Wednesday is the anniversary of one of Richard Nixon’s most Nixonian moments — a surreal confab with student protesters in the wee hours of the morning on May 9, 1970 that went viral for all the wrong reasons.
A PBS documentary calls it “the day the 60s died.” At the time it read as farce, an emblem of the president’s sweaty desperation to connect. “Most of what he was saying was absurd,” reported a Syracuse undergrad. “Here we had come from a university that’s completely uptight, on strike, and when we told him where we were from, he talked about the football team.”
Today, Republicans like Nixon — interested in actual dialogue and sincerely attempting, however ineptly, to bridge cultural divides — barely exist. Is it possible that, in Donald Trump’s America, we should not kick Nixon around quite so much?
His daily diary laconically recorded the incident: “4:58am-5:55am: the President met with College students, eventually numbering approximately fifty, at the Lincoln Memorial.” The Kent State shooting on May 4 had spurred plans for a demonstration on May 9 to mourn those lost and protest the Vietnam War. On May 8, Nixon held a 10 p.m. news conference to reassure protesters driving to Washington he sympathized with their desire to get America out of Southeast Asia. He promised to withdraw all U.S. troops from Cambodia by the end of June.
Exhausted, Nixon spent the next three and a half hours phoning everyone from Billy Graham to two-time presidential candidate Thomas Dewey to reporters before going to bed, briefly, at 2:15. At 4:30, he summoned his valet and security team (all of them “petrified with apprehension,” the president noted), put on a suit and tie and decided it was a perfect time to visit the memorial, already occupied by a handful of students awaiting the next day’s rally.
The resulting colloquy, surpassingly surreal even for early-70s America, has gone down in counterculture lore. Nixon encouraged the students to tour the city, reminisced about his own youthful naivete in supporting Neville Chamberlain’s appeasement of Hitler and recalled his religious upbringing. He subsequently told his chief of staff he was just striving “to lift them a bit out of the miserable intellectual wasteland in which they now wander.” Lured by the oddity of the situation, more students dropped by.
Having failed to make headway, Nixon began to ramble. They should travel, see the country, he said. He urged Californians to surf and congratulated a just-arrived group from Syracuse on their football team. At dawn, having been driven to the Capitol, where he instructed his valet to give a speech about how proud he was to have become a naturalized citizen, an exhausted Nixon was finally diverted to his favorite breakfast of corned beef hash and eggs at the Mayflower Hotel.
The younger generation was not impressed by this close-quarters vision of governance. “It was unreal,” said a student from Syracuse. The encounter convinced one of her classmates young people would never make themselves heard. “I understand the communes now, and I understand the freaks … and I understand SDS and I understand the Weathermen.” She noted she had gone through five stages of coping with the experience: “first, awe; second, extreme respect; third, total confusion; fourth, fear; and fifth, pity. You hoped maybe it was an actor, goofing.” Instead, it was the president, flailing away at conversation.
The oddity of this fumbling attempt to bond with the young was immediately apparent even to Nixon’s most fervent supporters. The San Francisco Examiner ran an editorial emphasizing its “unequivocal” support for his policies and imploring “those who support the President but do not normally express themselves” to speak up. But its banner headline still blared “Nixon’s Strange Encounter. Meets Dissidents at Dawn.” Chief of Staff H.R. Haldeman thought it “the weirdest day so far,” adding Nixon was “completely beat and just rambling on.”
There was little difference in the slant taken by mainstream and underground outlets. Liberation News Service’s coverage, ironically subtitled “What the Pig Press Didn’t Tell,” provided the same quotations, in the same order, as the UPI’s syndicated account. Overall, the media focused much more on the president’s clumsy attempts to communicate than on the substance of his remarks.
The press coverage rankled Nixon, and even harsh critics like Stephen Ambrose admitted it was slanted because Nixon “had not spent all that much time talking sports.”
Fair or not, however, the verdict seemed unanimous: Nixon’s attempt to reach out was a flop. As columnist Tom Wicker summarized, “He was at least trying to ‘get in touch’ … but Nixon did not know how to do it.”
Yet, in today’s sharply polarized world does Nixon’s failure deserve reevaluation?
No matter their political perspective, observers agreed the president was doing his best to reach across a chasm and touch the students in an age of trauma. He took their concerns seriously, telling them he hoped opposition to the war would not induce them to hate the country. Even though Nixon’s point about Neville Chamberlain, a standard Cold-War invocation of the lessons of Munich, failed to sway his listeners, it provided a substantive historical parallel for his argument about the need to stay in Vietnam rather than lacing into his critics or ignoring them altogether.
At the time, Nixon still hoped he could bridge the generation gap (a term then coming into popular use). Junior staffers who had fanned out to college campuses reported most protesters had not lost faith in America. “Sons and daughters of the silent majority,” they wanted to feel represented rather than get lumped in with the angriest radicals.
Nixon and the students spoke different languages. His attempt to marshal instructive historical analogies failed to convince them he grasped why they were at the Memorial at 5 a.m. By July, he abandoned these efforts, opting for slash-and-burn tactics that tied opponents to “hippies, kids, Demos.” As he stumped for Republican congressional candidates in the fall, Nixon conjured youthful hecklers to rally his audiences — even when there were none present.
So while we can hardly elevate Nixon’s stabs at generosity into a coherent agenda, much less a successful attempt to heal the country, the conversation was a far cry from the caustic and uninformed early-morning Twitter slams President Trump specializes in. A fuller vision of the incident suggests something that would be welcome in our current climate: an inhabitant of the White House willing to make the effort to positively engage people who disagree with him and to embark on substantive, unscripted conversations of the sort that a deeply fractured country demands.
Having started college in the teeth of the Depression and voluntarily entering the Navy in World War II, Nixon knew full well how easily collective democratic institutions and practices could crumble. He was striving, fumblingly, to embody and reassert them to everyone present. If anything, President Trump should learn from this effort instead of continuing to thumb his nose at these institutions and norms. While Nixon ended up the object of ridicule, he fundamentally understood what the country needed.