Leaving the Nest

Good morning, it’s Tuesday, June 6, 2017. Twenty years ago today, Bill and Hillary Clinton began the process of letting their only child go. Because Chelsea Clinton’s father was president and her mother was first lady, it happened publicly.

The venue was Sidwell Friends School, which had long been a haven for the children of Washington’s elite, and President Clinton was the featured commencement speaker. In words that any parent will understand (I’m including aunts, uncles, godparents, and close family friends in that description), Bill Clinton gently suggested to the graduates that any trepidation they felt was also being experienced by the nurturing adults in their lives.

“You are not the only graduates here today,” he said. “Even though we’re staying home, your parents are graduating, too. Our pride and joy are tempered by our coming separation from you.”

As I wrote a couple of weeks ago, when Bill Clinton spoke at Sidwell Friends on June 6, 1997, no president had done the same since 1907 when Theodore Roosevelt gave his speech, “The American Boy,” to a small graduating class that was half girls.

As he introduced President Clinton that morning, Sidwell’s board chairman, Ralph C. Bryant, gently suggested that the incumbent president do a little better.

“Well, Mr. Bryant, I may not hit a home run today, but I won’t be quite as off as Teddy Roosevelt was,” Clinton quipped. “Even good people have bad days.”

I covered that event 20 years ago and remember thinking afterward that this exchange was off-key in a couple of ways. First, Teddy Roosevelt faced the same issue Bill Clinton did: TR’s son Archie was in the audience. Second, while addressing a sea of graduates that included Chelsea Victoria Clinton, who was headed that autumn to Stanford University, the 42nd U.S. president definitely hit a home run.

“Indulge your folks if we seem a little sad or we act a little weird,” Clinton said. “You see, today we are remembering your first day in school and all the triumphs and travails between then and now. A part of us longs to hold you once more, as we did when you could barely walk, to read to you just one more time ‘Good Night, Moon’ or ‘Curious George’ or ‘The Little Engine That Could.'”

This poignant parental plea did not fall on deaf ears. Moments after Chelsea accepted her diploma she doubled back across the stage to give her dad a long, affectionate hug.

Clinton had begun by recounting his only child’s response when he asked her what ought to be mentioned in the speech.

“Her reply was, ‘Dad, I want you to be wise, briefly,'” Clinton said. “Last night, she amended her advice: ‘Dad, the girls want you to be wise; the boys just want you to be funny.'”

Being wise came easier to Bill Clinton than being humorous; being brief was for him nearly impossible. But both of Chelsea Clinton’s parents rose to the occasion on this day.

“We find ourselves fighting back tears as we contemplate what our days will be like when our daughter leaves the nest,” Hillary Rodham Clinton wrote in her syndicated newspaper column. The first lady recounted how her own mother, having accompanied her from Chicago to Wellesley College in Massachusetts, burrowed in the back seat and cried all the way home. “I can only hope I show as much restraint as she did before I climb into the back seat myself,” Mrs. Clinton wrote.

A commencement speech must include the requisite advice to the new graduates, and Bill Clinton invoked another first lady, Eleanor Roosevelt, as well as noted linguist Deborah Tannen, who had recently impressed Hillary and Chelsea by denouncing “the culture of critique.”

In the end, however, whether subconsciously or by osmosis, Clinton actually echoed the “man-in-the-arena” themes of the much-maligned Theodore Roosevelt — albeit in more inclusive language.

“For what it’s worth, here is my advice,” Clinton told the graduates. “First, be brave. Dream big and chase your dreams. You will have your failures, but you will grow from every honest effort.

“Over three decades ago, I sat where you are. I can tell you, without any doubt, that in the years since, my high school classmates who chased their dreams and failed are far less disappointed than those who left their dreams on the shelf for fear of failure. So chase on.”

In conclusion, Clinton returned to the feelings of the graduates’ families, noting the difference in philosophy between the novelist Thomas Wolfe, who wrote that “you can’t go home again” and Robert Frost, who said that “home is the place, where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in.”

“We hope someday that you will have children of your own to bring to this happy day and know how we feel,” Clinton told the graduates. “Remember that we love you, and no matter what anybody says, you can come home again.”

Carl M. Cannon
Washington Bureau chief, RealClearPolitics

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