A President’s Surprise Visit to the Lincoln Memorial

During this morning’s bike ride I not only rode by The Lincoln Memorial, but I also rode back in history.  As I paused at the memorial, I went back in time as I thought about this day in 1972.

Today is the anniversary of one of the strangest things to happen during President Richard Nixon’s time in office.  And that’s saying something when you think about some of the other things that happened during his time as commander in chief, such as the time, when he was still running for president, when he appeared on the politically charged, sketch comedy TV show “Laugh-In” and awkwardly asked, “Sock it to me?”  By the way, for the rest of his life Nixon contended that “appearing on Laugh-In is what got him elected.”  Other incidents during his presidency include: the time he met in the Oval Office with Elvis Presley, during which the King of Rock and Roll lobbied to be deputized as a federal agent in the War on Drugs, and; the time he declared to a roomful of newspaper editors during a press conference in Disney World at the height of the Watergate scandal, “I am not a crook.”

It all began days earlier, on April 30, 1972.  The anti-war movement was shocked when President Richard Nixon announced a major new escalation in the Vietnam War – the U.S. invasion of Cambodia.  It took many people by surprise inasmuch as he had addressed the nation just ten days earlier, outlining his plan for the withdrawal of 150,000 troops from Vietnam, seemingly signaling that he was serious about his promise to get America out of the war.  Near the end of his announcement about Cambodia, Nixon appealed for calm, especially on America’s college campuses.  He nonetheless expected blowback.  And that is exactly what he got.

Campuses across the country exploded in dissent, culminating on May 4th when National Guardsmen unleashed a 13-second, 67-shot barrage of gunfire toward student demonstrators at Kent State University, killing four students and wounding nine, one of whom was paralyzed from the waist down with a bullet lodged in his spine.  In the tense days following Kent State, more than 450 U.S. colleges, universities, and even high schools were disrupted by strikes.

Locally, impromptu rallies erupted all over the D.C. region, and a major demonstration was planned for May 9 on the National Mall.  Law enforcement entities went on alert, mobilizing all available resources including the entire D.C. police force and 5,000 military personnel from the 82nd Airborne Division who were stationed in the Old Executive Office Building next door to the White House, which was encircled by D.C. transit buses parked bumper to bumper as an additional security barrier.

The above information is provided to give a sense of what a highly-charged and volatile atmosphere existed nationally, and especially here in D.C., at that time.  Because it was within this setting that one of the most bizarre moments of Nixon’s presidency took place when, in the early morning hours of May 9, 1970, the president made an impromptu visit to The Lincoln Memorial.

At approximately 4:00 a.m., Nixon was awake and listening to a composition by Rachmaninoff as he took in the majestic view that the White House affords of the Lincoln Memorial.  He also observed students protestors beginning to gather for the protest planned for later that day.  Inspired to visit the hippie contingent, Nixon asked his valet, Manolo Sanchez, if he wanted to take in the Memorial up close at night.  The Secret Service was astonished but adhered to the orders of their commander in chief to take the impromptu trip. Nixon, Sanchez and approximately four agents took the presidential limousine to the foot of the Lincoln Memorial.

It was there that Nixon engaged a small group of students.  He began by acknowledging that most surely thought of him as a real “S.O.B.”  Irregardless, he explained that they all shared the same goal – stopping the killing in Southeast Asia.  And despite varying interpretations of his recently announced invasion of Cambodia, his overall actions proved this contention as he did more to extricate the U.S. from that conflict than his predecessors. During his discussion with the protestors, he also spoke about his views as a pacifist, given his Quaker background. Nixon explained that he changed after WWII to a view war as only useful as long as it was necessary.

The discussion also vacillated with lighter subjects, which was the socially awkward Nixon’s attempt to communicate with young people on their terms.  He spoke about the benefits of traveling and dating while young.  Nixon discussed the Syracuse football team with students from New York, and surfing with a student from California.  This was a leader not naturally at ease with people.  Yet it was Nixon who was willing to open a dialogue with individuals naturally opposed to him in a manner few with such power have ever attempted.

As the sun began to rise, Nixon, having exhausted both himself and his welcome, began walking back to the presidential limousine. As he did, 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.”

The president along with Sanchez and his entourage, including the Secret Service agents, whose numbers had increased during the course of the visit, then departed.  But they did not return to the White House.  Not yet.  Sanchez had never seen the famous “well” of the House of Representatives, either. Having roused security there, the President was sitting at one of the House desks as his valet took to the same podium used for State of the Union addresses.  From there, and now also with press secretary Ron Ziegler in tow, the presidential entourage proceeded to the Mayflower Hotel on Connecticut Avenue for breakfast, before heading back to the White House.

There were no news crews or fanfare. There was no prepared speech, talking points, or plan on what to do when Nixon arrived. And all that remains are a few photographs and the recollections of those involved, including Nixon’s, as can be heard on the video below.

           
[Click on the photos to view the full-size versions]

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