With Clinton, a new generation grasps the future

DAN RODRICKS

January 21, 1993|By DAN RODRICKS

WASHINGTON -- Just after noon, the words we knew someday we'd hear came down from the Capitol and echoed over the long rivers of people on the West Front.

"Each generation must define what it means to be an American," Bill Clinton told us. His strong voice skipped like a stone on water, reverberating above our heads, from Constitution to Independence Avenue. "Today, a generation raised in the shadows of the Cold War assumes new responsibilities. . . ."

He was talking about us -- the new kids on the block, the Baby Boomers, Clinton's crowd.

"Today, as an old order passes . . ."

And then we knew -- if it hadn't registered already -- how profound a change had occurred with the election of this young president in November and his oath-taking yesterday.

Forget the forgettable Fleetwood Mac reunion and all other yeah-yeah that builds Clinton as the first Boomer president, the first chief executive to grow up with rock music and Vietnam protests.

Here were words, chiseled into the crisp air of Inauguration Day, that affirmed not merely "the peaceful and orderly transfer of power," but the acceptance by a new generation of the burdens and joys of a passing one.

"My fellow citizens, this is our time," Clinton said, cheers rising. "Let us embrace it."

No one Bill Clinton's age or younger heard those words without feeling suddenly lifted. And suddenly grown up.

The crowd that started forming five hours before Clinton spoke turned the lawn below the Capitol to mud. Some aging rockers carried a tie-dyed bed sheet that proclaimed: "Dead Heads For Clinton & Gore." Mothers and fathers clutched sleeping children to their breasts. Daring young men and women climbed the leafless trees for a better look up the hill.

Throughout the crowd were reminders of the awesome problems that face Clinton and the nation that elected him.

Judy Carter, hobbling on two steel crutches, came down from New York by bus. She said she needs knee-replacement surgery. She's scheduled to have it in a few months, but she and her husband have no health insurance. Surgery will cost between $8,000 and $9,000. "We'll be paying on the installment plan," she said.

There were men looking for jobs, men looking for better-paying jobs. There was a Navy man from New Jersey who was worried about losing his job. His wife and three children were with him.

"We have changed the guard," Clinton said. "And now -- each in our own way, and with God's help -- we must answer the call."

Jack Sobel, on a walkway on the lawn, applauded with everyone else when he heard this.

Men and women of Sobel's generation -- George Bush's generation -- were outnumbered by 30-something yuppies and 20-something college kids here. So Jack Sobel stood out for his age, mid-70s. And his stoic bearing. And his cigar.

And his Army dress cap.

"Dubbaya-Dubbaya Two," Sobel said, referring, in New Jersey accent, to his war, the big war, the war we won. "I was in the Airborne."

Sobel wore a trench coat that gave him even more of a military profile. His hand shook as he held the cigar, the smoke curling through the air around him, causing some young, smoke-conscious women to step away.

"On behalf of our nation," the new president had said, "I salute my predecessor for his half-century of service to America, and thank the millions of men and women whose steadfastness and sacrifice triumphed over depression, fascism and communism."

That was Clinton paying tribute to George Bush and Jack Sobel. That was Clinton speaking for all of us whose parents, now absent or aging, worked through hardship and fear to extend the dream.

That generation survived the Great Depression, a war in Europe and the Pacific. That generation undertook the great rebuilding of America after the war. That generation gave us the life we've known in this country the past 40 years. That generation's last president was probably George Bush.

"Does it make you sad," Sobel was asked, "to finally know that the torch has been passed?"

"No," he said. "I feel renewed."

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