Pat Nixon, without Pastels

June 23, 1993

For years after she left the White House, Thelma Catherine Ryan Nixon -- Pat -- refused to pose for a White House portrait. Daughter Julie Nixon Eisenhower argued, "Mother, don't give those who would be happy if Daddy's and your portraits never hung in the White House a victory by default." She replied -- "matter-of-factly" in Julie's words -- "Why not? They won, didn't they?"

In a way that summed up her life as a politician's wife, who died yesterday at 81. She suffered the same wounds he did. In a way, she was more victimized than her husband, because she would have preferred not to be in that arena. At the risk of seeming to set up an invidious comparison, we would characterize her choice as "standing by her man."

That was her career and her life. She was as typical of her generation of wives, political and otherwise, as the career-oriented political partner wife of the next generation. It was as difficult for her to stand in the limelight -- even the pre-Watergate limelight -- as it would be for Hillary Clinton to stay home and bake cookies all day.

She learned to handle display: smiling interestedly at lines in speeches she had heard dozens of times. We don't imply she was insincere. William Safire, the columnist who used to write speeches for Richard Nixon, once said of her, "children hug her hard without urging, and kids are not bad at rejecting phony ladies who want to use them in photographs." That she believed in her husband and his causes does not seem to be in doubt, but given her choice, she surely would have preferred a life in which privacy and independence were not so rare as they are in politics. "Being first lady is the hardest unpaid job in the world," she said once. When she left the White House, she said to Betty Ford, "You'll see so many of these [a red carpet was being rolled out], you'll get so you hate them."

When her White House portrait was finally painted, the artist, Henriette Wyeth Hurd, decided, "I could not deal in pastels." She darkened the portrait with a black-brown chair and gray and green earth tones for the background. She found her subject brave, strong, careful, delicate, detached, sweet, wistful. We think the public saw those qualities over the years -- and appreciated them. Bad as the Nixon years sometimes were, they could have been worse without the leavening Pat Nixon brought to the national stage.

Mrs. Nixon regained her privacy and independence in the last 19 years of her life. Daughter Julie said they were "among the happiest of her life." Even Richard Nixon's worst enemies should be pleased that that was so.

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