(HOST) When former President Bill Clinton spoke at Middlebury College over the weekend, commentator Caleb Daniloff was in the audience. He was hoping to bask in the glow from the 1990s, but came away thinking about a new “here and now.”
(DANILOFF) Last Sunday, I joined the crowds ambling down Main Street in Middlebury, heading for the college quad. I’d managed to score a ticket for the commencement ceremony where former President Bill Clinton was to give the keynote address.
I didn’t know anyone who was graduating. I went for purely selfish reasons. I wanted a break from today’s reality, a brief connection to the world before September 11th and the Iraq war and three-dollar gas — before the edges had become so hard. And, judging by the three thousand extra seats put out this year, I wasn’t alone.
Among my fellow-travelers, I spied familiar faces: my next door neighbor, a teacher from the high school, a local realtor, the guy from the supermarket fish counter. One man wore a “01.20.09” button, the last day the current administration will be in power. I’ve always had mixed feelings about that slogan. On one hand, it’s a reminder that nothing is forever. But it also suggests the disgruntled have become so alienated that their best hope now lies in waiting for the storm to pass.
When I reached the quad, the place was already teeming. I wondered if Clinton would march with the graduates and other honorary degree recipients. Ninety minutes later, I was answered by the sound of thunderous cheers coming from the back. From where I sat, I couldn’t see him walking down the aisle. I could only track his movement by the waves of wild applause rolling through the crowd. People stood on chairs, others held up their kids.
As the ceremony began, it started sprinkling — then pouring. None of the eight thousand bodies budged from their folding chairs. We simply donned the blue plastic ponchos the college had passed out and kept our eyes on the stage.
Then came the moment: Clinton was at the podium with his black robe and silver hair. He was warm and personable, with that remarkable gift of making you feel like he was talking to you alone, his voice smiling, creaking like a favorite rocking chair.
The crowd sat silent for thirty minutes through an eloquent message of respect, inclusion and common humanity. Hardly a baby cried, not a program rustled. This was no trip down memory lane. Clinton was offering a blueprint for the future, one of empowerment and community. He’d figured out where all the wires went, how to connect the right cables. His speech was the opposite of a bomb. It was, at last, a blast of hope. An older man two seats down took off his glasses and wiped tears from his eyes.
That’s when I saw that many of us were still wearing our blue rain ponchos, some with the hoods up, even though the sun had broken through. I was glazed with sweat, but would rather have wilted than miss a syllable through the rustle of plastic.
It was clear Clinton’s speech was feeding a still-aching hunger. The sincerity of his words lifted not just those wearing $200,000 caps and gowns, but those of us sweating it out in blue plastic. We were all graduating that morning, back into a world of hope and optimism.
Caleb Daniloff is a freelance writer.