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New Nixon Tapes Reveal Details of Meeting With Anti-War Activists

November 25, 2011 at 12:00 AM EST
Recently released audio recordings detail President Richard Nixon's surreal meeting with anti-Vietnam War protesters at the Lincoln Memorial one night more than four decades ago. Ray Suarez reports.
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JEFFREY BROWN: And finally tonight, what some recently released audio recordings tell us about former President Richard Nixon and the events of one surreal night more than four decades ago.

Ray Suarez has the story.

RAY SUAREZ: It’s hard to imagine an American president in this intensely security-conscious age leaving the White House in the middle of the night to meet protesters on their turf.

It happened in May 1970. President Richard Nixon was under intense criticism for widening the Vietnam War to Cambodia. Four Kent State University students had been killed by National Guardsmen just days before. Thousands of young protesters quickly mobilized and headed to Washington, D.C.

Around 4:00 a.m. on May 9, Mr. Nixon abruptly decided to surprise a group gathered at the Lincoln Memorial. The Nixon Presidential Library and Museum has released a series of recordings, including dictation from President Nixon to his chief staff, H.R. Haldeman, describing his version of that night’s events.

For more on the recordings, we’re joined by Melvin Small, distinguished professor of history emeritus at Wayne State University. He’s author of the books “The Presidency of Richard Nixon” and “Covering Dissent: The Media and Anti-Vietnam War Movement.”

Professor, isn’t it priceless to have a president’s reminiscences from right after an event like this?

MELVIN SMALL, Wayne State University: Oh, it certainly was.

And he was reacting — he wrote it three or four days after, and he was reacting to the terribly negative press that he received, which he thought was unfair. Of course, Richard Nixon always thought the press was unfair.

RAY SUAREZ: Let’s listen as President Nixon describes a conversation with his valet, Manolo, and asking him if he’d ever been down to the Lincoln Memorial.

FORMER PRESIDENT RICHARD NIXON: I said, get your clothes on and we will go down to the Lincoln Memorial.

Well, I got dressed and at approximately 4:35, we left the White House and drove to the Lincoln Memorial.

I have never seen the Secret Service quite so petrified with apprehension.

RAY SUAREZ: “I have never seen the Secret Service quite so petrified with apprehension.”

Did Nixon do this kind of thing often?

MELVIN SMALL: He was not — this wasn’t that unusual. He had done this when he was campaigning.

And the following year at — in San Jose, Calif., he got out of his car, hoping — literally hoping that stones would be thrown at him, much to the horror of the Secret Service. So, he was both fearless and, some might say, irresponsible, and not just on this occasion.

RAY SUAREZ: It signals a kind of interesting relationship with Manolo. I guess it’s his valet?

MELVIN SMALL: Yes, Manolo Sanchez was his valet. He was a Cuban immigrant.

RAY SUAREZ: And they’re discussing this at 4:00 in the morning after a turned-down offer of some hot chocolate, but he asks him if he had ever been to the Lincoln Memorial at night and just sort of, what, pals along with him to go down there?

MELVIN SMALL: Yes, he drags him along.

It’s a little odd, because Nixon had been on the phone. He had made 50 phone calls from about 9:00 until 3:30. He called Henry Kissinger eight times. He was in a very odd situation mentally, I think. The country was falling apart, from his perspective. He later said this was the darkest period of his presidency.

Henry Kissinger said Washington and the White House was besieged. There were district buses lined up around the White House for who knows what. The 82nd Airborne was in the basement of the Executive Office Building across the street. This was a very tense and, in many ways, from his professional, dangerous period.

And, then, all of a sudden, he says, let’s go look at the Lincoln Memorial.

RAY SUAREZ: So, he heads over, no entourage, no press. How was he received?

MELVIN SMALL: Well, he went over and pointed out the memorial to Manolo.

And then there were about seven or eight students who were in sleeping bags rubbing their eyes. And there’s the president standing there beginning to talk to them. And many of them were absolutely astonished. Now, by this time, some of the Secret Services has caught up and one of his aides, but only one, Bud Krogh.

RAY SUAREZ: Let’s listen to the president describing his interaction with the protesters at the Lincoln Memorial.

RICHARD NIXON: And I said I was sorry they had missed it because I had tried to explain in the press conference that my goals in Vietnam were the same as theirs — to stop the killing, to end the war, to bring peace. Our goal was not to get into Cambodia by what we were doing, but to get out of Vietnam.

There seemed to be no — they did not respond. I hoped that their 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, I know you, that probably most of you think I’m an SOB. But I want you to know that I understand just how you feel.

RAY SUAREZ: This seems like a very revealing statement from an American president during a very tense time. Do we have any confirmation of these conversations from the other side of the exchange?

MELVIN SMALL: Well, here’s the problem.

The media the next day, the newspapers, went and talked to some of the students. And most of the comments they got, almost all of them said that the president was speaking flippantly, irrelevantly. And, in fact, he did. He tried to engage them on Vietnam, evidently. They didn’t listen very much to what he had to say. He said he sympathized with their interest in peace.

And then, when that didn’t work, he said, where do you go to college? And if it was Syracuse, oh, you have got a good football team. Or if it was California, he would talk about surfing to them. He talked about foreign travel.

And the next day, the media only had those kinds of comments, which is kind of the reason why Nixon a couple of days later decided to put down his memories of the visit for the historical record.

RAY SUAREZ: At some point, he decides to end the conversations. He sees that daybreak is beginning and takes his leave of the Lincoln Memorial.

Let’s listen to the president’s description of that moment.

RICHARD NIXON: 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.

By this time, the dawn was upon us. The light began to — the sun began to — the first rays of the sun began to show. And they began to climb up over the Washington Monument. And I said I had to go and shook hanks with those nearest to me and walked down the steps.

RAY SUAREZ: But a restless Richard Nixon doesn’t return to the White House, does he?

MELVIN SMALL: No, he then takes Manolo off to the House of Representatives. I guess Manolo had never been there.

And they get the House opened. There are only a couple of cleaning people in it. He takes a seat in his old representative seat. And he asks Manolo to go up to the speaker’s platform and to deliver a short speech. Then they go off to breakfast. He said he hadn’t had hash ever since he had been president. They try a famous hash diner.

That was closed. So they went off to the Mayflower Hotel and had breakfast. And only after that did he go back to the White House, after this amazing evening, early morning.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, as someone who intimately knows the ins and outs of Richard Nixon’s life story, what does this little vignette tell you?

MELVIN SMALL: Well, I think he really was sincere when he went over to the kids and said, I share your interest in making peace.

They disagreed about the way he was going about it. I think he was trying to cool the incredible passions of May 9, 1970. And he was — he was an awkward man. He was awkward physically. He was awkward verbally. He used to ask his aides to give him little three-by-five cards in order to make small talk.

So, this is a kind of an unusual situation for him. He’s making small talk without his three-by-five cards.

RAY SUAREZ: Professor Small, an interesting story. Thanks for joining us.

MELVIN SMALL: Thank you.