There has been quite a lot of coverage this week of President Obama’s early-morning journey on Thursday to Dover Air Force Base to witness the arrival of the remains of eighteen American servicemen killed in Afghanistan, and to meet with their families. At her blog at the New Yorker’s website, Amy Davidson draws a comparison to another President’s journey out of the White House after midnight: Richard Nixon’s trip at 4 am on the morning of May 9, 1970, to the Lincoln Memorial, where he met with demonstrators who were in town to protest the Vietnam War, the Cambodian incursion, and the shootings at Kent State University:
Obama’s trip to Dover lacked the spontaneity that made Nixon’s walk so strange and compelling and also a little heartrending. (One is allowed to have one’s heart rended by Nixon, as long as it doesn’t become a habit.) Obama was surrounded by the dead, and Nixon by the living—but although he famously spoke to the students at the Lincoln Memorial about football, they also talked about dying, and what he and they would die for. A few hours later, the students joined a hundred thousand others in a march about Vietnam in which they shouted that he was a murderer. Obama is not there yet. What both Obama and Nixon had in common was that a war kept them awake.
As Ms. Davidson says, President Nixon’s decision to go to the Memorial in that early-morning hour was a spontaneous one. Her post links to the passage concerning this event in Richard Reeves’s book President Nixon.
Reeves describes the series of phone calls that the President made after midnight to several people, one of them Nancy Dickerson, the mother of Slate’s John Dickerson. He then writes about the President leaving the White House, accompanied only by his valet Manolo Sanchez, White House aide Egil “Bud” Krogh, and a handful of Secret Service agents, and proceeding to the Memorial, where he emerged from his car, walked up to a group of sleepless students, and began talking.
This is still one of the more remarkable moments of the American Presidency, and not just because it’s quite inconceivable to think of anything similar happening today. Lyndon Johnson, a President far more comfortable mingling with crowds than Nixon was, did nothing similar when antiwar marchers assembled at the Pentagon in 1967. The reports coming in from Vietnam would often leave LBJ sleepless, but he would remain, as some pundits liked to say in those days, “the prisoner in the White House.”
Nixon’s trip to the Memorial was also unusual because, despite its taking place in one of the most thoroughly public places in the nation, it had none of the nature of a public event. All the reporters covering the demonstration were either asleep or huddled over a thermos somewhere else in the throng. None of the White House photographers went with the President. One of the students with whom Nixon spoke did have a camera, and he took some photographs – but almost forty years later, unless jpgs can be seen on some unheralded corner of the internet, these images have yet to surface, at least as far as I know.
By contrast, although the press contingent with President Obama was much smaller than usual, his visit to Dover was filmed, and on Thursday night America saw him in the role of wartime leader. President Nixon’s trip to the Memorial, however, was the act of a leader of the American people as well as the American armed forces, seeking to understand what the youth of his nation thought about the conflict he had to contend with, seeking to build lines of communication to them (and not, as some of the more glib articles about the event had it at the time, to talk college football with them). It’s quite noteworthy that RN’s meeting with the demonstrators still resonates now as strongly as it did then.