CAMBRIDGE — Eighteen months after she lost the presidential election to Donald Trump, Hillary Rodham Clinton received something of a hero’s welcome Friday, as she accepted the Radcliffe Medal, an award given annually to an individual who has had a transformative effect on society.
“We honor her today for all of her battles, won and lost,” said Lizabeth Cohen, dean of the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study at Harvard University, which presents the award.
“Hillary Clinton is a unique figure in America’s history,” said former secretary of state Madeleine Albright, who received the medal in 2001.
After a losing presidential campaign that, while historic, was widely viewed as uninspired, Clinton basked in a fairly fawning reception from fans in Cambridge, who swarmed her by the dozens seeking selfies and autographs. One of the most memorable lines of her career — “that human rights are women’s rights and women’s rights are human rights” — was quoted by no fewer than three speakers during the day’s events.
And her press secretary told her he’d never heard so many nice things said about her as he did during the morning panel of foreign experts who weighed in on her tenure as secretary of state.
“Well. Enjoy it,” joked Attorney General Maura Healey, who interviewed Clinton onstage. “Doesn’t last long.”
The friendly crowd in liberal Cambridge nonetheless groaned, laughing, when Clinton said in her remarks that she didn’t want to get political. Without mentioning the name of the president, Clinton bemoaned the polarized state of politics and the radicalization of groups of Americans — particularly on the right.
"There are forces and leaders in our country who blatantly incite people with hateful rhetoric, who stoke fear of change, see the world in zero-sum terms so if others are gaining, then everyone else must be losing,” Clinton said. “That is a recipe for polarization and conflict.”
In response, she called for “radical empathy” — reaching across the divides of race, class, and especially politics to try to “return to rational debate, to try to disagree without being disagreeable, to recapture a sense of common humanity.”
“When we think about politics and judge our leaders, we can’t just ask, ‘Am I better off than I was four years ago?’ ” she added. “We should also ask: ‘Are we all better off? Are we as a country better, stronger, and fairer?’ ”
Clinton exhorted the audience to fully engage, by taking stands on issues, subscribing to newspapers, running for office, and making sure to vote in every election.
“You’ve got to find an issue that you really care about and go deep and go long,” she said. “We’re not going to change things overnight. We have to be persistent and sustain the opposition. I’ve been pleasantly surprised how well it has been sustained.”
Clinton urged the crowd to stand up for freedom of the press, as well as truth and reason, saying all are under assault. And she urged Americans to pursue democracy with “new moral conviction, civic engagement, a sense of devotion to our democracy and our country.”
Quoting Eleanor Roosevelt, she said, “You gain strength, courage, and confidence by every experience in which you really stop to look fear in the face. You are able to say to yourself, ‘I have lived through this horror. I can take the next thing that comes along.’ ”
“That takes resilience,” Clinton added. “Resilience has been on my mind a lot. Everyone gets knocked down.”
“It’s not been an easy time for more than half of our country since the 2016 election,” she said. “And I still think that understanding what happened in that weird and wild election will help us defend our democracy in the future.”
The event marked Radcliffe Day and drew a crowd of 1,850 people split between Radcliffe Yard where Clinton spoke, and Greenleaf Yard, where a simulcast was shown.
The day had its awkward moments. In a wide-ranging conversation onstage, Healey asked Clinton about the “best ceremonial swag” she had ever received. “The good stuff you can’t keep,” Clinton said.
When Healey asked Clinton which company she would choose, if she could be CEO of any one, Clinton blurted: “Facebook.”
"It’s the biggest news platform in the world,” she explained, while calling for improvements in the platform that circulated fake news stories during the 2016 election. “It really is critical to our democracy that people get accurate information on which to base decisions.”