"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."
Another student told the media, "He didn't look anyone in the eyes. He was mumbling. When people asked him to speak up he would boom one word and no more. As far as sentence structure, there was none."
Nixon's account, not surprisingly, paints a very different picture -- one of a gutsy, in-control leader willing to confront his critics while imparting hard-fought wisdom about what he calls "matters of the spirit."
When the discussion turned to Vietnam, Nixon says he told the students, "I hope that (your) hatred of the war, which I could well understand, would not turn into a bitter hatred of our whole system, our country and everything that it stood for. I said that I know probably most of you think I'm an SOB. But I want you to know that I understand just how you feel."
Nixon says he then "tried to move the conversation into areas where I could draw them out," encouraging the students to see different parts of the United States and the world. "You must travel when you're young," he told them. "If you wait until you can afford it, you will be too old to enjoy it." Prague and Warsaw had beautiful architecture, Nixon said, but Europe is "really an older version of America. The place that I felt that they would particularly enjoy visiting would be Asia." Nixon added he hoped that during his administration, or at least in the students' lifetime, mainland China would be opened up. (Less than two years later, Nixon would take his historic trip to China.)