The Inaugural I - Talking ’Bout Generation

January 22, 2009
Posted by Jay Livingston

Here’s a Wordle of President Obama’s inaugural speech. (And by the way, how does it feel to you to say that phrase, “President Obama”?)
(Click on the Wordle to see a larger version.)

The word that is strikingly present here in comparison with other inaugurals is generation. Ronald Reagan used the word not at all in his first inaugural and only once in his second – a call to protect future generations from government spending.

Other presidents have spoken of generations, but the word usually appears as part of the unity-of-history theme. The inaugural is a ritual, and rituals exist in sacred time, a time that links the present with the past. So inaugurals often refer to America “across the generations” and to our obligation to future generations.

But over this continuity-of-generations line, some presidents sound a different theme – the theme of generational change. The most notable and most quoted version is JFK’s “the torch has been passed to a new generation of Americans.” Kennedy saw that new generation as already formed. He pointed to their shared experiences – “born in this century, tempered by war, disciplined by a hard and bitter peace, proud of our ancient heritage”– and the shared values that emerged from those experiences – “unwilling to witness or permit the slow undoing of those human rights to which this Nation has always been committed.”

Obama, by contrast, sees himself and the generation that was such a crucial factor in his campaign with some uncertainty. It’s not about what they already are, it’s about what they will become. And that depends on how they respond to the crises that the previous generation has dumped on them. We are living in “a moment that will define a generation.”

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