PAT NIXON was the wife of the 37th President of the United States and the only one ever to resign his office. She was widely seen as an old-fashioned wife and mother, perhaps the last First Lady to adopt so low a public and political profile. She was however a woman of exceptional courage and strength who exercised a great private influence on her husband. She helped him to survive repeated political disasters which might have destroyed the will to go on of any man with a less determined partner in life.
She was born Thelma Catherine Ryan in a miner's hut in Ely, Nevada, in 1912. Her father, Will Ryan, was an unsuccessful Irish prospector, her mother an immigrant from Germany. When she was 13 she nursed her mother while she was dying of cancer, and only two years later, still a schoolgirl, she nursed her father through terminal tuberculosis. He had nicknamed her 'Pat', it is said, because she was born an hour before St Patrick's Day. After his death she changed her name to Patricia.
Her life until she met Richard Nixon was a paradigm of hard work, self-reliance, and self-improvement. She herself recognised, however, that it cost her a good deal emotionally and perhaps explained her almost uncanny self-discipline. In her memoirs, Mrs Nixon's daughter Julie Nixon Eisenhower quoted her mother as saying, 'I detest scenes. And so to avoid scenes or unhappiness I suppose I accommodated to others.'
She first enrolled in a California junior college, then moved east to stay with her aunts, one of whom, a 77- year-old nun, was in charge of the X-ray unit in a Bronx hospital. Pat Ryan took a course which qualified her to work as an X-ray technician, then worked with TB patients. After two years she had saved enough money to return to California and finish her education at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles. In order to graduate, she had to work, as a bank clerk, a cosmetics demonstrator in a department store and as an extra at the Hollywood studios.
She met her future husband when they both auditioned for an amateur production of the Alexander Woollcott / /George S. Kaufman play The Dark Tower in Whittier, where he was working as a lawyer and she was teaching in a high school. He is said to have told her that first night, 'I am going to marry you some day,' and he always maintained it was love at first sight on his side. She was however unimpressed for a long time. Indeed Richard Nixon's later, almost legendary, determination and his willingness to put up with disappointments and even snubs were never more conspicuous than in his courtship.
In the end his wooing, a blend of humility and determination, overcame her misgivings and they were married in 1940, a little over two years after they first met. Although her husband was soon to disappear into the navy, the marriage was a success from the start. On his demobilisation Pat Nixon worked hard for Nixon's election to Congress, even though she was by then expecting her first daughter, Tricia. 'By far the hardest campaign worker was the candidate's wife. When he was elected and they moved to Washington, she brought the two children up and did what she could socially to help his career without help. Until after his defeats for the presidency in 1960 and for governor of California in 1962 the Nixons were not rich, a fact Nixon deftly turned to his advantage when, accused of benefiting from a dubious poliical 'slush fund' in 1956, he said, 'Pat doesn't have a mink coat. But she does have a respectable cloth coat. And I always tell her she'd look good in anything.' It was Mrs Nixon who, on that occasion as on many others, put the gumption into her husband to go on television and fight the charges levelled against him.
She had been thrilled when he was chosen by President Eisenhower as his vice-presidential candidate, but she soon became disillusioned by the life of Vice-President's wife, answering 200 letters a week herself, and bringing up two daughters on her own because her husband was too busy politically to help. At least once she tried to persuade him to give up politics and earn some money by practising as a lawyer.
After his two defeats in 1960 and 1962, that is what he did. The Nixons moved to New York, which she liked. When he ran for the presidency in 1968, she did her duty at his side, though one reporter said at the time he could not help wondering 'whether Pat Nixon secretly wishes that it had all happened to somebody else'. Another, less sympathetically, admired her performance as 'Madison Avenue's custom-tailored glossy five-colour concept of the successful all-American wife and mother'.
In the White House, Pat Nixon found the media's unrelenting coverage of her husband and her family hard to bear even before the Watergate crisis. When it came, she stood by him loyally, convinced that he was the victim of an international plot involving double agents and the CIA. Only at the very end did she break down. Her daughter records that she when she realised that Nixon had no alternative but to resign, she cried briefly, then stayed up all night packing the family's bags.
In 1976, reportedly after reading Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward's harsh account of The Final Days, which said, inaccurately, that she was a heavy drinker, she had a stroke. She displayed her habitual courage in the rehabilitation process and by 1979 was urging Nixon to return to the East both so that he could more effectively repair his reputation and because she was anxious to see more of her daughters and her grandchildren.
After her stroke and the return to the East, first to a large house in Saddle River, New Jersey, later as they reached their eighties to a smaller townhouse, friends reported that she mellowed. She suffered from emphysema, which in recent years prevented her leaving the house. Her relationship with her husband, which for a time had been somewhat formal, was once again patient, good-humoured and supportive, and it was her pleasure to spend time with her grandchildren and their parents.
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