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Nixon’s legendarily strange meeting with protesters

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Robert Lentz

by on
in Leaders & Managers,Leadership Skills

In the pre-dawn darkness of a May morning in 1970, a sleepless Richard Nixon asked his valet, Manolo Sanchez, if he’d ever seen the Lincoln Memorial. When Sanchez replied that he hadn’t, Nixon told him to get dressed, because that’s where they were headed. A concerned Secret Service detail drove them across the National Mall in Washington to the site. It was a little before five.

Some young protesters had already gathered at the memorial in advance of an upcoming demonstration against the Vietnam War and other chaotic events such as the tragic shootings of student protesters at Kent State. They were stunned to see the President approach and engage them so informally.

Accounts of the meeting differ. Nixon recalled that the young people he spoke with were impressed by his presence and happy to engage in a dialogue about current events. He encouraged them to not let their hatred of the war poison their love the country, empathizing with their personal dislike for him.

Others noted that his speech and questions were disjointed and sometimes oddly off-topic, as when he mentioned the performance of someone’s college football team or surfing in California. There was concern for his safety and also for his stress level at the time, as his recent sleeplessness and the sudden visit indicated he might be becoming somewhat unglued.

Whatever truly was said that morning or what you think of Nixon, the visit raises interesting questions. Was his trip to the memorial a risk-filled mistake, or an ambitious attempt to reach out to people of opposing views? If you had the chance, during a time of hostility and controversy, to go “among the people” without a script, would you have the confidence to do so?

That night in 1970, the press was nowhere in attendance and social media and the internet did not exist, so the public relations gain for Nixon seemed to be negligible. Yet he went anyway.

Leaders are often used to having a cushion between them and their constituents, their customers or their front-line employees. Ask yourself what the benefits and downsides would be if, one day, without advance word or expectation, you made an effort to talk with those who would never otherwise get an audience with you. If the thought makes you uncomfortable, you may have more questions to ask yourself.

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