By Anna Liss-Roy ‘20
Not many people have insight into Hillary Clinton’s political and emotional development over the years. But of the few who do, retired Scripps English professor John Peavoy is one of them. Peavoy and Clinton, high school classmates from Park City, Illinois, agreed to stay in touch after graduation--Peavoy was headed to Yale, Clinton to Wellesley. Clinton’s letters to her old classmate, spanning from the late summer of 1965 to the spring of 1969, detail moments of angst, vulnerability, hopefulness, and occasional discomfort. She touches on subjects ranging from her relationship with her father to politics to her acid-dropping friend. Peavoy kept all of them. Clinton’s letters are snarky and introspective; they capture a time of metamorphosis as she evolved from a “Goldwater girl” and member of the Young Republicans to an impassioned civil servant and antiwar protester.
In one letter, she describes experimenting with different social identities, including “alienated academic, involved pseudo-hippie, educational and social reformer and one-half of withdrawn simplicity.” “I don’t condone her actions,” wrote Clinton in response to an incident in which an older dorm-mate was caught at her boyfriend’s apartment in Cambridge at 3:15 a.m., “but I’ll defend to expulsion her right to do as she pleases — an improvement on Voltaire.”
Her senior year, Clinton would become Wellesley’s first student to deliver a commencement address, and thoughts from her letters to Peavoy were echoed in her speech. She had written to him in 1966, “It seems that you have decided to become a reactor rather than actor — everything will determine your life.” At her 1969 commencement address, in a speech focused on “criticizing and constructive protest,” 21-year- old Hillary repeated this theme, saying, “I find myself in a familiar position, that of reacting, something our generation has been doing for quite a while now.”
Peavoy and Clinton were not close in high school and lost touch completely after college. While remaining dedicated pen pals for a few, transformative years, they were never really friends. The letters sat in Peavoy’s house for years until The New York Times contacted him about the correspondence and he allowed them to be read and copied. Peavoy and Clinton’s last correspondence was in March 25, 1969, when Clinton was headed off to law school. In the following 38 years, the two interacted only with a quick greeting at their 30-year high school reunion and a letter from Clinton, years later, requesting copies of her letters. The brief period of exchange between two college students was a thing of the past; although, for a while, Peavoy could count on a Christmas Card each year addressed from the White House.