A Wife in Politics

ELLEN GOODMAN

June 28, 1993|By ELLEN GOODMAN

Boston. -- We never knew her. Not really. Not the people who once voted her the Most Admired Woman in America. And not the people who once named her Plastic Pat.

She came to the White House after Jackie and Lady Bird. She came before Betty, Rosalynn, Nancy, Barbara and Hillary. But there is no cause, no recovery center, no career named after Pat Nixon. No court would ever have ruled -- as one did of the current First Lady -- that she was a ''de facto government official.''

The woman who died last week was, rather, described by the obituary writers as ''the quiet consort,'' ''the loyal wife,'' ''a private person.'' She will be remembered, said one television anchor, for her devotion to her husband. Others used words to describe her life -- endurance, sacrifice, selflessness, faithfulness -- that fall awkwardly on our sensitive modern ears.

Thelma ''Pat'' Ryan was born 81 years ago, at a time when self-denial was a virtue and self-fulfillment was a vice called selfishness. She met Richard Milhous Nixon when the two young people were trying out for parts in a community play. But the part she would play the longest in her life was wife, the woman beside her man. The woman off to the side of her man.

More than anyone else, more than any of her recent predecessors or successors in the White House, this public Pat Nixon formed our classic image of the political wife. She was the woman who campaigned once with three broken ribs and another time with a swollen ankle. And never mentioned it. She was the woman who said she was never tired and never bored by her husband's speeches.

She was the woman who never publicly disagreed with her husband and once said, ''If I have a headache, no one knows it.'' She was the woman who wore a good Republican cloth coat.

In the beginning, in 1946, when her husband first ran for Congress theirs appeared to be a new model of postwar political togetherness. In 1957 when the Homemakers Forum voted Pat Nixon the ''ideal wife'' it was for being ''a helpmate who doesn't compete with her husband yet stands beside him when needed.'' In 1960 when the Republicans promoted a Pat Week and distributed a Pat Nixon For First Lady button, it was a first.

But by the 1970s, Pat Nixon was also a lesson about the costs of being a perfect political wife. She taught us what it meant to ride the roller coaster ride of her husband's career without letting a hair get out of place. What it meant when a woman used all her strength to endure rather than change her life: ''I do or die. I never cancel out.''

When she was First Lady, a White House reporter said to her,''You've had a good life.'' She paused and answered, ''I just don't tell all.''

What she didn't tell was how she had come to hate politics. What she didn't tell was what it felt like when she and her husband left a public platform, dropped arms and moved away from each other. What she didn't tell until much, much later was what it was like to leave the White House. On the night before, a photographer came by to take a final family picture. ''Our hearts were breaking and there we were smiling.''

There were no Pat Nixon tapes. There was no Pat Nixon cover-up. She was a kind woman with private pleasures and the love of her daughters. And she went into exile with her husband. If there is an edge of guilt in our farewells to this woman, maybe it has to do with our ambivalence about such devotion.

In the years after Watergate, I am told that this husband and ailing wife grew closer in isolation. I hope so. But her daughter Julie once wrote, ''My mother gives meaning to the words in the 13th chapter of I Corinthians, ''Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.'' Some of us can read that with goose bumps, while others get chills.

The world has changed a great deal in 20 years. It is easier to be a woman in politics. It's still hard to be a wife in politics. We define marital partnerships differently than in the days when Richard Nixon told Pat he wanted to run for office and she said, ''What could I do?''

''She is a woman of dignity who does not seek pity from others or feed on pity herself,'' wrote her daughter Julie. ''But she has grieved, she has wept. She is a woman of tremendous self-control because all her life self-control has been necessary simply to survive.''

Pat Nixon was not, of course, perfect. She was not plastic either. Maybe the very last word is one that we rarely use anymore: Until the end, the First Lady was steadfast.

Ellen Goodman is a syndicated columnist.

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