In the early hours of May 9, 1970, a frazzled President Richard Nixon embarks upon what his Chief of Staff will describe as “the weirdest day so far” of his presidency. Preoccupied with the recent Kent State shootings and the unrest that has spread to college campuses across the country, Nixon makes an impromptu and bizarre visit to a group of anti-war protesters at the Lincoln Memorial.
On the Friday after the Kent State massacre, in which Ohio National Guard killed four students and wounded nine during an anti-war protest, Nixon was unable to sleep. Around 4 in the morning, after spending several hours making phone calls, he roused his personal valet, Manolo Sanchez, and asked him if he had ever seen the Lincoln Memorial at night. Knowing he would encounter a crowd of student protesters that had camped out on the National Mall, Nixon set off with Sanchez, his physician and a Secret Service team.
Nixon’s account of the event differs greatly from that of the protesters, although both confirm it was a strange moment. Nixon described the students he met there as “overawed” and portrayed the conversation as a civil one. He told the protesters that he understood their hatred of the war, saying, “I know probably most of you think I’m an SOB. But I want you to know that I understand just how you feel.” Trying to start a friendly conversation, he asked where they went to school, and when some replied that they had come from Syracuse the president responded by talking about the school’s football team. “Here we had come from a university that’s completely uptight, on strike,” one student recalled, “and when we told him where we were from, he talked about the football team.” Nixon opined on the benefits of travel, particularly to Prague, Warsaw and Asia, but his audience struggled to follow along. “As far as sentence structure,” one of them later told a reporter, “there was none.”
The conversation lasted over an hour and both sides at least managed to explain their views on the war, although neither convinced the other. Nixon did not sleep that night, instead insisting he take Sanchez to see the floor of the House of Representatives before eating breakfast at the Mayflower Hotel. A diary entry written later that day by H.R. Haldeman, Nixon’s Chief of Staff, corroborates the students’ version of events: “I am concerned about his condition … he has had very little sleep for a long time and his judgment, temper and mood suffer badly as a result.”
READ MORE: Vietnam War Protests