By Edward Epstein
May 9, 2022
Located at the western end of the National Mall in Washington, the Lincoln Memorial, which marks its 100th birthday this month, has seen almost everything, but nothing as strange as what occurred in the pre-dawn hours of May 9, 1970.
The nation was in an uproar back then. President Richard Nixon had announced on April 30 that he had sent U.S. forces into Cambodia, widening the Vietnam war in an effort to cut North Vietnamese forces off from their sanctuary in that small Indochinese country. The result was a sweeping wave of anti-war protests on U.S. college campuses. On May 4, Ohio National Guardsmen who had been called out to the campus of Kent State University shot and killed four students and injured nine others.
Within a few days, tens of thousands of college students had converged on the nation's capitol for anti-Vietnam war protests, with many camping out at the Lincoln Memorial, which by 1970 had become a focal point for protests in Washington. "In the view of many," Time magazine noted in its May 18, 1970 issue, "anarchy seemed indeed to be threatening on campuses across the U.S."
In the White House, Nixon and his aides mapped out a response. The president held a press conference on the evening of May 8, which grew testy, and Nixon then spent several hours making some 50 phone calls, including to Billy Graham and after midnight to NBC TV reporter Nancy Dickerson. White House logs show that the president tried to sleep from 2:15 a.m. to 4 a.m.
He then went to the Lincoln Sitting Room and did what he often did -- played classical music, in this case Rachmaninoff, at a blaring volume and woke up his valet Manolo Sanchez. He asked Sanchez if he had ever been to the Lincoln Memorial. Sanchez said no, so Nixon got into a business suit, summoned the Secret Service and his limousine, and off they went into the pre-dawn darkness. Calls went out to Nixon's top aides that their boss, Secret Service code name "Searchlight," was on the loose, without any of them to watch over him.
Imagine the shock of the hundreds of drowsy and unwashed students at the memorial when the president who was the object of their protests showed up dressed as if going to the Oval Office. Nixon, who was so bad at making small talk that aides often gave him talking points about what to say when he encountered ordinary Americans, asked some of the students where they were from. When they said Syracuse University, Nixon started incongruously talking about Syracuse's college football team.
He also advised the young people gathered around, many of whom shook his hand and snapped his photo, to travel the world while they were young. He said he understood their anger, but said he was trying to end the bloody Vietnam war.
Nixon then took Sanchez and the Secret Service to the Capital building, where he had served in the House and Senate. The Senate side of the building was locked, but Nixon and his party went into the House chamber, where cleaning women were at work. Some frantic White House aides caught up to the president at this point.
Nixon then took the group to the Mayflower Hotel, where he had frequently breakfasted while serving in Congress, to eat eggs and corned beef hash. It was the first time Nixon had eaten in a Washington restaurant since becoming president in January 1969, Time noted. Then it was back to the White House, about one-half mile away.
One of Nixon's top aides, Robert Haldeman, wrote in his diary at the time that he was concerned about the president's condition, besieged by criticism over his expansion of the war. Nixon biographer John A. Farrell, writing in 2017, said that his troubles had led Nixon to drink, sometimes to excess, and he was taking sleeping pills. His impromptu, strange visit to the memorial was symptomatic of his troubles.
"The stress of the presidency -- the anti-Vietnam demonstrations, the secret bombing and the invasion of Cambodia, the deaths of four student protestors at Kent State, became too much. He was agitated, drinking, and paranoid about the presidency," Farrell wrote in a Politico article.
Later that day, some 100,000 protestors marched through downtown Washington to peacefully vent their anger at Nixon, by then safely back in the White House bubble.