What Hillary Clinton Sounded Like 47 Years Ago

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

The voice in the audio clip is unrecognizable. But it belongs to Hillary Clinton, who was making her first major public address 47 years ago this spring at Wellesley College. And if the voice is hard to place, it’s the words that are really difficult to reconcile with her present-day image.

The speech forms a famous part of Clinton’s biography. She was the first student commencement speaker in Wellesley’s history, and she drew national attention by channeling the frustration of Vietnam-era college students in response to the words of the Republican senator who preceded her on the stage. But until Wellesley released audio excerpts of her speech over the weekend, only the written transcript had been available in the public domain.

She was Hillary Rodham then, and you can hear what she sounded like as a 21-year-old senior in the spring of 1969. Her voice was softer, but no less assured than it is now. It had none of the Southern twang she acquired during the 18 years she spent in Arkansas—and which she has (mostly) lost in the quarter-century since.

And as for the words? Well, in the clip Wellesley posted, Clinton (er, Rodham) sounds more like a Bernie Sanders supporter would sound now.

I find myself in a familiar position, that of reacting, something that our generation has been doing for quite a while now. We're not in the positions yet of leadership and power, but we do have that indispensable element of criticizing and constructive protest…

Part of the problem with just empathy with professed goals is that empathy doesn't do us anything. We've had lots of empathy; we've had lots of sympathy, but we feel that for too long our leaders have viewed politics as the art of the possible. And the challenge now is to practice politics as the art of making what appears to be impossible possible.

That shouldn’t be surprising. Although Clinton arrived at Wellesley as a former “Goldwater Girl” and leader of the Young Republicans, she moved to the left along with much of her generation over the course of her four years in college. Introducing Clinton, Wellesley’s President Ruth Adams said there was “no debate” among the graduating class about who should speak for them at the commencement.

The speech is also a reminder that Clinton’s individual political talent and interest predates her two decades as sidekick to her husband. She made the front page of the next morning’s Boston Globe, which wrote in a headline that Senator Brooke was “upstaged” by a senior who “challenged his views.” The young Hillary Rodham who gave that speech, and who you hear in this clip, wouldn’t meet Bill Clinton for another two years.