With all the majesty this old republic will permit itself, a young William Jefferson Clinton took his oath as president of the United States yesterday and straightaway proclaimed a stirring mission for his generation. "There is nothing wrong with America that cannot be cured by what is right about America," he declared from the flag-draped west portico of the Capitol as he issued a call for change, sacrifice and service.
It was a poignant moment as George Bush and his generation were given a parting accolade for having triumphed over the Depression, fascism and communism and then politely dismissed as icons of "deadlock and drift."
In a passage resonant with JFK rhetoric, President Clinton described his fellow Baby Boomers as "a generation raised in the shadows of the Cold War," taking on responsibility for "a world warmed by the sunshine of freedom but threatened still by ancient hatreds and new plagues." He said his generation faced the unprecedented challenge of investing more at home while cutting the deficit and dealing in an environment where all commerce is global, all competition is universal.
This heralding of a new age easily obscured the partisan passage from Republican to Democratic control of the White House. True to the themes of his campaign, Mr. Clinton voiced a litany of complaints about a weakened economy -- all painful listening for Republicans. But the Democratic president just as emphatically challenged liberals by insisting "it is time to break the bad habit of expecting something for nothing." "We must do what America does best," he said: "Offer more opportunity to all and demand responsibility from all."
It was a fine inaugural address, only 14 minutes long. It set the stage for the specific proposals and decisions that must come quickly if President Clinton is to take full advantage of the goodwill he so evidently enjoys at this juncture. Washington was one grand festival, with happy crowds, sumptuous balls, marching bands, camaraderie the order of the day -- at least for a day.
Every president proclaims himself the driving force of a new era; every generation considers itself unique. It is a process of constant renewal, rendered especially dramatic when an inaugural combines generational with partisan change.
This morning the reviewing stands and bunting come down, George Bush will be back in Texas and Bill Clinton will be at his desk in the Oval Office for the first time. There he will find a note left by his predecessor. There he will find a cascade of matters demanding immediate attention and an administration still to be formed and fleshed out. No one, it has been said often this week, can imagine what it is like unless he has been there.
President Clinton need not worry about this country's readiness for change. It is the essence of America's history, of America's spirit, traditions and ceremonies -- not least the thrilling spectacle of inauguration. Now let's get to work.