good idea,” she said.
She illustrated this policy with an example from her senatorial career. Clinton described an event she began on Capitol Hill called New York Farm Day that allows vendors from upstate New York farms to expose their products to new markets in Washington, D.C. Mercer’s Dairy, located in Boonville, N.Y., has long been a presence at these events—perhaps because, as Clinton noted, their ice cream “is so good the first time I ate it I thought I died and went to heaven.”
One year, however, Clinton noticed an interesting trend: participants at New York Farm Day were combining Mercer’s ice cream with wines from the Finger Lakes region, creating a “spontaneous connection” that has proved incredibly popular—Mercer’s now works with regional wineries to produce special flavors, and has expanded their distribution to over 20 countries. This type of innovation doesn’t come from the government, Clinton said. Instead, “the government brought people together to connect them.”
Although this type of economic expansion is excellent for the United States, Clinton acknowledged that the nation’s responsibilities on the world stage often expand far beyond exporting innovative products.
“The United States remains the indispensable nation,” she said. “Nations still look to us to lead the way.”
She emphasized the impact that the American model has on emerging democracies such as Burma, where Clinton recently traveled to help organize a new government. The American emphasis on peaceful disagreement coupled with the ability to unify when the need is greatest still stands as a potent example to the rest of the world. Clinton frequently explained to foreign leaders how she came to work for Barack Obama, her political rival during the 2008 Democratic primaries. Although she was “surprised” when the President asked her to join his staff, she quickly accepted for a very simple reason. “I accepted because I love my country,” she said.
According to Clinton, other nations are constantly looking for clues to help them better run their representative governments. The U.S., Clinton said, has the unique ability to “dare greatly and lead boldly,” which makes the nation a “model of peaceful democracy that inspires the world.” Sometimes, though, other nations absorb American political principles in unexpected places—one Burmese official told Clinton that he had learned quite a lot about American democracy from watching The West Wing.
Clinton concluded her speech by reiterating that the United States is still “the greatest force for peace and progress the world has ever known.” The nation is far from perfect, however, and ultimately Clinton hopes to craft “the kind of future that our own children and grandchildren deserve.”
After concluding her remarks, Clinton answered several questions previously submitted by members of the Hamilton community. She fielded sophomore Shea Nagle’s question about the greatest public health issue facing the government today by responding that the country “needs to find a health care system that works for everybody.” The Affordable Care Act, she acknowledged, is a large move in the right direction because it emphasizes preventative health care. She also believes that the best way to tackle this complex issue is to begin by reducing childhood obesity, with a nod to First Lady Michelle Obama’s recent efforts in that field.
The most thought-provoking question of the evening was proposed by Gideon Wertheimer ’15, who asked Clinton about the most difficult change in her career. The former Secretary of State responded by highlighting several turning points in her life, from meeting her future husband and moving to Arkansas, to arriving in the White House to find that first ladies were not expected to take an active role in the nation’s well-being—a stereotype she was happy to change.
Yet there was a particular turning point that may prove to be the most meaningful example Clinton gave all evening. As she was contemplating a run for New York’s vacant senate seat, Clinton was in New York City speaking at the premiere of a film about the achievements of women athletes. As she took the podium, she shook hands with a women’s volleyball player who said a few simple words to her that Clinton said helped solidify her decision to run.
“Dare to compete, Mrs. Clinton,” the volleyball player said. “Dare to compete.”
— By John Boudreau ’14