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In turmoil of 1968, Clinton found a new voice

As the nation boiled over Vietnam, civil rights and the slayings of two charismatic leaders in 1968, Hillary Rodham was completing a sweeping intellectual, political and stylistic shift

In September 1968, Hillary Diane Rodham, role model and student government president, was addressing Wellesley College freshmen girls — back when they were still called “girls” — about methods of protest. It was a hot topic in that overheated year of what she termed “confrontation politics from Chicago to Czechoslovakia.”

“Dynamism is a function of change,” Ms. Rodham said in her speech. “On some campuses, change is effected through nonviolent or even violent means. Although we too have had our demonstrations, change here is usually a product of discussion in the decision-making process.”

Her handwritten remarks — on file in the Wellesley archives — abound with abbreviations, crossed-out sentences and scrawled reinsertions, as if composed in a hurry. Yet Ms. Rodham’s words are neatly contained between tight margins. She took care to stay within the lines, even when they were moving so far and fast in 1968. While student leaders at some campuses went to the barricades, Ms. Rodham was attending teach-ins, leading panel discussions and joining steering committees. She preferred her “confrontation politics” cooler.

She was not an antiwar radical trying to create a mass movement,” said Ellen DuBois, who, with Ms. Rodham, was an organizer of a student strike that April. “She was very much committed to working within the political system. From a student activist perspective, there was a significant difference.”

As the nation boiled over Vietnam, civil rights and the slayings of two charismatic leaders, Ms. Rodham was completing a sweeping intellectual, political and stylistic shift. She came to Wellesley as an 18-year-old Republican, a copy of Barry Goldwater’s right-wing treatise, “The Conscience of a Conservative,” on the shelf of her freshman dorm room. She would leave as an antiwar Democrat whose public rebuke of a Republican senator in a graduation speech won her notice in Life magazine as a voice for her generation.

‘A sense of tremendous change’
Hillary Rodham Clinton’s course was set, in large part, during the supercharged year of 1968. “There was a sense of tremendous change, internationally and here at home which impacted greatly how I thought about things,” Mrs. Clinton said in a telephone interview about that period, which encompassed the second half of her junior and first half of her senior years.

It was a time at once disorienting and clarifying, a period that would reinforce the future senator and presidential candidate’s suspicion of “emotional politics” while stoking her frustration with what she considered the passivity of her classmates.

Her political itinerary that year resembles a frenzied travelogue of youthful contradiction. She might have been the only 20-year-old in America who worked on the antiwar presidential campaign of Senator Eugene McCarthy in New Hampshire that winter and for the hawkish Republican congressman Melvin Laird in Washington that summer.

She attended both the Republican National Convention in Miami (bunking at the Fontainebleu Hotel, ordering room service for the first time — cereal and a daintily wrapped peach) and the Democratic donnybrook in Chicago (smelling tear gas at Grant Park, watching a toilet fly out the window of the Hilton hotel).

The day after the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was slain, she joined a demonstration in Post Office Square in Boston, returning to campus wearing a black armband.

“People become experiences,” Ms. Rodham wrote about all the ferment in a Feb. 23 letter to John Peavoy, a friend from high school. She added later, “The whole society is brittle.”

Looking back, it is easy to see that ambitious political science major in the first lady, United States senator and, now, presidential candidate she would become. She campaigned meticulously in student elections, going door to door and dorm to dorm. She wrote thank-you notes to professors who helped her.

In the bustle of her excursions, she showed the zeal of an emerging political junkie. And, while outspoken and often blunt, Ms. Rodham was hardly a bomb-thrower. She was, then as now, dedicated to cerebral policy debates, government process and carefully calibrated positions.

“Her opinions are mature and responsible, rather than emotional and one-sided,” Alan Schechter, a political science professor at Wellesley, wrote in a law school recommendation that year for Ms. Rodham.

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