WASHINGTON -- Speaking more as a father than as a president, Bill Clinton began to let go of his only child yesterday in a poignant ceremony in which he urged the graduating class of Sidwell Friends School to briefly consider the trepidation of their parents as they send their young ones out into a perilous world.
"You are not the only graduates here today," Clinton said, his voice steady, his tone paternal.
"Even though we're staying home, your parents are graduating, too. Our pride and joy are tempered by our coming separation from you."
Addressing a sea of graduates that included Chelsea Victoria Clinton, who is headed this fall to attend Stanford University, the president continued:
"Indulge your folks if we seem a little sad or we act a little weird. You see, today we are remembering your first day in school and all the triumphs and travails between then and now.
"A part of us longs to hold you once more, as we did when you could barely walk, to read to you just one more time, 'Good Night, Moon' or 'Curious George' or the 'Little Engine That Could.' "
Clinton's plea did not fall on deaf ears.
Moments after Chelsea accepted her diploma from the school principal, Bernard T. Noe, she doubled back across the stage to give her dad a long, affectionate hug.
Chelsea Clinton, the 25th name called in Sidwell Friends' senior class of 122, wore a white dress, following the custom of the school, where caps and gowns are eschewed.
Officials of the Quaker school, in cooperation with the first family, made the commencement invitation-only, although the White House described the ceremony, and the speech was piped into the White House.
The prep school has long been a haven for Washington's elite.
But no president had spoken at graduation ceremonies since 1907, when Theodore Roosevelt's son, Archie, attended Sidwell.
In the school's institutional memory, Roosevelt's address -- "The American Boy" -- is not considered a highlight.
"I do not care how nice a little boy you are, if when you are out, you are afraid of other little boys," Roosevelt told the class of six, three of them girls.
In introducing Clinton, Sidwell's board chairman, Ralph C. Bryant, gently suggested that the president do a little better.
"Well, Mr. Bryant, I may not hit a home run today, but I won't be quite as off as Teddy Roosevelt was," Clinton quipped.
"Even good people have bad days."
The president began by recounting Chelsea's response when he had asked her what ought to be mentioned in the speech.
"Her reply was, 'Dad, I want you to be wise, briefly,' " Clinton said. "Last night, she amended her advice: 'Dad, the girls want you to be wise; the boys just want you to be funny.' "
The president tried, but the occasion proved too emotional for him -- or the first lady -- to waste on laugh lines.
"We find ourselves fighting back tears as we contemplate what our days will be like when our daughter leaves the nest," Hillary Rodham Clinton wrote in her syndicated newspaper column.
The first lady recounted how her own mother, having driven her )) from Chicago to Wellesley College in Massachusetts, had burrowed in the back seat and then cried all the way home.
"I can only hope I show as much restraint as she did before I climb into the back seat myself," Mrs. Clinton wrote.
In his commencement address, Clinton quoted another first lady, Eleanor Roosevelt, and invoked the wisdom of Deborah Tannen, the noted linguist who impressed Hillary and Chelsea at last year's Renaissance Weekend by denouncing "the culture of critique."
"Too many brilliant minds and prodigious energies are spent simply putting people down," Clinton told the graduates.
He advised them to neither disparage other people nor allow others to disparage them.
Oh yes, advice.
Every commencement speech is supposed to have it, and, in time-honored fatherly fashion, Clinton was not reticent about giving it.
"For what it's worth, here is my advice," Clinton told the graduates. "First, be brave. Dream big and chase your dreams. You will have your failures, but you will grow from every honest effort."
"Over three decades ago, I sat where you are," he said.
"I can tell you, without any doubt, that in the years since, my high school classmates who chased their dreams and failed are far less disappointed than those who left their dreams on the shelf for fear of failure. So chase on."
His second suggestion was that the graduates be "optimistic and grateful," the third that they be of service to others, the fourth that they strive to be at once humble and proud.
"Be humble because you're human; subject to error and fraility; incapable, no matter how intelligent you are, of ever knowing the whole truth," he said.
"Be proud, because your life is God's unique creation, worthy of its journey, graced with a soul the equal of every other person's.
"Eleanor Roosevelt once said that no one can make you feel rTC inferior without your permission.
"Do not give them permission."
Clinton also turned back to the graduates' own families, touching on the difference in philosophy between the novelist Thomas Wolfe, who wrote that "you can't go home again" and Robert Frost, who said that "home is the place, where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in."
"We hope someday that you will have children of your own to bring to this happy day and know how we feel," Clinton told the graduates.
"Remember that we love you, and no matter what anybody says, you can come home again."
Pub Date: 6/07/97