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.
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."
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.)
Eventually, one of the students had enough of Nixon's rambling travelogue. "We're not interested in what Prague looks like," the student told Nixon. "We're interested in what kind of life we build in the United States." Nixon replied, "The whole purpose of my discussing Prague and other places was not to discuss the city, but the people."
Nixon then returned to what he called "my major theme," even if his young audience would later remember the president's rambling monologue as being conspicuously disjointed.
Nixon says he told the students, "Ending the war and cleaning up the city streets and the air and the water was not going to solve the spiritual hunger which all of us have, which of course has been the great mystery of life from the beginning of time."
By this time, the small crowd of students had swelled to about 30. One of them challenged Nixon, saying, "I hope you realize that we're willing to die for what we believe in."
Nixon replied, "I certainly realize that. Many of us when we were your age were also willing to die for what we believe in and are willing to do so today. The point is, we are trying to build a world in which you will not have to die for what you believe in."
The talk turned briefly to fighting pollution and Nixon made this odd comment: "You must remember that something that is completely clean can also be completely sterile, without spirit."
The swelling crowd around Nixon and the sharpness of the debate made Nixon's already nervous Secret Service agents even more on edge.
Nixon recounts, "I realized the Secret Service was becoming more and more concerned as they saw the crowd begin to mount and probably feared that some of the more active leaders would get word of my visit and descend upon us."
In an attempt to get Nixon to leave, Secret Service agents several times passed word that a telephone call was waiting for him in the car, but each time, Nixon says he told them, "Let it wait."
Soon, the first light of dawn was breaking across the sky, and Nixon, having exhausted both himself and his welcome, began walking back to the presidential limousine. A student Nixon describes as "a bearded fellow from Detroit" rushed up and asked if he could have his picture taken with the president. Nixon instructed the White House doctor to take the student's picture with the president.
"He seemed to be quite delighted," Nixon says of that bearded fellow from Detroit. "It was in fact the broadest smile that I saw on the entire visit."
Nixon was whisked away in his limo, never to have another unscripted debate with students during his presidency. Taken as a whole, Nixon's account of his strange Lincoln Memorial visit highlights the very qualities that would drive him from office four years later. Nixon casts himself in heroic terms, a man guided by deeply-held principles rather than political expediency. The trouble is, his version of the incident, while containing genuine elements, simply isn't true. None of the students at the Lincoln Memorial remember Nixon's behavior the way Nixon does. More tellingly, none of his loyal aides remember it Nixon's way either.
H.R. Haldeman, who worked more closely with Nixon than anyone in the administration, confided in his diary later that day, "The (Cambodia) decision, the speech, the after-math killings (at Kent State), riots, press, etc.; the press conference, the student confrontation (at the Lincoln Memorial) have all taken their toll, and he has had very little sleep for a long time and his judgment, temper, and mood suffer badly as a result....there's a long way to go, and he's in no condition to weather it."
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. Having convinced himself of his version of the facts, all that remains is for him to win over the rest of the world. Richard Nixon had many flaws, but the one that brought him down in the end was his inability to distinguish the truth from what he wanted to be true.
Image credit: David Fenton/May 9, 1970/via Getty Images