TODAY   |  November 12, 2011

Nixon erratic, emotional on tapes

Under pressure from lawsuits filed by historians, the National Archives released previously sealed grand jury recordings of President Richard Nixon discussing the Watergate burglary, the war in Vietnam and a surprise pre-dawn visit with war protestors. NBC News’ Mike Viqueira reports.

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LESTER HOLT, co-host: He resigned as -- his presidency, and this morning newly released audiotapes of Richard Nixon , along with grand jury transcripts, are giving us an unprecedented glimpse into his state of mind during his tumultuous years in office. NBC 's Mike Viqueira is in Washington to tell us more about it. Mike , good morning.

MIKE VIQUEIRA reporting: Good morning, Lester . Those once secret documents and recordings released this week reveal more about a complex and troubled Richard Nixon and his refusal, even after leaving office, to admit any knowledge about one of Watergate 's most infamous episodes. The Secret Service was petrified. The young students overawed. That account from President Nixon himself, who, in recordings made at the time and released this week, described his surprise predawn appearance among anti-war protesters in May 1970 .

President RICHARD NIXON: I said I know you think I'm -- probably most of you think I'm an S.O.B. , but I want you to know that I understand just how you feel .

VIQUEIRA: The unusual visit came in the midst of upheaval. Less than a week earlier, four protesters were shot dead at Kent State by Ohio National Guard troops. And just hours before, in a tense press conference, Nixon had explained his decision to expand the Vietnam War into Cambodia . He awoke at 4 AM and summoned his valet.

Pres. NIXON: I got dressed and at approximately 4:35, we left the White House and drove to the Lincoln Memorial . I've never seen the Secret Service quite so petrified with apprehension. I insisted, however, that no press be informed and that nobody in our office be informed.

VIQUEIRA: Nixon tried to win over a growing but respectful crowd of activists. Also released secret transcripts of Nixon 's testimony to a Watergate grand jury . Already granted immunity by his successor Gerald Ford , Nixon told of his reaction when he learned a White House tape of a critical Watergate meeting had a gap of 18 1/2 minutes, the only sound a buzz. "I practically blew my stack," Nixon testified, adding, "I don't know how it happened." Scholars say the new releases reveal a part of Nixon that contributed to his downfall.

Mr. ROBERT DALLEK (Presidential Historian): This is a man who could be very erratic, terribly emotional and quite unpredictable.

VIQUEIRA: And, Lester , grand jury transcripts like that one at the end of the spot there are normally kept secret forever, and historians like Mr. Dallek -- Professor Dallek there are hoping that the release will help them investigate American history to a greater degree, make it much easier for them

in the future. Lester: All right, Mike Viqueira , thanks very much. And we're back in a moment, but first, this is TODAY on NBC .