Posts Tagged ‘President Richard Nixon’

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]

A Secret Entrance to the White House

Anyone who has been near The White House when the president or visiting dignitaries were arriving or departing have seen the entrances to the White House in use.  Equipped with security gates, ram-proof physical barriers, armed personnel, electronic surveillance equipment, and other unseen security measures, the entrances are obvious.  But there is another entrance to the White House that few people know about.

Located two blocks away from the White House in the 1500 block of H Street (MAP) in northwest D.C.’s Downtown neighborhood, the secret entrance to the White House looks like almost any other alley in the city.  Thousands and thousands of pedestrians and vehicles pass by it every day, and I doubt any of them know what is hiding in plain site right in front of them.   About the only thing that distinguishes it from any other alley is a small, unobtrusive booth built into the wall of the building on the right side of alley.  I imagine most people who see it assume the booth is for an attendant collecting money for a public parking lot at the other end of the alley.  But it is actually a bullet-proof enclosure manned by Secret Service agents.

The alley leads south past the back of the Federal Claims Courthouse Building, before ending in an unassuming doorway at the rear of Freedman’s Bank, formerly known as the Treasury Department annex, on Pennsylvania Avenue.   From there, according to archival newspaper reports from before security concerns prevented the publishing of such information, the passageway to the White House passes through two subterranean tunnels.

The first tunnel was constructed in 1919 when the Treasury Department Annex was built, presumably to protect the Treasury and its employees from being robbed of the vast sums of cash with which they worked.  The second tunnel was contracted for President Franklin D. Roosevelt during World War II, and lead from the East Wing of the White House to the first Presidential bomb shelter.  The tunnel and bomb shelter were to be a secret throughout the war, but was disclosed to the public in December of 1941 when Congressman Clare E. Hoffman complained about its expense in an open debate in the House of Representatives.

In later years, the tunnel has been used by persons who needed to exit or depart the White House without public or press attention. President Richard Nixon’s daughter, Tricia Nixon, and her husband, Edward F. Cox, departed the White House via the tunnel after their 1972 Rose Garden wedding.  President Lyndon Johnson also used the tunnel to avoid Vietnam War protesters when departing the White House.  Other uses of the tunnel have either been discredited or, like the stories of Marilyn Monroe using a tunnel to sneak into the White House as part of an affair with President John F. Kennedy, remain unproven.

Once the alley and tunnels were connected to provide for vehicular access to the White House, the passageway was modified to end in the parking garage in the White House basement.  And despite the general public’s lack of knowledge of the access way, or perhaps because of it, it remains in use to this day.


Mama Ayesha and the Presidents

During this lunchtime bike ride as I was riding across the Duke Ellington Memorial Bridge in northwest D.C.’s Adam’s Morgan neighborhood, I saw a mural on the side of a building on the eastern end of the bridge.  So I rode over to get a better look at the mural.  I discovered it was on the side of Mama Ayesha’s Restaurant, located at 1967 Calvert Street (MAP), and depicts the restaurant’s namesake standing in front of The White House.  She is flanked on either side by eleven different presidents standing in chronological order, starting with Dwight D. Eisenhower and ending with Barack Obama. The content of the public artwork is so unusual that I just had to find out more about it.

The mural was funded by the National Endowment for the Arts, the D.C. Commission on the Arts and Humanities, and private donors.  It was created in 2009 by Karla Rodas, also known as Karlísima, who is a native of El Salvador but moved with her family as a child to nearby Alexandria.  After graduating from Annandale High School and Washington University, she returned to D.C. and has since become one of the capital city’s most well-known and respected muralists.

The initial concept for the mural was planned by Mama Ayesha’s family members, who have run the restaurant since its opening in 1960. However, the original plan did not have Mama Ayesha as the centerpiece of the work. Instead, the family wanted Helen Thomas, a renowned White House reporter and regular customer at the restaurant, to be at the center of the mural. She was envisioned to be seated at a desk with pen and paper in her hand. However, Thomas politely declined the family’s request, opining that Mama Ayesha should be portrayed instead.

The final design depicts Mama Ayesha in traditional Palestinian garb standing in front of the White House. With six presidents on her right and five on her left, she stands in the middle between Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan, with their arms interlocked. Interspersed throughout the mural are other symbols and additional scenes and landmarks from the national capital city. They include a bald eagle, the city’s famous cherry blossoms, as well as the Lincoln Memorial and its Reflecting Pool, the Jefferson Memorial, the Washington Monument and the United States Capitol Building.  And representations of the U.S. flag appear on the sides of the painting.

With President Obama’s successor to be determined in tomorrow’s election, I hope the mural will be updated.  There is sufficient space in front of the Reflecting Pool for either Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump.  I very much look forward to the election being over.  And I also look forward to being able to come back to see the updated mural at some point in the near future.

mamaayesha03     mamaayesha04     mamaayesha05

mamaayesha01     mamaayesha06
[Click on the photos to view the full-size versions]


The Watergate Steps

Ever since the infamous 1972 illegal break-in at the Democratic National Committee headquarters in D.C.’s Watergate complex, and the Nixon administration’s attempt to cover up its involvement in it, the word “Watergate” has become synonymous with the scandal and the office complex where it originated. But almost half a century before the scandal that took down a president began, a staircase between The Lincoln Memorial and the Potomac River (MAP) was built.   That staircase is named the Watergate Steps, and it was my destination for this lunchtime bike ride.

Designed in 1902 by the architectural firm of McKim, Meade & White, the Watergate Steps were built in 1930 as part of the Arlington Memorial Bridge and Lincoln Memorial approachway. The 40 granite steps are approximately 230 feet wide at the base near the Potomac River, and rise 50 feet to the level of the nearby Arlington Memorial Bridge.  The steps become narrower as they rise, and are approximately 206 feet wide at the top. The steps are also divided into two tiers by the Rock Creek Parkway.

The steps were initially intended to be used for ceremonial arrivals of heads of state, government officials and other dignitaries arriving via the Potomac River. Their boats would pull up to the steps, and there to greet their arrival would be the new memorial, which was less than a decade old. Unfortunately, the steps were never used for their intended purpose.

Eventually, someone realized that the steps would make an excellent venue for music concerts, and a proposal was approved to moor a barge with an orchestra shell on the water at the base of the steps as a stage for summer concerts. The first concert was held there on July 14th, 1935, at which the National Symphony Orchestra performed. These “Sunset Symphonies” became quite popular, and over the next three decades crowds as large as 12,000 were entertained each summer at a series of concerts. Within the first ten years, the National Park Service, which sponsored the concerts, estimated that two million people had attended symphony performances there, as well as concerts by the Army, Navy, Marine Corps and Army Air Forces bands.  Performers as diverse as Frank Sinatra and Paul Robeson also appeared there.

Alas, the concerts were discontinued in 1965 when jets started flying into Washington National Airport, and the noise was just too loud and would drown out the concerts. Failing to be used for their intended purpose, and with the discontinuance of the waterside concerts, the steps now serve mainly to provide tourists and other pedestrians with access to and from the Rock Creek Park Trail, which runs along the bank of the Potomac River. It is also a favorite location for local runners, who sprint up and down the steps for exercise.

So next time you hear the word Watergate, remember that it is more than just an office complex which was the site of a political scandal.  Not only did the Watergate Steps come first, but it is widely thought that the office complex was actually named after the steps.

WatergateSteps02     WatergateSteps03     WatergateSteps04

WatergateSteps01a     WatergateSteps02a
[Click on the thumbnails above to view the full size photos]

Mary Jo Kopechne's House in Georgetown

Mary Jo Kopechne’s House in Georgetown

On this day in 1969, a combination of alcohol, excessive speed, the late-night machinations of a married man partying with an unmarried young woman while his pregnant wife was at home confined to bed per doctor’s orders, together with a series of inexplicable choices by the driver of the car in which they were travelling both before and after it veered off the road and plunged into the water of a tidal channel, all came together to result in the death of the young woman. The married man driving the car was U.S. Senator Edward M. “Ted” Kennedy, and the young female passenger in his car was named Mary Jo Kopechne. On this bike ride I rode to the house in the Georgetown neighborhood of Northwest D.C. where Mary Jo lived at the time of her death. It is located at 2912 Olive Street (MAP).

On July 18, 1969, Kennedy and five other men, all but one of whom was married, met six young single women for a party in a private cottage on Chappaquiddick, a small island off the coast of the larger island of Martha’s Vineyard. Sometime late at night after an evening of drinking, Kennedy requested the keys to his mother’s car from his private chauffeur, John Crimmins. He then drove away from the party with Mary Jo, although she told no one that she was leaving with Kennedy, and she left her purse and hotel key at the party. Kennedy later said that Mary Jo had asked him for a ride back to her hotel.

Kennedy later testified that he was taking Mary Jo to a ferry that ran to Edgartown back on the mainland, but they weren’t headed toward the ferry landing when his car careened off Dike Bridge and into the inlet known as Poucha Pond. Instead the direction of their car indicates that they were heading toward the beach. A subsequent judicial inquest determined that Kennedy did not, in fact, intend to drive to the ferry slip, and that the turn onto Dike Road had been intentional. Kennedy made it out of the car alive. Mary Jo did not.

Kennedy claimed he jumped back in the water and dived down several times to try and rescue her, before ultimately giving up. He then walked back to the cottage where his friends were staying. To do so, he passed at least four houses with working telephones, including one with a porch light on that was only 150 yards from the scene of the accident. He also walked past a firehouse with a pay phone. When he got back to the cottage, none of the women were told what happened. According to the report of the judicial inquest, this was just the first of a series of decisions Kennedy made that night that were not only appalling but stretched credulity.

Kennedy and two of the men, a cousin named Joseph Gargan and a friend named Paul Markham, say they returned to the bridge to try to rescue Mary Jo.  Unable to, the men claimed that they then drove Kennedy to the Chappaquiddick ferry landing, where he told them not to tell the other women for fear that they might put themselves at risk by trying to rescue Mary Jo, and assured them that he would report the incident to authorities.  Then, the men said, Kennedy dove into the water and swam across the sound to Edgartown by himself.

Upon reaching Edgartown, Kennedy went to his room at a local hotel and went to sleep.  Kennedy complained at 2:55 a.m. to the hotel owner that he had been awoken by a noisy party.  By 7:30 a.m. the next morning he was in the hotel lobby casually making small talk about sailing with a local yachter and agreed to have breakfast with the man, with no indication that anything was amiss. When Gargan and Markham then showed up, they asked him who he’d called about the accident only to receive an astounding reply.  Kennedy told them that he had told no one. The three men subsequently crossed back to Chappaquiddick Island on the ferry, where Kennedy made a series of telephone calls from a pay telephone near the crossing. The telephone calls were to his friends for advice, but he still did not report the accident to authorities.

Earlier that morning, two amateur fishermen had seen the upside-down, submerged car in the water and notified the inhabitants of the cottage nearest to the scene, who called the authorities at approximately 8:20a.m.   Edgartown Police Chief James Arena arrived at the scene approximately 10 to 15 minutes later.  After attempting unsuccessfully to examine the interior of the submerged vehicle, Arena summoned a professional diver, along with a tow truck with winch capability. The diver, John Farrar, arrived already in scuba gear at 8:45a.m., and discovered Mary Jo’s body, which was extricated from the vehicle within ten minutes. Police checked the car’s license plate and saw that it was registered to Kennedy. When Kennedy, still at the payphone by the ferry crossing, heard that the body had been discovered, he crossed back to Edgartown and went to the police station.

At 10:00a.m. Kennedy entered the police station in Edgartown, made a couple more telephone calls, and then dictated a statement to his friend Markham, which was then given to the police.  Police Chief Arena never even asked Kennedy why he waited ten hours to report what had happened.

Farrar, the diver who recovered Mary Jo’s body and was also the captain of the Edgartown Fire Rescue Unit, asserted that Mary Jo did not die from the initial vehicle overturn or from drowning, but rather from suffocation. He further testified during the judicial inquest that she “lived for at least two hours down there” and would likely have survived if a timely attempt at rescue had been conducted.  Despite Farrar’ testimony, the medical examiner, Dr. Donald Mills, declared that the cause of death was accidental drowning. He signed a death certificate to that effect and released Mary Jo’s body to her family without ordering an autopsy.  She was then buried just one day after dying. Attempts by the District Attorney to exhume the body to conduct a belated autopsy were denied by the courts.

Mary Jo’s parents said that they learned of their only child’s death from Kennedy himself, before he had even informed authorities of his involvement.  However, her parents did not learn that Kennedy had been the driver of the car until they read it in press releases some time later.

A local grand jury later assembled in special session to consider what, if any, charges should be brought against Kennedy in regard to Mary Jo’s death.  However, based on a Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court order issued at the request of Kennedy’s lawyers, the previously-conducted judicial inquest was performed in secret , and the 763-page transcript of the inquest would not be released until after the grand jury process had been completed. Therefore, Judge Wilfred Paquet instructed the grand jury members that it could not see the report from the inquest, or consider any information or evidence from those proceedings. They were told that they could consider only those matters brought to their attention by the superior court, the district attorney or their own personal knowledge. District Attorney Edmund Dinis, who had attended the inquest and seen Judge James Boyle’s report, then told the grand jury that there was not enough evidence to indict Kennedy on potential charges of manslaughter, perjury or driving to endanger. The grand jury subsequently called four witnesses who had not testified at the inquest, who testified for a total of 20 minutes. No indictments were issued.

The Commonwealth of Massachusetts later allowed Kennedy to plead guilty to a single charge of leaving the scene of an accident after causing injury, and sentenced him to two months’ incarceration, the statutory minimum for the offense, that was then suspended.  Citing Kennedy’s excessive speed on the bridge, his driver’s license was also suspended for six months. And that was it. He went on with his life, and a 47-year long career as one of the most unabashedly liberal members of the U.S. Senate.

As a Senator, Kennedy later protested President Gerald Ford’s pardon of former President Richard Nixon, thundering, “Is there one system of justice for the average citizen and another system for the high and mighty?” Ironically, these words were uttered just five years after the incident at Chappaquiddick.

I imagine that most people who pass by this typical Georgetown house are unaware of its former inhabitant, or any details of the story of the fate that befell her.  But there are stories and history all around us if we just look for them.


Constitution Gardens

Constitution Gardens

Mostly unknown and overlooked by the millions of tourists visiting the many other nearby memorials on the National Mall, Constitution Gardens occupies 50 prime acres of landscaped grounds approximately halfway between The Washington Monument and The Lincoln Memorial, and includes a lake with an island, winding sidewalks and pathways lined with benches,  and approximately 5,000 oak, maple, dogwood, elm and crabapple trees.  Located to the west of 17th Street and south of Constitution Avenue in northwest D.C. (MAP), the gardens are bordered on the west by The Vietnam Veterans Memorial and on the south by The Lincoln Memorial Reflecting Pool.  But despite its central location on the National Mall, it is a quiet haven in the heart of the bustling capital city.  

The land that became Constitution Gardens was originally submerged beneath the Potomac River, but was dredged at the beginning of the 20th century by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.  The land then became the location for the Navy’s main and munitions buildings until 1970 when President Richard Nixon, who had once who had served in the offices as a navy officer, ordered his former workplace to be torn down to make way for a park to be established on the land.  In 1976, Constitution Gardens was finally dedicated as part of America’s Bicentennial celebration as a “living legacy tribute.”  It has been a separate park unit in the National Park Service since 1982.

In contrast to its normally peaceful setting, Constitution Gardens became the site of a bizarre standoff between Federal law enforcement officers and a disgruntled tobacco farmer named Dwight Watson during two days in mid-March back in 2003.  Watson, a tobacco farmer from North Carolina, blamed Federal tobacco policies and the cutting of tobacco subsidies for the increasing difficulty he was experiencing in making a living on his rural tobacco farm, which had been in his family for five generations.  Wearing a military helmet and displaying an upside down American flag, the disgruntled farmer travelled to D.C. and drove his tractor into the center of the lake, claiming that he had explosives.  This prompted the evacuation of the area and holding a SWAT team composed of approximately 200 FBI Agents and Park Police officers at bay for 48 hours before he surrendered.  Watson was eventually convicted of destroying federal property for digging up part of the island and damaging a retaining wall during the standoff, but no other monuments or memorials were harmed.

The more often than not tranquil Constitution Gardens becomes uncharacteristically full of activity each year when it is the site of an annual naturalization ceremony for new U.S. citizens hosted by the National Park Service.  But on the day I rode there, it was just as I hoped it would be – virtually deserted, except for a family of geese and a few mallard ducks.

ConstitutionGardens009     ConstitutionGardens007     ConstitutionGardens003

ConstitutionGardens006     ConstitutionGardens002     ConstitutionGardens005

ConstitutionGardens05     ConstitutionGardens03     ConstitutionGardens0a


The Watergate Garage

It is a short bike ride across the Potomac River and along the Mount Vernon Trail to get to the Rosslyn neighborhood in Arlington.  It is there that you will find a permanent historical marker outside the building located at 1400 Wilson Boulevard (MAP).  The historical marker, erected by Arlington County as part of its Historic Preservation Program, identifies a location most Americans have heard about, but very few could pinpoint.

The events that took place in parking space D-32 inside this building’s garage played a pivotal role in bringing down the presidency of Richard Nixon.  It was here that a young Washington Post reporter named Bob Woodward clandestinely met with an informant, FBI second in command, Mark “Deep Throat” Felt, to obtain information for a series  of news stories about what would eventually come to be known as the Watergate scandal.

The marker outside the unremarkable parking garage reads, “Mark Felt, second in command at the FBI, met Washington Post reporter Bob Woodward here in this parking garage to discuss the Watergate scandal. Felt provided Woodward information that exposed the Nixon administration’s obstruction of the FBI’s Watergate investigation. He chose the garage as an anonymous secure location. They met at this garage six times between October 1972 and November 1973. The Watergate scandal resulted in President Nixon’s resignation in 1974. Woodward’s managing editor, Howard Simons, gave Felt the code name “Deep Throat.” Woodward’s promise not to reveal his source was kept until Felt announced his role as Deep Throat in 2005.”

If you want to see for yourself the historic site where these clandestine meetings were held, you will need to hurry.  There are plans to tear down the aging office building within the next few years to make way for eventual redevelopment, and the marker may soon be all that remains.

WatergateGarage3     WatergateGarage1