Pat Nixon

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Thelma "Pat" Nixon
Patricia Nixon, bw photo c1969.jpg
Born March 16, 1912
Ely, Nevada, USA
Died June 6, 1993
Park Ridge, New Jersey, USA
Occupation First Lady of the United States
Predecessor Lady Bird Johnson
Successor Betty Ford
Spouse(s) Richard Nixon
Children Patricia, Julie
Relatives Katherine Halberstadt, William Ryan, Sr.

Thelma Catherine Ryan Nixon (March 16, 1912 – June 22, 1993) was the wife of former President Richard Nixon and the First Lady of the United States from 1969 to 1974. She was commonly known as Pat Nixon.

Nixon was always supportive of her husband even during the troubled times. Pat Nixon encouraged her husband to destroy the secret tape recordings before they became public property. She pleaded with him not to resign.

She met the difficult days of Watergate with grace and dignity. "I love my husband," she said. "I believe in him, and I am proud of his accomplishments."

Contents

Early life

Thelma Catherine Ryan was born in Ely, Nevada, the day before St. Patrick's Day. Her father, William Ryan, Sr., was a sailor, gold miner, and truck farmer of Irish descent. Her mother, Katherine Halberstadt, was a German immigrant.[1] Although the family was Methodist, her father was baptized in the Catholic faith and was thought to have returned to it shortly before he died. Pat was a nickname given her by her father, referring to her birth date and Irish ancestry,[2] though she also used the name Patricia, which is used on her tombstone though it was not her legal name.

Her family soon moved near Los Angeles, California, and in 1914, settled on a small truck farm in Artesia; the area in which the Ryans lived is now part of present-day Cerritos.[3] During this time she worked on the family farm and also at a local bank as a janitor and bookkeeper. Her mother died of cancer in 1924.[4] Pat, who was 12, assumed all the household duties for her father, who died in 1929 of silicosis, and two older brothers, William Jr. and Thomas. She also had a half-sister, Neva Bender, and a half-brother, Matthew Bender, from her mother's first marriage.

"I never had it easy"

It has been said that "Few, if any First Ladies worked as consistently before their marriage as did Pat Nixon."[5] As Nixon told the journalist and feminist Gloria Steinem during the 1968 presidential campaign, "I never had it easy. I never had time to think about things like… who I wanted to be or whom I admired, or to have ideas. I never had time to dream about being anyone else. I had to work."

After graduating from Excelsior High School in 1929, Pat Ryan attended Fullerton Junior College, which she paid for by working as a driver, an X-ray technician, a pharmacy manager, and a typist. She also earned money sweeping the floors of a local bank. As a profile noted, "She began her life in a tent, she suspects, and seems to have spent the years of her youth getting out of it."[6] She also worked her way through the University of Southern California, where she majored in merchandising. As a former professor noted, "She stood out from the empty-headed, overdressed little sorority girls of that era like a good piece of literature on a shelf of cheap paperbacks."[7] She held part-time jobs on campus, worked as a sales clerk in Bullock's-Wilshire department store, taught typing and shorthand at a high school, and supplemented her income by working as an extra in the film industry. She can be seen in a brief walk-on in the 1935 film Becky Sharp, in which she spoke one line, though her dialogue was cut from the film. She also appeared in 1936 film The Great Ziegfeld.

In 1937, she graduated cum laude from USC and accepted a position as a high school teacher in Whittier, California. During World War II, she would work as a government economist when she and her husband lived in San Francisco.

Marriage and family

While in Whittier, Pat Ryan met a young lawyer fresh out of Duke University, Richard Milhous Nixon. The two became acquainted at a Little Theater group when they were cast together in The Dark Tower, a play so unimpressive that co-playwright Alexander Woollcott had it removed from his list of published works in Who's Who (UK). Known as Dick, Nixon asked Pat Ryan to marry him the first night they went out. "I thought he was nuts or something," she recalled.[8] He courted her for two years, however, even driving her on dates with other beaus, a situation that she preferred to remain secret, saying to one reporter, "It's true, but it's mean to repeat it."[9] They married at the Mission Inn in Riverside, California on June 21, 1940.

Richard Nixon served in the Navy during World War II. After a brief stint in Ottumwa, Iowa, his wife campaigned at his side in 1946 when he entered politics, running successfully for U.S. Congress.

That same year, she gave birth to daughter and namesake Patricia, usually called Tricia. In 1948, Nixon had her second and last child, Julie.

By the time the Nixons reached the White House, observers characterized them as "people who have lost whatever they once had between them." Judith Viorst in The New York Times wrote that "critics compare the Kennedy marriage ('As bad as it was, you knew that something was there') and the Johnson marriage ('He couldn't live without her') to the Nixons' ('Dry as dust')." She further noted that a friend of the president's privately said that the First Lady's husband "doesn't seem to view her as a person."[10]

Political life

Within six years, Nixon saw her husband elected to the House and the United States Senate and become Dwight D. Eisenhower's vice president. She accompanied her husband abroad in his vice presidential years. On a trip to Venezuela, their car was pelted with rocks, and the Nixons were spat upon as representatives of the U.S. government, but Pat Nixon's warm personality and calm, even stoic public demeanor, then and later, won her much admiration. With her non-political image as loyal wife and dutiful mother, Pat was difficult to dislike, even by Nixon's fiercest critics.

A November 1, 1958 article in the Seattle Times was typical of the media's coverage of the future First Lady, stating, "Mrs. Nixon is always reported to be gracious and friendly. And she sure is friendly. She greets a stranger as a friend. She doesn't just shake hands but clasps a visitor's hand in both her hands. Her manner is direct.… Mrs. Nixon also upheld her reputation of always looking neat, no matter how long her day has been." A year and a half later, during her husband's campaign for the presidency, The New York Times called her "a paragon of wifely virtues" whose "efficiency makes other women feel slothful and untalented."[11]

Nixon was named Outstanding Homemaker of the Year (1953), Mother of the Year (1955), and the Nation's Ideal Housewife (1957), and once admitted that she pressed all of her husband's suits one evening. "Of course, I didn't have to," she told The New York Times. "But when I don't have work to do, I just think up some new project." "Small wonder," the newspaper noted, "that some observers described Pat Nixon as a paper doll, a Barbie doll—plastic, antiseptic, unalive" and that the First Lady "has put every bit of the energy and drive of her youth into playing a role, and she may no longer recognize it as such." As for the criticisms, Pat Nixon said, "I am who I am and I will continue to be."[12]

First Lady of the United States

Pat Nixon in her official White House portrait, which was painted in 1978 by Henriette Wyeth Hurd[13]

One of Nixon's major causes during her White House years was volunteerism, encouraging Americans to address social problems on the local level through volunteering at hospitals, civic organizations, rehabilitation centers, and other outlets; she also was an advocate of the Domestic Services Volunteer Act of 1970. She became involved in the development of recreation areas and parkland, was a member of the President's Committee on Employment of the Handicapped, and lent her support to organizations dedicated to improving the lives of handicapped children. The core of her advocacy efforts, which were inspired in part by the work of Eleanor Roosevelt during the Great Depression, was to focus attention on the working class and the underprivileged, whom she believed were often forgotten. Despite her public persona as a traditional wife and homemaker, Nixon also spoke out in favor of women running for political office and during a trip to South Vietnam, became the first First Lady to visit a combat zone.

Like Jacqueline Kennedy, she had an interest in adding artifacts to the Executive Mansion. Nixon's efforts brought over 600 paintings and furnishings into the White House, the largest number of acquisitions by any administration. In addition, she instituted a series of performances by artists at the White House in varied American traditions, from opera to bluegrass. Among the guests were The Carpenters in 1972.

When they entered the White House in 1969, the Nixons began a short-lived tradition of inviting families to non-denominational Sunday church services in the East Room of the White House. The President later discontinued these services due to concerns over the separation of Church and State.

Pat Nixon visiting the People's Republic of China on the Nixon's historic trip in 1972

Pat Nixon continued her practice of joining her husband on state visits during his Presidency. Her travels included the historic visit to the People's Republic of China in 1972 and the summit meetings in the Soviet Union. Her first solo official trip involved taking relief supplies to earthquake victims in Peru. Later, she visited Africa and South America with the unique diplomatic standing of Personal Representative of the President.

At the time of the Watergate scandal, Pat Nixon encouraged her husband, in vain, to destroy his collection of secret tape recordings while they were still considered to be private property. Steadfastly believing in his innocence, she also encouraged him not to resign and instead fight all the impeachment charges that had been levelled against him. However, on August 8, 1974, President Nixon decided that it was time to leave the White House. Via television, he announced that his resignation would be effective at noon the next day. As he made the speech, Pat and a handful of White House employees packed the residence for the move back to San Clemente, California.

The next morning, a televised twenty-minute farewell speech to the White House staff took place in the East Room, during which the President read from Theodore Roosevelt's biography and praised his parents. Pat, Julie, and Tricia could hardly contain their tears. Pat was most upset about the cameras, because they recorded her pain, as they had at the 1960 election defeat. The first couple left the Executive Mansion with Vice President Gerald Ford and Betty Ford for Marine One, the helicopter that would carry them to Andrews Air Force Base where they would then fly to California. Angry with the public which she believed was behind her husband's undoing, Mrs. Nixon's public life largely ended the day her husband resigned from the Presidency. She rarely appeared in public, never returned to the White House, and didn't grant any interviews to the press.

Life and health after the White House

Mrs. Nixon was in failing health after leaving Washington, D.C., and she suffered a stroke in 1976. She fought back against the brain injury and exercised as much as she could to regain the strength on her left side. She eventually did regain her strength. Once a heavy smoker, she also battled oral cancer and emphysema. She also suffered from a degenerative spinal condition. In 1982, she endured a second stroke.

Pat did appear in public for the opening of the Richard Nixon Library and Birthplace in Yorba Linda, California, on July 19, 1990, as well as the opening of the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, California, in November of 1991.

In December 1992, while hospitalized with respiratory problems, the former First Lady was diagnosed with lung cancer.

In the fall of 1992, she was asked, along with several other former First Ladies, to serve as an Honorary Chairman for a Ford's Theater gala in honor of Frankie Hewitt. Mrs. Nixon responded via a personalized greeting card bearing her initials "PRN." She wrote in her neat and tight script that she gladly accepted the position and was more than happy to extend her congratulations to Frankie for "her impressive accomplishments over the years."[14] Whether Pat actually attended the gala on February 2, 1993, or not, cannot be confirmed.

Mrs. Nixon died at her home in Park Ridge, New Jersey, at 5:45 am on June 22, 1993, the day after her 53rd wedding anniversary. Her daughters and husband were by her side. Former Presidents Reagan and Ford and their wives, Nancy and Betty, attended her funeral. Lady Bird Johnson was unable to attend because she was still in the hospital recovering from a stroke, and Jacqueline Kennedy was also in failing health.

Mrs. Nixon, and President Nixon (who died 10 months later), are buried at the Richard Nixon Library and Birthplace in Yorba Linda, California. Her epitaph reads: "Even when people can't speak your language, they can tell if you have love in your heart."

Notes

  1. First Lady Biography: Pat Nixon, National First Ladies Library. Retrieved May 19, 2007.
  2. First Lady Biography: Pat Nixon, National First Ladies Library. Retrieved May 19, 2007.
  3. "First Lady Hailed on Return 'Home,' " The New York Times, September 6, 1969, p. 18.
  4. "Pat Nixon, Former First Lady, Dies at 81," The New York Times, July 23, 1993, p. D22.
  5. First Lady Biography: Pat Nixon, National First Ladies Library. Retrieved May 19, 2007.
  6. Judith Viorst, "Pat Nixon is the Ultimate Good Sport," The New York Times, September 13, 1970, p. SM13.
  7. "The Silent Partner," Time magazine, February 29, 1960.
  8. "Diplomat in High Heels: Thelma Ryan Nixon," The New York Times, July 28, 1959, p. 11.
  9. "The Silent Partner," Time magazine, February 19, 1960.
  10. Judith Viorst, "Pat Nixon is the Ultimate Good Sport," The New York Times, September 13, 1970, p. SM13.
  11. Marylin Bender, "Pat Nixon: A Diplomat in High Heels," The New York Times, July 28, 1960, p. 31.
  12. Judith Viorst, "Pat Nixon is the Ultimate Good Sport," The New York Times, September 13, 1970, p. SM13.
  13. E. Graydon Carter, "People," Time magazine, December 7, 1981.
  14. Patricia Nixon, Letter to William McSweeny, Nov. 1993.

References

  • Anthony, Carl Sferrazza. 1991. First Ladies: The Saga of the Presidents' Wives and Their Power. New York: W. Morrow. ISBN 9780688077044
  • David, Lester. 1978. The Lonely Lady of San Clemente: The Story of Pat Nixon. New York: Crowell. ISBN 9780690016888
  • Eisenhower, Julie Nixon. 1986. Pat Nixon: The Untold Story. New York: Simon and Schuster. ISBN 9780671244248
  • Marton, Kati. 2001. Hidden Power: Presidential Marriages that Shaped Our Recent History. New York: Pantheon Books. ISBN 9780375401060

External links


Preceded by:
Jane Hadley Barkley
Second Lady of the United States
1953-1961
Succeeded by:
Lady Bird Johnson
Preceded by:
Lady Bird Johnson
First Lady of the United States
1969-1974
Succeeded by:
Betty Ford

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