Through all adversity, Pat Nixon held steady ON POLITICS

JACK GERMOND & JULES WITCOVER

June 23, 1993|By JACK GERMOND & JULES WITCOVER

WASHINGTON -- Long-suffering is an expression that was made for Pat Nixon, the first lady who survived the victories and defeats of her husband Richard with an equanimity usually associated only with sainthood. The antithesis of the political wife, she was in public and by most reports in private the silent partner of a man who demonstrated an unquenchable need to be heard on all manner of public issues.

Raised in an era when women generally and first ladies in particular were expected foremost to be "helpmates" to the ambitions of their husbands, looking pleasant and saying and doing little, Pat Nixon died at 81 at a time the "office" of first lady as occupied by Hillary Clinton has been thoroughly recast.

Whereas Hillary Clinton has assumed an unprecedentedly substantive role in her husband's administration as head of its task force on health care reform, Pat Nixon never ventured to step out from behind her man in the public arena. There was, in fact, an almost doll-like quality to her, a quiet gentleness that never permitted any public lashing out at the many indignities suffered upon her husband, from his ignominious defeat as the Republican candidate for governor of California in 1962 to the Watergate scandal that drove him from the White House in 1974.

Although Nixon often lauded her, most memorably in his maudlin 1952 "Checkers" speech in which he proclaimed that although all she owned was a "plain Republican cloth coat" she looked great in it, insiders acknowledged that they were at times a painfully remote couple, with seldom a personal gesture of affection ever exchanged in public.

When Nixon lost the presidency in 1960, it was said, his wife extracted a promise from him that he would not seek public office again, but when he decided to run for governor in California, she played the good soldier, as she continued to do in his resurrection as a presidential candidate in 1968 and as president from 1969 until his resignation in 1974.

As first lady, Pat Nixon championed volunteerism and opportunity for the young, and she tagged along on foreign trips as well as making some goodwill tours abroad on her own.

But she remained through all of this the essentially silent woman behind the man.

In her first year in the White House, she told interviewer Helen Thomas: "I just want to go down in history as the wife of the president," and she no doubt will have her wish.

Other first ladies -- Bess Truman, Mamie Eisenhower, Nancy Reagan, Barbara Bush -- either settled happily for living in the shadow of their prominent husbands or cultivated the notion that they wanted little more in life.

Pat Nixon conveyed the impression that whether she was happy doing so or not, she would endure.

Her husband before and after becoming president often seemed to prefer the company of favored cronies with whom he would vacation or watch movies, while she devoted herself increasingly to her family -- daughters Julie and Tricia and their children.

Yet she stuck with him through the terrible years of the Watergate investigations and the long political exile at San Clemente thereafter, never complaining.

Nixon and the daughters wrote after the resignation that Pat Nixon was firmly against her husband giving up the presidency and wanted him to fight and, she believed, beat the impeachment charges he faced. When he quit, she allowed herself the few tears the public ever saw, but never struck out at the accusers.

In 1976 at the age of 64, she suffered a stroke that partially paralyzed her. It came only days after word that her husband would finally re-enter the political scene at a Republican fund-raiser in California. The former president noted publicly that the stroke came three days after she had read the account of his resignation, "The Final Days," by Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, the Washington Post's Watergate sleuths, adding that "this doesn't indicate that that caused the stroke . . . but it sure didn't help."

It was the kind of remark you could always expect from Richard Nixon -- and never from his first lady.

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