Newly public recordings show the president trying to do damage control after what a key aide called "the weirdest day" of his presidency
Richard Nixon had some pretty strange moments as president -- an Oval Office meeting with Elvis Presley during which the pill-addled singer lobbied to be deputized as a federal agent-at-large in the War on Drugs; Nixon's declaration to a roomful of newspaper editors at the height of the Watergate scandal, "I am not a crook;" Nixon asking Henry Kissinger to kneel down and pray with him and then bursting into tears the night before he resigned.
But perhaps the most bizarre moment of the Nixon presidency took place in the early morning hours of May 9, 1970, during which Nixon, with his faithful White House butler in tow, made an impromptu visit to the Lincoln Memorial and engaged in a rambling dialogue with student protestors. The incident took place at a tumultuous time in the Nixon presidency, shortly after the invasion of Cambodia and the resulting explosion of outrage on college campuses, culminating in the killing of four students at Kent State University on May 4. Nixon's erratic behavior during the Lincoln Memorial visit would have even his closest aides wondering if the president was losing it. Nixon's Chief of Staff H. R. Haldeman would write in his diary hours after the Lincoln Memorial visit, "I am concerned about his condition," and note that Nixon's behavior that morning constituted "the weirdest day so far."
Last week, the Nixon Presidential Library and Museum opened formerly restricted materials from five Watergate-related transcripts of the Nixon White House tapes, plus a series of presidential dictabelts. Five of the dictabelt recordings feature Nixon dictating a memo to Haldeman that offers his version of the Lincoln Memorial incident. Details of Haldeman memo had surfaced before, but this marks the first time the public has heard Nixon recount the event in his own voice.
Listening to Nixon describe his bizarre sojourn to the Lincoln Memorial is to hear a man who's already sold himself on an alternate version of reality.
Nixon begins his dictated memo by instructing that his recollections of the Lincoln Memorial trip be distributed "on a very limited basis" to close aides and "anyone else who may have raised questions." From the start, it's clear that Nixon's memo is an attempt at damage control, aiming to counter the perception of his Lincoln Memorial sojourn. Details of the visit had already begun appearing in the press, hinting at an exhausted and overwrought president engaging students in nonsensical banter.
"Even when I'm tired, I do not talk about nonsensical things," Nixon tersely declares on the recording. Instead, Nixon says that the dialogue with the students was an attempt "to lift them a bit out of the miserable intellectual wasteland in which they now wander."
Nixon recounts the lead up to his predawn visit. After finishing a press conference at 10 p.m. on May 8 during which he faced tough questions about his decision to invade Cambodia and the campus furor it provoked, Nixon says he then fielded about 20 telephone calls "from VIPs," went to bed at 2:15 a.m. and "slept soundly" until shortly after 4 a.m.
Nixon doesn't mention it, but he made an unsolicited call to NBC reporter Nancy Dickerson at about 1 a.m. When a groggy Dickerson answered the phone, Nixon's first words were, "This is Dick," and it took Dickerson a moment to realize just who this Dick was. In a brief, rambling conversation, Nixon complained about the way the previous night's press conference had gone and then asked Dickerson if she was attending White House church service that weekend. When Dickerson replied that she hadn't been invited, Nixon blurted with odd bravado, "Oh, I can take care of that."
As author Anthony Summers recounted in The Arrogance of Power: The Secret World of Richard Nixon, Dickerson later commented to her husband, "That man has not been drinking, but I would feel better if he had been." Dickerson thought that Nixon was suffering "a dislocation of personality."
Nixon says he woke up shortly after 4 a.m., went into the Lincoln sitting room, and began listening to a record of Eugene Ormandy conducting a Rachmaninoff piece. (Several already-released tapes of Nixon phone conversations feature classical music blaring in the background at rock n' roll volume.) The loud music awakened White House valet Manolo Sanchez, and as Nixon looked out the window at a small knot of people gathering outside on the National Mall, he asked his valet if he had had ever been to the Lincoln Memorial at night. When Sanchez replied no, Nixon impulsively told him, "Get your clothes on, we'll go down to the Lincoln Memorial!"
"I've never seen the Secret Service quite so petrified with apprehension," Nixon recounts, and indeed, the spur-of-the-moment decision to visit the Lincoln Memorial in the middle of the night was unprecedented, much less for a president under siege for his unpopular policies.
Nixon and his valet, along with senior White House doctor Walter Robert Tkach and a team of Secret Service agents piled into the presidential limousine and drove to the Lincoln Memorial. When they arrived at the Lincoln Memorial, Nixon and Sanchez walked up the steps to the chamber containing the imposing 19-foot high statute of the sitting Lincoln. Nixon pointed out to Sanchez the carved inscriptions of Lincoln's Second Inaugural Address and his Gettysburg Address.
By that point, a handful of students had noticed the famous visitor and walked up to Nixon. A few shook his hand.
"They were not unfriendly," Nixon recounts. "As a matter of fact, they seemed somewhat overawed and of course quite surprised."
"To get the conversation going," Nixon continues, "I asked how old they were, what they were studying, the usual questions." When several of the students said they attended Syracuse University, Nixon commented on how good the school's football team was. Far from being overawed, the students found Nixon's line of questioning downright bizarre.
"I hope it was because he was tired but most of what he was saying was absurd," one of the Syracuse students told the press afterwards. "Here we had come from a university that's completely uptight, on strike, and when we told him where we were from, he talked about the football team."