The global economy. The digital universe. Persistent inequality.
“… What happens to you will in some measure be determined by what happens to other people, by how you react to it, how they treat you, how you treat them and what larger forces are at work in the world,” former President Bill Clinton told more than 1,600 graduates of Loyola Marymount University in a commencement address last Saturday.
“You can’t have shared prosperity and an inclusive community,” Clinton said, “unless we believe our common humanity is even more important than our incredibly interesting differences.”
Weaving multiple themes through the nexus of global interdependence, America’s first Baby Boomer president urged the class of 2016, most of them born while he was in office, to “set the world on fire with your imagination, not with your matches.”
At a little under 18 minutes, Clinton’s commencement speech after receiving an honorary doctorate in Humane Letters from LMU was short by Clinton standards. Nonetheless, he managed to intertwine graduates’ futures and the intricacies of geopolitics with messages of encouragement and perseverance.
Though Clinton didn’t explicitly comment on the divisive presidential race that’s likely to put his wife in the Oval Office, he struck a distinctly presidential tone in calling on “people on the left, the right, somewhere in the middle or somewhere out there” to empathize and communicate with members of disparate sociopolitical groups.
He also got a warm presidential welcome. The crowd of thousands erupted in applause when Bill and presidential frontrunner Hillary Clinton — flanked by his brother Roger and nephew Tyler, an LMU graduating senior — appeared on large projection screens at the beginning of the ceremony.
The morning began with a light rain that left early arrivals damp and university officials scrambling to dry off thousands of chairs for the graduates and their families. But the sun broke through the clouds by the time Clinton began speaking, allowing him to reflect on his own graduation day at Georgetown University 48 years ago, when an impending downpour limited then-Washington, DC Mayor Walter Washington to simply wishing graduates good luck.
“I learned then that the very finest commencement speeches are brief and highly relevant,” he quipped.
Speaking before Clinton, LMU Class of 2016 valedictorian Allison Marsden Swenson introduced the phrase “Set the World on Fire” — the official motto of the graduating class — on which Clinton later expounded.
“Take a moment to explore how this unique and engaged community on the bluff has changed you, and consider how you will move forward into the world with the flame of LMU’s influences still burning inside you,” Swenson, 22, told the crowd. “However this university has lit a fire in you, go forth, you wonderful people, without fear or hesitation, and share your piece of this special place with the rest of humanity. Set the world on fire.”
Swenson, who majored in psychology, said Clinton’s words resonated with her.
“I thought it was very relevant to the current political environment. I was very excited to hear him speak,” she said Monday. “I think the two themes of interdependency and setting the world on fire worked really well together.”
Opinions of other students were as diverse as some of the varying communities — including the Black Lives Matter movement, students organizing for immigration reform and coalminers who fear losing their livelihood to alternative energy — that Clinton described as players in “an ongoing battle to define the terms of our interdependence”:
“Are we going to expand the definition of ‘us’ and shrink the definition of ‘them,’ or should we just hunker down, in the face of uncomfortable realities and stick with our own crowd? It’ll be a bleaker future if you do that,” he said.
But Elizabeth Key-Comis, also a psychology major, said Clinton glossed over important issues of cultural identity.
“I thought a lot of what he talked about was in response to Donald Trump’s nativism, but I also thought it was a little simplistic and [symptomatic of] colorblind racism. I don’t think that it was intentional, and while we are interdependent to some degree, there are a lot of important differences between us — whether it’s ethnicity or sexual orientation — that should be celebrated,” said Key-Comis, 23.
LMU graduate Lauren Hill, 23, counted herself among many students opposed to having Clinton as their commencement speaker.
Hill said there were online protests before graduation and even a campus rally or two organized by supporters of Bernie Sanders. (Some faculty got involved, too: While presenting a student award, LMU English Professor Theresia de Vroom wore a Bernie 2016 button over her gown.)
“This being a political year, I wished that he would have focused more on the university’s mission,” said Hill, who majored in psychology. “I feel like [having Clinton speak] was a little out of line in this political year.”
On Wednesday, May 4, the former president spoke at the Grande Suite Hotel in Los Angeles on behalf of his wife, according to the Los Angeles Daily News.
On Thursday — Cinco de Mayo —Hillary Clinton held a rally in East Los Angeles to kick off the California primary election, but was met by several hundred protesters gathered outside East Los Angeles College, many of them chanting “Hillary out of East LA” in Spanish. Some, the newspaper reported, criticized the former secretary of state for her ties to Wall Street and her support of the Iraq War during her time as a US senator, and her support of the crime bill signed by her husband in 1994.
At stake for Clinton and Sanders in the June 7 primary are 475 delegates.
Hill and other LMU students acknowledged that what they know of Bill Clinton’s presidency comes largely from history books or his post-presidential legacy.
“I don’t think that he fit in with my generation,” she said.
On the other hand, 22-year-old aspiring super-lawyer Michael Erike found the ex-president’s speech to be “extremely heart-warming, altruistic and unifying,” he said, “… because he spoke of our world’s interdependency — of relying on one another — as being a wonderful thing, not a crutch.”
Karis Addo-Quaye, outgoing editor of campus newspaper the Los Angeles Loyolan, said Clinton’s presence on campus was significant any way you look at it.
“Agree or disagree with this year’s keynote, having a former president of the United States and the [former] secretary of state in attendance was definitely a noteworthy moment for our university,” Addo-Quaye said. “However, the accomplishments of our graduates hands-down stole the show, and rightly so.”
On this, Clinton may agree.
“I can tell you after 48 years it doesn’t take long to live a life. But the journey can be utterly glorious. And I would give anything to be your age again, just to see what’s gonna happen,” Clinton told the graduates.
“I do believe that this will be the most prosperous, discovery-ridden, exhilarating period in human history,” he said, “if we decide how best to set the world on fire, if we keep expanding the definition of ‘us’ and shrinking the definition of ‘them.’
“So do well, do good, have a good time doing it; and remember it’s the journey that matters. Set the world on fire in the right way.”
A version of this story appears in The Argonaut, a sister paper of the Pasadena Weekly.