Henley's lyrics take the form of a personal remembrance related to a close friend or companion, and evoke a powerful sense of nostalgia for the lost innocence of childhood and an earlier time. The reflections and the emotional responses that result represent the end of the innocence of the baby boomer generation, which for some was coupled with a perception of nihilism, consumerism and militarism during the then-current Reagan administration. Even as they yearn for the simplicity and values of the past, and the uncorrupted people they used to be, the song sees these characters and this generation coming to terms with the responsibilities and challenges facing Americans entering middle-age in the 1980s.
There are two political comments in the video. At the line "armchair warriors often fail" it shows a TV set showing scenes of the congressional testimony of Oliver North. At the line "they're beating plowshares into swords, for the tired old man that we elected king", it shows a series of posters of President Ronald Reagan. After Reagan had gone out of office, Bruce Hornsby began singing his version with the line "for the tired old man that is no longer king".
Also in the video, there are shots of Henley singing in front of the Texas School Book Depository in Dealey Plaza, Dallas, TX. To Henley, this is where the "End of the Innocence" can be found. A portion of the video was also filmed in the town of Waxahachie, Texas just south of Dallas at the Historic Rogers Hotel, where Bonnie & Clyde stayed and where the movies Places in the Heart and Tender Mercies were filmed.