Nixon, Pat (1912–1993)

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Nixon, Pat (1912–1993)

American first lady (1969–1974). Name variations: (nickname) Buddy. Born Thelma Catherine Patricia Ryan on March 16, 1912, in Ely, Nevada; died on June 23, 1993; youngest of three children and only daughter of William Ryan (a copper miner) and Katharina (Halberstadt) Bender Ryan, a widow with two children; graduated from Excelsior Union High School, Artesia, California; attended Fullerton Junior College, 1931; B.S. in merchandising from the University of Southern California (cum laude), 1934; married Richard M. Nixon (1913–1994, U.S. president, 1969–74), on June 21, 1940, in Riverside, California; children: Tricia Nixon (b. 1946); Julie Nixon (b. 1948).

One of the many junkets Richard and Pat Nixon made together when he was vice president under Dwight D. Eisenhower was a goodwill tour of South America in 1958. Warned in advance of growing anti-American sentiment, and encountering angry crowds of students when they were in Peru, the Nixons were nonetheless unprepared for the mass of demonstrators, jeering and spitting, that greeted them at the airport in Venezuela, their final stop. During the motorcade into Caracas that followed, the vice president's car was halted by a man-made barricade of empty cars, then surrounded by a mob of 500 who beat on the car with clubs and pipes, smashing the windows and nearly upturning the vehicle. Behind Richard Nixon's car, riding with the wife of the foreign minister and military aide Don Hughes, Pat Nixon sat wondering if her husband would escape with his life while her own car was also pummeled with rocks, one smashing with enormous force into a window a few inches from her face. She remained calm throughout the ordeal, even restraining and comforting the frantic wife of the foreign minister. (Pat later told her daughter Julie that she was more angry than frightened.) Hughes, who had survived combat in World War II and in Korea, told reporters later that Pat Nixon had "more guts" than he had ever seen. His appraisal was echoed by Bob Hartmann, who watched the attack from the press truck and later filed the first dispatch back to the United States, calling Pat Nixon "magnificent." Even the vice president praised his wife as "probably the coolest person in the whole party." But Pat Nixon's strength and composure under siege, probably her greatest asset, was frequently viewed as aloofness by a public that never warmed to her. "The cameras that caught the angular planes of her face missed the soft contours of her heart," wrote Bonnie Angelo in a Time article shortly after Pat Nixon's death in 1993. "Her Republican cloth-coat persona was no match for the glamour of her predecessors, Jacqueline Kennedy , international trendsetter, and Lady Bird Johnson , poetic beautifier of highways." Angelo went on to suggest that much of Pat Nixon's image problem stemmed from her fierce loyalty to her husband, a man who "from his ambitious first days in politics to the catastrophic final days, … could not shake the visceral distrust of the public and the media."

Born in 1912 in a miner's shack in Ely, Nevada, and christened Thelma Catherine Ryan, Nixon was dubbed Pat by her Irish-American father because she had arrived on the eve of St. Patrick's Day. (Later, she legally changed her name to Patricia to honor her father.) When she was two, the family, which included two older brothers and an older half-brother and half-sister from her mother's previous marriage, moved to Artesia, California, where they attempted to eke out a living on a truck farm, without the aid of electricity or running water. She remembered that period in her life as primitive and difficult. "I didn't know what it was not to work hard," she said. Her mother died of stomach cancer in 1926, but despite taking over the additional household chores, Nixon maintained a high average in high school and also had roles in both the junior and senior class plays. A classmate, Marcia Elliott Wray , called her "the unchallenged actress of the class."

After graduation, Nixon worked as a cleaning woman and bank teller while attending Fullerton Junior College, a few miles away. She was remembered from that time as a good-looking, energetic, and self-confident, even adventuresome, young woman. In 1931, a year after her father died of silicosis (black-lung disease), she seized an opportunity to go to New York, agreeing to drive an elderly couple 3,000 miles cross-country in their ancient Packard touring car. Once there, she secured a job at Seton Hospital for the Tubercular and enrolled in Columbia University for an intensive summer course in radiology. Living Spartanly and saving her money, she returned to California in 1933 and enrolled at UCLA. Pat supported herself with a variety of jobs, including working as an extra in films. She graduated cum laude in 1937, and immediately obtained a job as a business-education teacher at the high school in Whittier, California, where Richard Nixon, newly graduated from Duke University, had just returned to begin practicing law. The two met when they were both cast in the Whittier Community Players' production of The Dark Tower, a dreary mystery melodrama. On the night they met, Richard told Pat that he intended to marry her. "I thought he was crazy," she said later. But he persevered for three years, and on June 21, 1940, they were married in a small Quaker ceremony. Afterwards, with $200 between them, they took off for a honeymoon in Mexico.

During the war, while Richard served with the Navy in the South Pacific, Pat worked for the Office of Price Administration in San Francisco, where she was quickly promoted through the ranks to the position of price analyst, at a more than respectable salary of $3,200 a year. When Richard returned from the war, he was promptly drafted to run for Congress from Whittier. Pat, then pregnant with her first child, was ambivalent about his new career in politics, but sensed her husband's eagerness. "I could see it was the life he wanted," she said, "The only thing I could do was to help him, but it would not have been a life that I would have chosen." Although she refused to make political speeches and insisted that their home be kept a refuge where she could raise her family in a normal fashion, she threw herself wholeheartedly into the campaign, serving in the background as his office manager. In February 1946, Tricia Nixon was born; three weeks later, Pat was back in the campaign office.

After Richard's victory, the family moved to Washington, where Pat ran her husband's congressional office, and where their second daughter Julie Nixon was born on July 5, 1948. In 1950, when Richard beat Helen Gahagan Douglas in a bitter campaign for the Senate that Washington journalist Earl Mazo called "the most hateful one California had experienced in many years," the family moved from a cramped duplex to a more comfortable home in Spring Valley. But Pat's attitude toward the political arena had not warmed. When Richard was drafted as Eisenhower's running-mate in 1952, she was bitterly opposed to his candidacy, although once the campaign was underway she stood by him, insisting that he defend himself against charges of unethical use of an $18,000 "slush fund." In an emotionally charged speech upholding his honor (later dubbed the "Checkers" speech because of his mention of the family dog), he made several references to his wife, including his famous allusion to her "respectable Republican cloth coat." Pat particularly hated that speech, despite the avalanche of supportive telegrams it generated. "Why do we have to tell people how little we have and how much we owe?," she had asked him.

Two full terms as second lady of the land culminated in another whirlwind Nixon campaign, this time for the presidency against John F. Kennedy. The narrow defeat (in the closest election since the Harrison-Cleveland race in 1888) was a bitter disappointment for Pat, although tears were quickly replaced by her joy at returning to private life in California, where Richard joined a Los Angeles law firm. After his unsuccessful run for governor of California—a campaign Pat was against from the beginning—the family moved to New York, where Richard became a partner in a Wall Street law firm. One of the happiest events of this time was the wedding of Julie Nixon to Dwight Eisenhower's grandson, David Eisenhower, in December 1968. (Three years later, in June 1971, Tricia would marry Ed Cox in a ceremony in the Rose Garden of the White House.)

Pat Nixon had precious little time to savor life out of the spotlight, as Richard returned to politics and was elected president over Hubert Humphrey in November 1968. The grueling campaign that preceded the election had been carried out in an atmosphere of rage over the lingering war in Vietnam. "Hey, hey, LBJ, how many kids did you kill today?" was the frequent taunt leveled at then-president Lyndon Johnson by the angry demonstrators who dogged his every move. Pat Nixon once again took up her husband's cause, believing that he was the man who could bring order out of the chaos, but having no illusions about the possibility of failure. Her efforts during the campaign had inspired Dick Schaap of the New York Post to dub her "the quintessential candidate's wife."

Unlike other first ladies, Pat refused to be identified with a single project. Instead, she divided her time between several causes, including education, community self-help, and volunteerism. One of her chief priorities was refurbishing 14 of the 36 rooms of the White House, for which she raised the money herself from private sources. In addition, she had the White House art work catalogued and began the practice of displaying national treasures in the East Room, so that visitors could see them. In her quiet manner, she managed to acquire more fine American furnishings for the White House than any other first lady, although no one ever knew of her accomplishment. "She wouldn't allow anybody to give her the credit," said White House curator Rex Scouten. Pat was equally low-key about entertaining, keeping the White House dinners small and sedate in comparison to those of the Kennedy administration. She saved her more overt hospitality for the American public, in an effort to make the White House more accessible. She arranged tours to be given to the blind, the hearing-impaired, and the physically challenged, and she initiated candlelight tours at Christmas, as well as seasonal garden tours in October and April. She also spent four hours each day, usually in the evening, personally replying to her mail.

As first lady, Pat Nixon traveled extensively, visiting American troops in Vietnam (the first first lady to visit a war zone since Eleanor Roosevelt ), and serving quite successfully as a foreign emissary. Angelo suggests that she "blossomed visibly in direct ratio to the distance between her mission and the inhibitions imposed on her at home." In 1970, Pat helped ease tensions with Peru when she traveled to towns and villages devastated by earthquakes, delivering supplies and consoling survivors. She was also warmly received in West Africa during a tour in 1972.

Following the reported break-in at the Watergate complex in 1972, and the succession of congressional committees and special prosecutors that investigated Richard's link to the burglary, Pat steadfastly proclaimed her husband's innocence, insisting that it was a minor scandal compared to his accomplishments, and chastising the media for blowing it out of proportion. By 1974, however, the administration had all but collapsed, and Pat could not even conduct her volunteer projects without being greeted by jeers from demonstrators calling for her husband's resignation. Once asked how she remained calm through it all, she replied: "I hate complainers, and I made up my mind not to be one," she replied. "So if it's cold, I tell myself it's not cold and if it's hot, I tell myself it's not hot. And you know it works."

By August 1974, the president had lost the support of Congress and was forced to leave office. It was during his resignation speech that Pat Nixon cried openly in public for the first time. By the next day, however, when he bid farewell to his staff, she had regained her stoic composure, even though her husband failed to acknowledge her in his parting remarks. Following the speech, the Nixon family, arm in arm, left the White House lawn by helicopter. It was the last time the public would ever see Pat Nixon.

In 1976, after seeing her husband through the aftermath of Watergate, as well as a bout with phlebitis that required surgery, Pat Nixon suffered a stroke which left her partially paralyzed. The family blamed it on the sensational Woodward-Bernstein book The Final Days, in which the authors implied that Richard had been dangerously unbalanced and that Pat became reclusive and drank heavily. "For mother," wrote Julie Nixon, "the most unbearable part of the book was the analysis of her marriage as loveless." With great fortitude, Pat recovered from that stroke and another in 1980, after the couple had moved to New York. In her later years, she drew her greatest joy from her grandchildren, whom she adored. Pat was further weakened by emphysema and died on June 23, 1993, shortly after being diagnosed with lung cancer.

One of the last of Pat Nixon's "official" acts was to pose for a White House portrait, which she did only reluctantly after five years of prodding from White House curator Clem Conger and her daughters. The portrait was painted at the Nixon retirement home in San Clemente, California, by the artist Henriette Wyeth , who was particularly impressed by Pat's delicate beauty, noting that her eyes were like none she had ever seen. "The eyes reveal an unusual spirit. They are the eyes of a sixteen-year-old girl—an expression of great sweetness," she later told Julie. "She has maintained a kind of fragile beauty about her life," Wyeth wrote. "When she looked out the window at the hummingbirds, I liked the expression then in her eyes best. She still believes despite injustices."

sources:

Angelo, Bonnie. "The Woman in the Cloth Coat," in Time. July 5, 1993, p. 39.

Beck, Melinda. "'Love Bears All Things,'" in Newsweek. July 5, 1993, p. 65.

David, Lester. The Lonely Lady of San Clemente: The Story of Pat Nixon. NY: Thomas Y. Crowell, 1978.

Eisenhower, Julie Nixon. Pat Nixon: The Untold Story. NY: Simon and Schuster, 1986.

Garraty, John H., and Mark C. Carnes, eds. American National Biography. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999.

Moritz, Charles, ed. Current Biography 1970. NY: H.W. Wilson, 1970.

Barbara Morgan , Melrose, Massachusetts

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