How Clinton's Wellesley background will benefit her in debate
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As Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonClinton trolls Trump with mock letter from JFK to Khrushchev Trump-Graham relationship tested by week of public sparring Sunday shows — Mulvaney seeks to tamp down firestorm over quid pro quo comments, Doral decision MORE prepares for the first, presidential candidate debate and the culmination of the 2016 election, Henry and Pauline Durant, founders of Wellesley College, will likely exert appreciable, if almost wholly invisible, influence shaping debate rhetoric, its impacts and the election overall.

Henry Fowle Durant and his wife Pauline founded Wellesley College on March 17, 1873 as an institution “of serious purpose, consecrated to noble ideals of Christian scholarship.” The Commonwealth of Massachusetts permitted Wellesley College to grant baccalaureate degrees by amending an initial charter for the Wellesley Female Seminary (1870) in response to his request.


While it is counter-intuitive that individuals so long deceased would affect Clinton studying in a secular institution at the height of the anti-Vietnam war movement fifty years ago, the Durants have shaped Clinton to larger extents than many may realize.

At the least, as a 1969 graduate, Hillary Rodham, now Hillary Clinton, absorbed intellectual thoroughness, sedulous preparation and presentation skills inflecting negatives as positives, so crucial in public roles, that Wellesley and Seven Sister colleges can and do instill so distinctly. And, for Clinton and the Durants, it’s more.

As an immensely successful attorney prior to founding Wellesley, “Mr. Durant’s supreme faculty for keeping the point at issue clear in his own mind, while adroitly concealing it from the enemy, enabled him at the psychological instant to score a telling appeal to the bench, when least expected,” Florence Morse Kingsley relates in The Life of Henry Fowle Durant Founder of Wellesley College (1924 p 81). Durant’s “management of cases in court was artistic.

So well taken were the preliminary steps, so deeply laid was the foundation, so complete and comprehensive was the preparation of evidence and so adroitly was it brought out … that he won verdict after verdict in the face of the ablest opponents and placed himself by general consent at the head of the jury lawyers of the Suffolk Bar…paralleled by…some of the ablest of British and Irish barristers,” Florence Converse recounts in The Story of Wellesley (1915, p.7).  

From the moment of her 1969 graduation address, the first ever by a graduating senior, Clinton has deployed Durant’s rhetorical genius. She articulated classmate concerns about trust and human dignity challenging views that guest speaker Senator Edward Brooke (R-Ma) had just expressed “at the psychological instant to score a telling appeal…when least expected.”  

“Clinton’s speech was an early illustration of political instinct, the ability to sense the moment for a strategic strike. Her performance surprised everyone, even her close friends,” The Washington Post reported subsequently. “We looked back on her impromptu remarks as an early indicator of the powerful ambition at the center of her personality,” Alton Frye, Senator Brooke’s speechwriter, recalled.

In 1995, as First Lady speaking at an international conference in Beijing, China, Clinton identified women’s rights as human rights to the consternation of Peoples Republic of China and United States Department of State officials. At the conclusion of a marathon Select Committee on Benghazi hearing in October, 2015, she left Congressional Republican adversaries laughing at their flailings.

Clinton tasked Sybrina Fulton, Trayvon Martin’s mother, with consolidating black support in a Carolina presidential preference primary this spring. She invited the Kahn family to trounce Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpZuckerberg launches public defense of Facebook as attacks mount Trump leaning toward keeping a couple hundred troops in eastern Syria: report Warren says making Israel aid conditional on settlement building is 'on the table' MORE on constitutional due process and equal protections at the Democratic National Convention the evening of her historic nomination this July.  At each psychological instance, Clinton scored “a telling appeal…when least expected.”

Pauline Durant, an individual of exceptional piety, placed the cornerstone for Wellesley’s initial structure in a tin container with an inscribed Bible that “this building is humbly dedicated to our Heavenly Father with the hope and prayer that He may always be first in everything in this institution; that His word may be faithfully taught here; and that He will use it as a means of leading precious souls to the Lord Jesus Christ.”

Clinton’s social gospel commitments as a public official advance Pauline Durant’s piety. Clinton is committed to architecting social gospel norms and ideals systematically and to applying them methodically through public institutions and federal law enforcement to improve civil society systemically for all citizens including individuals, who are addressing historical injustices of disability, gender, national origin, race and sexual orientation.

From the outset, Clinton has recognized the broad overlap of Wellesley’s animating faith, her United Methodist Church affiliation and her efforts to enact and implement the social gospel as public policy: “Its Latin motto Non Ministrari sed Ministrare — Not to be ministered unto, but to minister” [is] a phrase in line with my own Methodist upbringing,” Clinton recalled in Living History, her 2003 autobiography.

For the debates, Clinton will wisely tap Henry Durant’s rhetoric to score fresh, telling appeals advocating equality. In 1960, in the initial televised presidential debate, President Kennedy’s freshness, grace and erudition convinced voters to put aside reservations long enough to vote for him. Tapping the Durants, Clinton can do as well.

Donahue is author of Scandalous Faith and Political Pornography: Hillary Clinton, Benghazi and the Fight for the Presidency, Amazon/Kindle, 2016, and Adjunct Professor, History, Rowan University, Glassboro, New Jersey.


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