Eleanor Roosevelt did it 62 years ago. And yesterday, first lady Hillary Clinton followed in her predecessor's footsteps when she, too, addressed the graduating class of Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School.
In the same way Roosevelt urged the Bethesda-Chevy Chase 1937 graduating class to reach out to solve the nation's problems during the Great Depression, Clinton urged the Class of 1999 to help address the country's troubles today: in particular, the issues at the root of the April shooting at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colo.
"We all acknowledge that we might never truly know what motivated those two young men [at Columbine High School], or indeed any other young people, to turn reckless on themselves or others," she said. "But even if we cannot fully understand, that does not absolve us of concern and responsibility. We are neither helpless nor hopeless."
Despite the serious tone of Clinton's address, the morning commencement was a festive occasion.
The first lady hit it off with the students and the hundreds of family members and friends who filled DAR Constitution Hall in the District for the ceremony. She participated in the entire, nearly three-hour ceremony, shaking hands with all of the 260 blue-gowned graduates after they received their diplomas.
She almost escaped without a mention of her possible interest in running for the U.S. Senate. But Stephen N. Abrams, a member of the Montgomery County Board of Education, drew some of the biggest cheers of the day when he mentioned that there might be a job for the first lady just across the District line: "We've heard some speculation about your future plans," Abrams said. "We're currently looking for a superintendent."
Even before Clinton arrived, students speculated about whether she might use the forum to discuss a Senate bid. The graduates seemed thrilled to have her, even those who knew little of her politics or enough to disagree with them.
"She's a remarkable woman, not just because of what she's been through in the White House -- and all that other stuff -- but just the fact that she's, you know, the first lady," said graduate David Melton, 18.
"Not every high school gets to have a first lady come and speak at their graduation and shake everyone's hand," said Marlyn Valerio, 19. "She's a great lady. She's done her best. It was a real honor."
Some students praised her for taking time to learn about the school before giving her speech, and for personalizing it with stories about her own days in high school. The problems of alienation and of dealing with diversity are not new, she said, recalling that she was a member of her high school's "cultural values committee," which strived to bridge barriers between different groups in her school. "This is not a new problem for America," she said.
The first lady agreed to speak at the Bethesda-Chevy Chase graduation after receiving a letter from three of the graduating seniors last winter, who extolled the school's virtues and threw in a little history, including Eleanor Roosevelt's visit. It didn't hurt that the parents of students who wrote the letter know Clinton.
"We basically just aimed as high as we could," said Carter Beach, whose mother is a writer on the first lady's staff. In the letter, he said, "we bragged about the school, and we included some of the history."
Clinton noted that she was following in Roosevelt's footsteps at the outset of her speech, joking about "talking" with her "just the other night."
"I have learned in my years at the White House that everywhere I go, Mrs. Roosevelt has been there first," she said.
"If I'm visiting a factory, or a social service project, or some far away settlement on this continent or elsewhere, I'm likely to be greeted by, `Welcome, but you are the second first lady to have come to see us.' "
CAPTION: Hillary Clinton gets a surprise hug from graduate James Finlay at the Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School commencement.