Chose Pat Nixon "Nation's Ideal...


June 24, 1993|By THEO LIPPMAN JR.

HOMEMAKERS FORUM chose Pat Nixon "Nation's Ideal Housewife" in 1957. She cooked. She cleaned house. She even pressed Dick's pants.

Ever after she was known to the nation as that kind of woman.

But in fact the most momentous act of her life had nothing to do with rattling pots and pans. It had to do with politics, power and ambition, and she was more Lady Macbeth than June Cleaver.

Richard Nixon was running for vice president in 1952. It was revealed that some businessmen had contributed secretly to a private fund to assist Nixon with living expenses. Since one of the main themes of the 1952 Republican campaign was Democratic corruption under President Harry Truman, presidential candidate Dwight Eisenhower had required that his running mate be "clean as a hound's tooth."

The leading Republican newspaper of the day demanded that Nixon be replaced. Many Democratic and non-partisan newspapers kept up a daily barrage of accusatory reporting and commentary about the fund. Many of Ike's closest advisers urged him to dump Nixon.

At the time Nixon was a relative newcomer to politics. He had been a senator only two years and before that a representative only four. The pressure began to get to him. "Maybe I ought to resign," he said to Pat.

She replied, "You can't think of resigning. [Eisenhower] can put you off the ticket if he wants to, but if you, in the face of attack, do not fight back but simply crawl away, you will destroy yourself. Your life will be marred forever, and the same will be true of your family and, particularly, your daughters."

Recalling that 10 years later, Nixon wrote in "Six Crises": "I was never to receive any better advice, and at a time I needed it most."

So Nixon refused to accept Ike's aides' pressure to quit. He went on national television (then a new forum) to fight for his political life. Pat played a role in that little drama, too.

Nixon said he would detail the family's personal finances down to the penny to prove they lived simply. She was distraught at the prospect of this invasion of privacy. ("Why do we have to tell people how little we have and how much we owe?") But she accepted it as necessary.

Candidate Nixon used Pat's modest wardrobe to advantage. A symbol of the Truman scandals was a $8,540 royal pastel mink coat a White House aide had received in what appeared to involve influence peddling by her husband. That's what Nixon was referring to when he wound up his TV speech with, "I should say this, that Pat doesn't have a mink coat. But she does have a respectable Republican cloth coat, and I always tell her she would look good in anything."

Reaction to the speech was positive. Ike kept him on the ticket. Nixon's career was not over before it started. Eventually he became president. And in this and every other newspaper library there is at least one picture of First Lady Pat in a mink, in which she looks marvelous.

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