Nearly a half-century after she first declared herself to the world as a young woman unafraid to ruffle feathers and challenge authority, Hillary Clinton was back at the very same podium at Wellesley College. And once again, she was at a crossroads in her life.
The first time, she was 21, the first graduating senior ever chosen to address Wellesley’s commencement, and her bold speech challenging the remarks of the U.S. senator who spoke before her delighted classmates, dismayed the school’s president, and made it into Life magazine. The Hillary who returned to campus on Friday was a battle-scarred politician who had come agonizingly close to becoming the first female president of the United States.
“You may have heard that things didn’t exactly go the way I planned,” she said, wryly. “But you know what? I’m doing OK.” Then she launched into a blistering critique of Donald Trump, without once mentioning his name, drawing a parallel to Richard Nixon and the scandal that led to his resignation.
Half a year after her stunning loss — a loss that by all accounts left her devastated and heartbroken — Clinton has said recently that she’s “part of the resistance” and “ready to come out of the woods,” a winking reference to the viral photo of her walking in the woods days after the election.
But what will coming out of the woods look like? How will Clinton, long seen as a master at redefining herself over three decades in the limelight — define her role in the Trump era? Some have even speculated she might run for elected office again — a possibility she hasn’t flat-out denied, but has said she doesn’t expect to happen. Friends say it’s unlikely.
“I think she’s basically closed the door on ever running again,” says Melanne Verveer, Clinton’s longtime friend and chief of staff from her first lady years who also worked with her at the State Department. But she adds emphatically: “She’s not going to recede. You’re going to continue to see her engaged on issues that she is passionate about and has played a leadership role in. She will be out there … but not as that public candidate. So it’s a new place.”
After remaining largely out of public view for months after the election, Clinton has stepped up the pace of her public appearances. On May 15, she announced the formation of Onward Together, a political group designed to aid progressive causes, oppose Trump’s agenda, and help people run for office. Its website bears the slogan Clinton has called her new mantra: “Resist, insist, persist and enlist.”
She’s also working on a book of personal essays, announced with fanfare in February. And she’s writing the forward for a book by her friend and Methodist pastor, the Rev. Bill Shillady, that will contain 365 of the devotionals he sent to Clinton each morning during the campaign, to bolster her on the trail.
The former secretary of state has been speaking at events like the recent Children’s Health Fund benefit, where she lashed out at Trump’s spending plan, saying it showed an “unimaginable level of cruelty” — a charge she repeated at Wellesley.
She’s addressed gatherings for Planned Parenthood, for an LGBT group in New York, for the Society of Irish Women in Scranton, Pennsylvania. She presented awards to Colombian peacemakers at Georgetown, and made a surprise appearance at the Tribeca Film Festival to discuss saving elephants from poachers in Africa.
At such events, Clinton has been treated more like a conquering heroine than the loser of an election — with more outward affection and enthusiasm than during the campaign. At the Tribeca event, surprised attendees called out, “Love you, Hillary!” At the Women in the World conference, host Samantha Bee introduced her as “Hillary Rodham Beyonce Clinton” and told her, to cheers from the crowd: “It should have been you!”
The reception was even more striking at the final performance of “The Color Purple” on Broadway in January, one of her first public sightings after the election. The audience broke out into sustained cheers, with theatergoers leaning precariously over railings and shouting, “We love you!” At the curtain call, actors pointed to her and touched their hearts.
Of course, these events were in Clinton territory, and at organizations that strongly supported her. Still, many note that she seems in loss to have touched a chord with her base — particularly younger women — that she hadn’t before.
“There was such an expectation that she would win,” says Debbie Walsh, of the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University, “that people never envisioned a world where the alternative was true and didn’t appreciate what the world would be like. I don’t want to call it buyer’s remorse because I don’t think these people voted for Trump, but maybe they weren’t the enthusiastic supporters that they could have been.”
Shillady, the pastor, says that when he had Christmas Eve dinner with Clinton, the crowd in the restaurant stood up and cheered. “People came over to the table in tears,” he says. “It’s almost as if people were feeling like they personally had let her down.”
“I think she finds comfort in it, and it’s energized her to come out of the woods,” he adds. “She’s coming out to speak more fully and with more freedom. She doesn’t have to be politically correct.”
Of course, not all the feedback has been flattering — not with one of the most polarizing figures in American political history.
“I never thought she was a great candidate,” Joe Biden was recently quoted as saying. “I thought I was a great candidate.”
And former Clinton campaign officials took to Twitter to push back against a portrayal, in the book “Shattered” by journalists Jonathan Allen and Amie Parnes, of a dysfunctional campaign beset by infighting and an out-of-touch candidate.
Clinton also got flak for saying, in an interview with Christiane Amanpour, that she’d be president now if not for the late-October announcement by FBI head James Comey that the agency was again reviewing her emails. Critics — among them David Axelrod, chief strategist for the Barack Obama campaigns — suggested she wasn’t taking enough responsibility for her loss.
Rutgers’ Walsh feels that Clinton could play a crucial role in getting a new generation of women, who are responding to her now as they perhaps never did, to enter politics.
“Hillary Clinton has put gender front and center more than anyone,” Walsh says. “She’s the one who can say, ‘I pushed the boundaries, and now we need you.'”
Not everyone feels that Clinton needs to do anything at all.
“Hillary Clinton should be free to do anything she wants,” feminist author and leader Gloria Steinem wrote in an email, including “walking in the woods with her grandchildren.”
“I think she owes us nothing and we owe her everything — especially gratitude, respect and the right to be free.”