“The torch has been passed” is one of the most famous lines of John F. Kennedy’s presidency.
In 1961, in his inaugural speech, Kennedy spoke about the legacy of the American revolution:
We dare not forget today that we are the heirs of that first revolution. Let the word go forth from this time and place, to friend and foe alike, that the torch has been passed to a new generation of Americans — born in this century, tempered by war, disciplined by a hard and bitter peace, proud of our ancient heritage, and unwilling to witness or permit the slow undoing of those human rights to which this nation has always been committed, and to which we are committed today at home and around the world.
Since then, torch passing has become a common political phrase. Its meaning has shifted over the years, though. Kennedy was referring to the duties of ordinary American people. Today, the phrase is usually used to talk about politicians.
Politicians are often said to “pass the torch” to their successors, for example.
In 2000, President Clinton wrapped up his second term in office and endorsed his vice president, Al Gore, for the presidency.
News reports said that Clinton was “passing the torch” to Gore:
In the last hundred years, the torch has been passed only three times before, and never with such fanfare. Even Ronald Reagan, the Great Communicator, turned party power over to his vice president, George Bush, with a simple goodbye.
But for his swan song, Mr. Clinton chose a huge community rally in a critical battleground state. One last chance to play the crowd as the nation’s top Democrat.”
Sometimes, politicians boast about having the torch passed to them. Take the example of Newt Gingrich, who told reporters that he had been passed Ronald Regan’s torch. Gingrich said that Nancy Reagan herself had talked about the torch:
“You want to understand why I finally decided to just go and be this blunt? In 1995, Nancy Reagan at the Goldwater Institute says, ‘Ronnie’s torch has been passed to Newt. OK?” Gingrich said.
And sometimes, the line between politicians and the public is a little bit harder to trace.
Many journalists compared the election of Barack Obama to the election of JFK. After all, both were young, charismatic leaders with relatively little political experience. Both were outsiders, in a certain way. And both inspired a certain kind of idealism in their supporters.
One Denver Post writer described Obama’s inauguration:
I saw their eyes swell with pride — my grandchildren’s, my children’s, some of whom are about the same age as Barack Obama. They had the same look in their eyes that I had when John F. Kennedy said, “Let the word go forth, the torch has been passed to a new generation.”
Just as so many young Americans witnessed a young president in President Kennedy, who happened to be Catholic, for the first time in all of our lives we were witnessing an American man who happens to be African-American winning the votes necessary to be the Democratic nominee for president of the United States.
Taegan Goddard is the creator of the Political Dictionary.
Goddard spent more than a decade on Wall Street as managing director and chief operating officer of a prominent investment firm in New York City. Previously, he also served as a policy adviser to a U.S. Senator and Governor.
Goddard is also co-author of You Won – Now What?: How Americans Can Make Democracy Work from City Hall to the White House, a political management book hailed by prominent journalists and politicians from both parties.
His essays on politics and public policy have appeared in dozens of newspapers and magazines across the country.
Goddard earned degrees from Vassar College and Harvard University.
He lives in New York with his wife and three sons.