Obama burger run: What's strangest presidential walkabout of all time?

President Obama got loose from the White House Tuesday, making a burger run to Alexandria, Va. But that spark of spontaneity pales in comparison with Nixon's adventure with his valet.

Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP
President Obama greets patrons after having lunch during his unannounced visit to FireFlies restaurant in the Del Ray neighborhood of Alexandria, Va., Tuesday.

On Tuesday, President Obama made an unscheduled lunch run to Alexandria, Va., for burgers. He and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan broke out of the White House security bubble and limoed to FireFlies Restaurant in Del Ray, a neighborhood with a high concentration of trendy eating spots. We hope the president remembered to bring his wallet as the place isn’t cheap by most Americans’ standards. The Pimento Pork Burger is $11 during the day shift. A Bacon Burger is $12.

As the Associated Press notes in its wire story on this event, burger runs are becoming something of a habit for Mr. Obama. Last month, he and Vice President Joe Biden showed up at the Shake Shack in D.C.’s Dupont Circle.

And the FireFlies visit marks the second day in a row Obama has ventured forth on an unannounced outing. On Monday, he strolled over to Starbucks on foot with Chief of Staff Denis McDonough. According to sources close to the outing, the president had hot tea, venti-sized. When leaving the White House for the coffee shop, Obama patted his communications director on the back and said, “The bear’s loose.”

As this comment hints, it’s common for presidents to resent the gilded captivity of the Executive Mansion. Their every movement seems to be planned in advance, with Secret Service and press staff coordination. Presidents have many powers, but the power to be spontaneous generally isn’t among them.

Thus the bear occasionally gets loose. As president-elect, Bill Clinton famously jogged to McDonald’s. After his inauguration he insisted on continuing to run outside the White House grounds. The  Secret Service hated it, and installed a track around the Executive Mansion perimeter to try and break Clinton of the habit. He didn’t like it, and continued to occasionally jog down the National Mall and along the Potomac.

But arguably the strangest White House walkabout of all time involved that most fascinating and confounding of modern US chief executives, Richard M. Nixon. It was “one of the more remarkable episodes of Nixon’s presidency,” writes historian Fred Emery in his book “Watergate.”

It occurred in the early morning hours of May 9, 1970. That was a terribly tense time in the US. Nixon had ordered the invasion of Cambodia as part of the Vietnam War, and antiwar protesters had redoubled their efforts as a result. A demonstration at Kent State University had left four students dead after National Guard members panicked and opened fire.

Nixon held a press conference on May 8 and was wrought-up afterwards. After a brief sleep, he awoke and started making phone calls. His Spanish-born valet, Manolo Sanchez, appeared with coffee, and Nixon asked Sanchez if he’d ever seen the Lincoln Memorial at night. The valet said no, and Nixon said, “Let’s get dressed and go.”

That’s what they did. A startled White House aide, Egil Krogh, followed in their wake. At the great statue of Lincoln, Nixon moved down to talk to a group of very surprised antiwar protesters. Accounts of what followed vary. Nixon later wrote that he tried to have an uplifting conversation and pass along wisdom about “matters of the spirit.” Some of the students said he seemed to ramble and talked about the football team from Syracuse University, which some of them attended.

After that, Nixon and Sanchez drove to the Capitol and the president had a surprised duty clerk unlock the House chamber. Nixon sat in his old desk on the floor and had Sanchez pretend to make a speech, while Nixon led the applause, according to Emery’s account of the incident.

The president then wanted to walk back to the White House but the way was blocked by buses. They ended up having breakfast at the Mayflower Hotel.

“The weirdest day so far,” began Chief of Staff H. R. Haldeman’s diary entry for May 9. After detailing the events of the walk, Haldeman added of Nixon: “I am concerned about his condition.”

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