“Ours is essentially a tragic age, so we refuse to take it tragically. The cataclysm has happened, we are among the ruins, we start to build up new little habitats, to have new little hopes. It is rather hard work: there is now no smooth road into the future: but we go round, or scramble over the obstacles. We’ve got to live, no matter how many skies have fallen.” DH Lawrence
Many historians regard the presidency of Richard Nixon as the greatest failure in American politics. Nixon’s resignation following the Watergate scandal remains the only resignation by an American president and overshadows his long political career, his successes, and his accomplishments.
Nixon’s farewell speech to his White House staff, delivered in the moments just before he boarded Marine One and left his presidency behind, stands the test of time as one of the greatest political speeches. The extemporaneous nature of the speech, the high historical drama of the moment, and the unprecedented emotional weight of it all set it apart from all others.
Nixon spoke for approximately 20 minutes, mostly without notes, seeming to follow the path of his thoughts in real-time as they formed and emerged moment by moment. The strain and toll are visible in his face, his voice, his delivery, and in the expressions of those listening. And yet the speech, as it unfolded, whether by design or not, came to a thunderous high point, a timeless statement made more powerful by the cataclysmic circumstances in which it was uttered.
His presidency and legacy in ruins, with no visible good path to the future, Nixon spoke of a tragedy that befell Theodore Roosevelt in his young married life, at the death of his young wife. Nixon read from Roosevelt’s memoirs, recounting how Roosevelt believed that “the light went from my life forever.”
Nixon, love him or hate him, could easily have felt the same way at that moment. Yet, he refuted the sentiment and said, simply and powerfully, “Not true.”
The fallen president continued, saying how the worst of circumstances, the depths of loss, the crushing weight of disappointment, and the seeming finality of death, are not endings. “It’s only a beginning, always,” said Nixon. If nothing else remained from his presidency, perhaps this one sentiment is enough to make it all meaningful. I find that if I embrace the truth of that sentence, I can always continue to live with some measure of hope.
In time, cataclysms come to each of us. We sometimes find that, as DH Lawrence describes it, “We are among the ruins.”
Yet, somehow, in the Divine design, it’s only a beginning, always.
Somehow, the possibility always exists “to have new little hopes.” This is the way of renewal. It’s only a beginning, always. “There is now no smooth road into the future.” Yes, sometimes we feel that hard truth. What do we do then? “But we go round, or scramble over the obstacles.” And as we do, we find a miracle beginning to appear. The miracle of something new that is only recognizable from the vantage point of our loss. The miracle of a surprise moment of grace, maybe as simple as an encouraging word, or a new thought, or a new friendship, only strikes a sweet chord because of the dissonance and brokenness of what we suffered and from which we hear its sound. And certainly, whatever form it takes, a new possibility, again, in time, appears.
As Nixon said on that historic day of what seemed the ultimate defeat and the most utter dead end, “It’s only a beginning, always. The young must know it. The old must know it. It must always sustain us.”
“We’ve got to live, no matter how many skies have fallen.” Yes, always true. And in whatever small way you may need it today, in whatever small way I may need it today, it’s possible to believe it’s only a beginning, always. Renewal can happen.
The prophet Isaiah wrote an undergirding prequel to Nixon’s enduring insight: “Those who hope in the Lord will renew their strength, they will mount up with wings like eagles, they will walk and not be weary, they will run and not faint.”
So, as we live, no matter how many skies have fallen, as we remember that in Him we live and move and have our being, we must also remember that, no matter how dark it gets, it’s not the end.
It’s only a beginning, always.