Pat Nixon, political spouse

William Safire

June 25, 1993|By William Safire

THE only time I saw Pat Nixon get testy with her husband was when he invited their Irish setter, King Timahoe, to climb up on a newly recovered couch in his White House office; it offended her frugal soul and she let Richard Nixon know it.

What I did not know at the time was their experience with `D another dog. During the two years in the 1940s when Mr. Nixon was trying to get her to marry him, she took care of his Irish setter, also named King; the young naval officer gave her a small china statue of an Irish setter by way of thanks. Years later, in the White House, she put that piece on the desk in his private office, where he kept it as a reminder of the old days.

Fifty-three years married to the most inescapable political figure of our time: What do friends of Thelma Patricia Ryan Nixon remember?

I met her in the mid-'60s as his first comeback began, when she posed as "Miss Ryan," a volunteer answering political calls in her husband's New York law office. Callers would insist on getting messages to someone "close to Nixon." She assured them she would, and in truth, nobody was as close.

She was politically savvy, an asset on the trail, and not just for patenting that rapt look listening to the same speech for the umpteenth time. At Antoine's restaurant in New Orleans in the 1968 campaign, she smiled at a female reporter who was coming toward her and said out of the corner of her mouth to me: "Watch out for this one -- I've read her stuff, and she doesn't like us."

Nobody came up a harder way. As a child, she was a miner's daughter who worked as a field hand on a truck farm; at 12, when her mother died, she kept house while scrubbing floors at a local bank to help her brothers through college. She worked as an X-ray technician, movie extra, store clerk, scrimping to go to USC, where she was graduated cum laude and became a high school teacher.

Because she did not come from the world or generation of many of her interviewers, she could say, "I'm not like all you . . . all those people who had it easy."

President Nixon resented the "too-good-to-be-true" derision aimed at her, telling me, "They criticize her because she &L happens to have the virtues that are no longer 'fashionable' -- she has great character and determination. . . ."

His cousin, the novelist Jessamyn West, described Pat's face as "a private face, by bone structure, by its owner's temperament, by her punishing and cruel experiences as a girl, by the reason of 30 years of political exposure." We remember famous pictures of that private face in pain, fighting back tears at her husband's side in moments of defeat.

She did not want him to go back into politics after his defeats of 1960 and 1962, but once committed, nobody was more stalwart; in the last days of his presidency, Pat Nixon was urging her husband to hang in there and fight impeachment all the way.

She earned the good times and enjoyed them. As candidate's wife, she built a bridge to voters and to children who could feel the personal warmth that cameras rarely caught; as first lady, she performed admirably as overseas ambassador and dinner partner to world leaders, while opening the White House to visitors, blind and sighted, as never before. As a mother, she reared two daughters who did their parents proud, with an extra reward when one became her biographer.

At her death at 81, we can stop to think of the meaning Pat Nixon gave to the phrase "politician's spouse."

The spouse of a politician accepts the loss of privacy and the loss of family time inherent in every win, and signs on for the job of rehabilitation of ego after every loss.

The spouse of a politician must stay strong without ever becoming tough; must be unfailingly supportive in public and constructively critical in private; must see all and hear all to avert trouble and say nothing to get into trouble.

The spouse of a politician must pursue his or her career, inside or outside the home, with the goal of setting an inspiring public example of partnership -- while being a genuine partner behind closed doors.

After an exhausting day during the '68 campaign, I asked this remarkably giving woman what single quality was most needed in a political wife, and without missing a beat, she answered in one word:


William Safire is a columnist for the New York Times.

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