Call him New Age Nixon.
In a batch of Nixon-era audiotapes released Thursday, the former president muses about the meaning of life, the importance of people rather than places and the "spiritual hunger which all of us have."
It all unfolds during an odd episode from May 1970, just days after the shootings at Kent State that left four students dead during a protest against the Vietnam War, when Nixon woke up around 4 a.m. on a Saturday morning, listened to some Rachmaninoff piano recordings and then decided to pay a visit to the Lincoln Memorial with his valet, Manolo Sanchez.
Nixon, who dictated his recollections of the night, began chatting with a group of eight to 10 surprised protesters that gradually grew to about 30 before he departed at daybreak.
They talk about beautiful cities around the world, about architecture, about the war, about the evils of pollution and more.
But time and again, Nixon returns to what he calls his "major theme _ that what really mattered in the world was the people rather than cities and air and water and all the other things that were material."
"What we all must think about is why we are here," he advises the protesters. "What are those elements of the spirit which really matter?"
At one point, Nixon recalls, a protester tells the president, "We're not interested in what Prague looks like. We're interested in what kind of life we build in the United States."
Nixon tells the protesters his purpose in talking about cities was to stress the importance of understanding people around the world. And, as for fighting pollution, he tells them:
"You must remember that something that is completely clean can also be completely sterile, without spirit."
He adds, "I just wanted to be sure that all of them realize that ending the war and cleaning up the city streets and the air and the water was not going to end the spiritual hunger which all of us have, which of course is the great mystery of life from the beginning of time."
Nixon's talk with the growing group of students made the Secret Service increasingly nervous. Sanchez keeps telling the president he has a phone call in the car.
Nixon tells him, "Let it wait."
As rays of sunshine begin to light the Washington Monument, Nixon returns to his car, where he invites a delighted protester from Detroit to pose for a photo with him, earning the president "the broadest smile that I received on the entire visit."
Nixon ends his kumbaya moment by telling the protester: "I just hope your opposition doesn't turn into blind hatred of the country. Remember, this is a great country for all of its faults."
Nixon recordings: http://tinyurl.com/c8do45u
Specific recording: http://bit.ly/sO98R4