This weekend marks the centennial of First Lady Pat Nixon, whose story is as fascinating as it is largely unknown offering a dramatic example of triumph over struggle that genuinely exemplified the idealized “American Dream.” It is told here through one hundred images to mark her one hundred years, video clips and some of her private telephone calls with President Nixon that were accidentally recorded on his secret Oval Office taping system.
The only first-generation First Lady
He migrated with his family to Orange County in southern California, buying a ten-acre farm which his children helped cultivate and harvest, the produce sold in town from the back of a truck.
When Pat was 13 years old, her mother Kate Halberstadt (an immigrant from Essen County, Germany) died of liver cancer and Pat took responsibility for the household while proving so diligent a student that she was able to skip a grade.
Not long after, her father contracted tuberculosis, and to cover his medical bills, she took a job at the farmers and dairymen Artesia First National Bank, rising early to clean the floors as a janitor, then returning after high school to work as a bookkeeper.
When Will Ryan died three months after his daughter turned 18 years old, she changed her name, explaining, “Patricia was my father’s favorite name… I was his ‘St. Patrick’s Babe in the morning.’”
She was also the original California girl, a lover of nature and long, solitary hikes and swimming in the surf of southern California. She knew the beaches and the best places to catch a wave to surf or avoid because of an undertow.
The first First Lady to earn a graduate degree and work full-time both before and after marriage
Pat paid her Fullerton Junior College tuition by working as a typist, accountant, and telephone operator.
After driving a couple cross-country during the Depression, she worked as pharmacist at Seton Hospital in the Bronx, New York; after taking a Columbia University radiology course, she became an x-ray technician there.
Admitted to the University of Southern California on a partial scholarship, she conducted research for a psychology professor, and worked as the university’s vice president’s clerk, cafeteria waitress, librarian, department store assistant buyer, beauty-product tester and movie extra.
Pat Ryan received her bachelor’s of science degree in merchandising, the only First Lady to graduate cum laude, and a master’s in education, the first First Lady to earn a graduate degree.
Finding work at Whittier Union High School, she taught typing, bookkeeping, business principles, stenography and adult night classes, served as student faculty adviser for student social outings, organized student rallies, attended all high school sports events and PTA meetings, and directed school plays.
While auditioning for a play in Whittier, she met the recent Duke University law school graduate Richard Nixon. Born and raised in Orange County, also of hardscrabble background, self-motivated and highly valuing both formal education and intensive reading as a means to success, they dated for some time before Pat relented in agreeing to marry. She loved Nixon – her doubts were about settling her life down. They married in June of 1940, just eighteen months before the U.S. entered World War II.
When Nixon entered the Navy, the couple lived briefly in Washington, D.C. where Pat Nixon worked for the Red Cross and then Iowa, where she worked in a bank. After being hired as a price analyst for the federal Office of Price Administration she lived in San Francisco, while her husband served in the Pacific.
In 1946, when the Nixons returned to Whittier after the war, he accepted an offer by local Republicans to run as their candidate for Congress and won;; four years later he was elected to the U.S. Senate and two years after that, in 1952 he was elected Vice President of the United States under Dwight D. Eisenhower and both were re-elected in 1956.
Although she had voted for Independent and Democratic candidates, Pat Nixon joined her husband’s Republican Party.
She never grew comfortable with the profession’s viciousness but steadfastly advised her husband to fight against the push to dump him as vice presidential candidate in 1952 after press reports of an alleged secret fund broke. He did so in a famous televised “Checkers Speech” with Pat Nixon on screen, and made reference to her fighting Irish spirit, her respectable “cloth” coat and the fact that she wasn’t on his Senate payroll as many other such spouses were.
As Vice President’s wife, she assumed numerous roles, besides raising her two young daughters through adolescence, Tricia born in 1946, and Julie born in 1948.
She helped to draft the Vice President’s public correspondence, organize his schedule and edit his speeches. Her greatest public role was accompanying Nixon to 53 countries around the world, and was so effective a goodwill ambassador that President Eisenhower always sent the Nixons as a team to foreign nations. In an era of world travel and the increasing influence of television in the American culture, Pat Nixon helped to create the public role of “Second Lady.”
First Lady Candidate
Nixon’s 1960 presidential campaign drew upon a marketing effort with the slogan of “Pat For First Lady,” intended to appeal to the demographic of 1950s housewives like Pat Nixon herself.. She publicly advocated that women assume a greater, direct role in politics for the party of their own choice.
The press attempted to create a “race” for First Lady between her and the Democratic candidate’s wife Jacqueline Kennedy based on their clothing costs and styles. The disputed win by Kennedy permanently dimmed Pat Nixon’s view of politics and after attending the Kennedy Inauguration, she looked forward to a new, private life home in California.
Going against her advice, Nixon ran for governor of California in 1962, and lost. The family moved to New York City – ironically becoming a neighbor down Fifth Avenue from Jackie Kennedy, who moved there in 1964.
Pat Nixon was not eager about campaigning for the presidency again, when Nixon decided to run in 1968 – but was relieved, and thrilled when he won.
As she prepared for the Inauguration, and her daughter Julie’s wedding a month after the election, she also began determining how she might make an impact as First Lady.
The dissonant public discourse on so many dramatic social issues during the years Pat Nixon was First Lady are in large measure the reason why so much of what she said and did was neglected by the media.
A superficial caricaturing of a feminist as a bra-burning man-hater had taken hold, and there was no way the loyal wife and devoted mother that was now First Lady fit that stereotype. Through her own struggle to make her own way and long history of employment in a wide variety of workplaces, however, Pat Nixon held personal convictions that made her a more authentic feminist than many others seeking to conform to the stereotype.
Pat Nixon became the first incumbent First Lady to endorse the Equal Rights Amendment and the first to disclose publicly her pro-choice view on abortion in reaction to questions on the Supreme Court’s 1973 Roe vs. Wade decision. Before she even began unrelentingly to lobby her husband to name a woman to the Supreme Court, she called for such an appointment publicly. She became the second incumbent First Lady to address a national convention, (Eleanor Roosevelt was the first), speaking at the 1972 Republican National Convention.
Her belief in the necessity of involving women in their government extended overseas as well. In Yugoslavia, she remarked that both its parliament and the U.S. Congress should have more women members among their representatives. She encouraged women to run for office and even stated that she would support a qualified woman candidate regardless of her political party affiliation.
And while she was often frustrated with the press coverage of her husband, she was always available to the regular women’s press corps who covered her, often speaking of her respect for their tenacity in overcoming odds to get a White House assignment, often because they were expected to cover both East and West Wing activities.
Nor was she the fashion “square” many attempted to depict her as; she did reflect that after her first few months she decided not to wear some of the radical fashion styles she did try (like a mini-skirt) she decided to keep her choices more conservative. She did, nevertheless, became the first incumbent First Lady to appear publicly in pants and model them for a national magazine, reflecting the radical change in women’s attire that critics derided as masculine.
An Accessible White House
A primary intention of Pat Nixon’s was to make the White House as widely accessible to as many people as possible, including those who had found barriers of one type or another to fully enjoying it.
She arranged for tours to be given for those who were hearing or sight-impaired, and had the first ramps put in to let those in wheelchairs greater access. Booklets in foreign languages were written so those who didn’t speak English. In the spring and the autumn, she arranged for the first tours in history of the gardens and grounds. For those working-class families unable to see the White House holiday decorations during daytime hours, she began evening “Candlelight Tours.”
To relieve the burden of those summer visitors who often had to wait in line for hours to get into the White House, she had a recorded history of the mansion placed at intervals along the fence in boxes. For those shuffling through the long ground floor lobby, there were illustrated panels and display cases placed along and against the walls.
Lastly, she also worked with engineers to have the White House lit by floodlights at night, as Washington’s other monuments were – so those driving by on Pennsylvania Avenue or flying into or out of the nearby National Airport could glimpse it clearly.
She also hosted traditional events – often with untraditional guests, ranging from the costumed “Big Bird” from the Public Broadcasting System’s Sesame Street children’s show which premiered during the Nixon years, to Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir – the first elected female head of state entertained at the White House.
A National Constituency
For Pat Nixon, one of the great joys of being First Lady was getting out of Washington and traveling around the country and meet its diversity of people.
When she made trips with the President, she went into the “field,” inspecting public works projects that illustrated issues that the President was simultaneously addressing in private meetings. While he attended a Chicago environmental meeting, for example, she spent the day visiting a land reclamation center, an example of thermal pollution, and several conservation projects in that city. In promoting “Legacy of the Parks,” which turned federally maintained lands over for community recreation, she helped transfer some 50,000 acres, and advocated for new recreational areas to be developed near urban communities for those unable to visit national parks.
Knowing the value of her support to various projects, she made frequent visits to various volunteer organizations. On February 18, 1969, she announced her “national recruitment program” to enlist thousands of volunteers to carry out a wide variety of community services and made her first domestic trip to inspect ten such regional programs. Pat Nixon became closely aligned with National Center for Voluntary Action, and advocated passage of the Domestic Services Volunteer Act of 1970.
And sometimes, she agreed to make appearances – just for some fun, like the time she went to Baltimore Memorial Stadium on October 11, 1971 for game two of that year’s World Series. She tossed the ceremonial “‘first pitch”and became the first First Lady to throw the ball for a major league baseball team.
Although she enjoyed meeting the hundreds of thousands of people that her position allowed her to, Pat Nixon also needed what she called some “blessed aloneness.” She was always especially liberated during the presidential working vacations at their peaceful “Western White House,” a 1930s Spanish-style house in San Clemente, California which overlooked the ocean she had known and loved so well as a young woman. She especially enjoyed landscaping the property and walking the beach whereas their other getaway, at Key Biscayne, Florida was smaller and limited her free movement.
Through all the years when Pat was conflicted between her political obligations and those to her two daughters, the younger women showed a remarkable understanding of her situation. Consequently, she often shared some of the more joyous privileges of the presidential life with them and they fully participated in helping both her and their father. Unusually close for a political family, the 1971 White House Rose Garden wedding of daughter Tricia Nixon to Edward Cox was perhaps the personal high point of their time in the national spotlight. Also often included in family gatherings was the widowed grandmother of Julie’s husband, former First Lady Mamie Eisenhower.
Pat Nixon held the record as the most world-traveled First Lady until Hillary Clinton and was given the unique diplomatic status of “Personal Representative of the President.”
In June 1970, Pat Nixon decided within a few short hours to fly to Peru and lead a major international humanitarian effort. She flew along with some ten tons of donated food, clothing and medical supplies gathered by volunteers and relief organizations that she had solicited for the Peruvian people, reeling from a devastating earthquake that took 80,000 lives and left another 80,000 homeless. The Peruvian Government gave Pat. Nixon the highest decoration their country can bestow, and the oldest decoration in the Americas – The Grand Cross of the Order of the Sun; she became the first North American woman to receive this award. One Lima newspaper declared that she had radically improved previously strained U.S.-Peruvian relations with the trip.
She made an important January 1972 trip on her own to Africa, visiting Liberia, Ghana and The Ivory Coast, not only touring those nations and meeting a cross-section of their societies as a goodwill ambassador, but also meeting with those nations’ leaders to discuss U.S. policy on Rhodesia and human rights issues in South Africa.
In 1974 she made a third extensive international tour, to Brazil and Venezuela to attend that nation’s new president’s inauguration; it was particularly gratifying in light of the fact that some twenty years earlier she and her husband, then Vice President, had been dangerously attacked by anti-American protestors in their car.
Pat Nixon also made news on those foreign trips she took along with the President. Famously, she toured the Soviet Union and the People’s Republic of China with the President during his historic 1972 trips to those communist nations and became a living symbol of the U.S. government. While Nixon was in closed-door meetings most of the time with officials in China, the international media followed Pat Nixon in her bright red coat as she met with workers, students, dancers, farmers and others living everyday lives.
One foreign country that Pat Nixon knew well and had visited many times was just several dozen miles south of her home in California. It was during a brief day excursion from San Clemente to the border between the Unite4d States and Mexico that she declared her personal opinion that the barbed wire and other forms of physical barriers should be removed.
After telling the Chinese Premier Chou En-Lai how fascinated she was by seeing the nation’s giant panda bears in the Beijing Zoo, he impulsively told her he would make a personal gift of two such pandas to her. When they arrived, Mrs. Nixon turned them over as an official state gift from China to the National Zoo in Washington. Here is a video tape of that ceremony:
A Wartime First Lady
The Vietnam War dominated the Administration and Pat Nixon stated that the active servicemen or those recently returned knew the situation better than anyone else at home. While she voiced her husband’s running of the war as a defense of freedom, she also supported amnesty for those men who had left the U.S. to avoid the draft. Joining the President in his 1969 trip to South Vietnam, she became the first First Lady to visit a combat zone, flying just 18 miles from Saigon in an open helicopter and accompanied by Secret Service agents draped with bandoleers.
Pop Culture Pat
Whether it was the Vietnam War or Roe vs. Wade, Pat Nixon did address important and controversial issues before the public, but perhaps because of her own ambivalence about assuming too high a profile, the public generally responded to her as a traditional First Lady. Like Eleanor Roosevelt, Jackie Kennedy and Lady Bird Johnson before her, Pat Nixon also became a Pop Culture figure, her image showing up on playing cards, as a cut-out doll, as a ceramic head for those who created clothes for dolls, on plates, mugs and salt-and-pepper shakes with the President.
Like Mrs. Kennedy and Mrs. Johnson before her, she was also parodied by a dead-on Pat Nixon voice impersonator who captured her subtle California accent on the comedy record album, I Am the President. The real First Lady was even seen in a brief, two-second news clip inserted into the feature film Cold Turkey (1971) about a small town’s entire population pledging to quit smoking for $25 million from a tobacco company.It can be seen at the 9:20 point in the following video clip:
While she continued to feel a deep ambivalence about the cost of politics to her personal life, Pat Nixon enthusiastically supported the President’s run for a second term in 1972 because she hoped to see congressional action on his welfare reform, environmental and health care reform proposals.
at Nixon first learned about the criminal actions that came to be cumulatively known as the Watergate scandal and soon engulfed the Administration through media reports – her husband had specifically left her uniformed of the direction he and his staff took in response to the growing scandal. While she fully believed her husband was honest and innocent, she became deeply disturbed by how isolated he became within a small circle of advisers.
She had never had a good working relationship with his Chief of Staff Bob Halderman, and his aide, John Ehrlichman, who had both, at times, sought to overrule decisions of Pat Nixon and her staff; she was relieved when they both resigned in the spring of 1973.
When the First Lady first comprehended the potential damage that the President’s secret tape recordings could create, she offered the unsolicited advice that he destroy them while they were still legally considered private property – advice he did not follow. In fact, Pat Nixon’s conversations with the President were also recorded, among them are two samples below.
The first one, from 1972, occurs after the First Lady has held a reception for underwriters of the renovation of some rooms on the state floor, an event which the President could only briefly attend, as he had to return to the Oval Office, awaiting news updates on the shooting just an hour earlier of Alabama Governor George Wallace:
Only thirty seconds, the second secretly recorded telephone conversation between the Nixons is the call he made to tell her that the U.S. involvement in Vietnam War was over:
When the threat of impeachment became real in late July of 1974, Pat Nixon advised her husband not to resign because of the blanket criminal indictment that might ensue, suggesting instead that he fight each individual article of impeachment. Once he decided to resign, however, she began packing their possessions and making the immediate arrangements for their return to California. He resigned on August 9, 1974.
Life After the White House
The immediate years following Nixon’s resignation and the couple’s return to San Clemente were difficult. In July 1976, Pat Nixon suffered a stroke, resulting in the temporary loss of speech and use of her left side. Through a rigorous physical therapy routine, she was able to rehabilitate full use of her motor and speaking skills.
She most enjoyed the years following 1980 when she and the former president relocated to the East Coast where they were able to spend time with their four grandchildren. Although the former President visited the White House during the Carter, Reagan, Bush and Clinton Administrations, Pat Nixon never accompanied him. She never returned to the White House.
The former First Lady made only four public appearances: the dedication of Pat Nixon Elementary School (1975), a return trip to China with her husband (1976), the Richard Nixon President Library dedication (1990) and that of Reagan’s (1991).
The Reagan Library dedication proved to be the last time Pat would see the natural beauty of southern Californian that she’d loved for so much of her life. Having smoked for much of her adult life, she developed variously related health problems. She died, surrounded by her family, on June 22, 1993, one day after her 53rd wedding anniversary.
(The photographs of numbers 1, 2, 3, 6, 7, 9, 10, 16, 18, 42, and 51 are from the biography Pat Nixon (1986), written by her daughter Julie Eisenhower, the most accurately detailed account, drawn not only from personal recollections but documentation)