Thelma Nixon

Thelma Nixon

"I know a lot, but you have to keep it to yourself when you're in this position." As First Lady, Thelma "Pat" Ryan Nixon generally kept both her opinions and her activities to herself, especially where the press was concerned. That silence led many to refer to her as "Plastic Pat," a woman whose smile seemed forever fixed on a face that rarely expressed ideas or emotions.

But such a nickname overlooks the strong political opinions Pat Nixon expressed on particular issues. She responded to questions about the Vietnam War without evasion, publicly supported the Equal Rights Amendment and the appointment of women to Supreme Court vacancies, believed that abortion was a "private decision," and supported the goal of the Women's National Political Caucus of getting more women elected to government positions, regardless of their party affiliation. The First Lady also expressed a genuine concern for people. On a return trip from California to the White House, Pat learned of a flash flood in South Dakota that had killed two hundred people, amending her flight schedule so she could attend the memorial service. When an earthquake triggered an avalanche in the mountainous region of Peru, killing eighty thousand people and rendering another eighty thousand homeless, she worked with voluntary organizations to gather and transport needed supplies, helped launch an American relief drive, and then visited the devastated region herself.

Pat's focus was on people, and she expressed her commitment in several ways. First, she made the White House more accessible, initiating fall and spring garden tours as well as candlelight tours during the holiday season for the working public. She also had ramps installed, allowing the disabled to navigate its rooms more freely, directed tour guides to speak slowly so the deaf could read their lips, allowed blind visitors to touch antiques so they might feel the objects' shape and texture, and had pamphlets describing White House rooms translated into foreign languages. She eased the wait of those standing in line by installing display cases with historic pieces from the White House collection and personally greeted many tourists, shaking hands, signing autographs, and posing for pictures. Second, Pat emphasized her correspondence duties, devoting several hours a day to her mail. She insisted that the letters and inquiries she received be answered within three days, and though she received thousands of letters each week, Pat Nixon insisted that she read several hundred of them so she could keep informed of the general public's views and needs. She also personally signed every letter and involved herself in the most desperate pleas for assistance. Pat's concern for people was also evident in the special project she adopted as First Lady. To help the poor and underprivileged, Pat chose to advocate volunteerism. She believed that volunteer efforts could help solve social problems that "legislation alone" could not. Indeed, she believed that "our success as a Nation depends upon the willingness to give generously of ourselves for the welfare and enrichment of others." Pat promoted her project by touring volunteer-run facilities, sending letters of commendation to admirable volunteer efforts, and using the White House to meet with volunteer organizations. She would retain her concern for people even as she traveled abroad. During her tenure as First Lady, Pat Nixon logged more international miles than even the globe-trotting Eleanor Roosevelt. On a trip with the President to Guam, India, the Philippines, Indonesia, Thailand, Pakistan, England, and South Vietnam, Pat toured a training center for the mentally retarded and entered the combat zone in Vietnam, where she toured an orphanage, and visited a military hospital where she talked with American soldiers. Pat seemed to be a hit wherever she went. She accompanied the President to the Soviet Union, and while Richard Nixon and Leonid Brezhnev hammered out detente, Pat Nixon toured the U.S.S.R. arm-in-arm with Victoria Brezhnev. In China, she donned a red coat and charmed foreign minister Chou En-lai, who expressed his appreciation by giving her two rare giant pandas as a personal gift. She became the first First Lady to travel to Africa, doing so without her husband. Wearing native dress and making no racial distinction between those she greeted and those with whom she was photographed, Pat earned the respect and admiration of thousands. On travels with or without the President, at home or abroad, Pat Nixon acted as ambassador, informant, and aide. She reported the information she learned during her trips, providing the President with access to the American public he would not otherwise have had. She also geared such trips to focus attention on the President's programs, whether it was energy conservation, law enforcement, or federally protected parks. Despite her efforts and her concern for the American people, Pat Nixon was not well-received by the press or the public. Her goal of promoting volunteerism seemed too nebulous and too ineffectual at a time when Americans suffered from worsening economic deprivation and the constant strain of the Vietnam War. And when Vietnam subsided, Watergate seemed to replace it both in the press and in the coverage of Pat Nixon. She vigorously protested her husband's innocence, even as she resented the release of their tax returns. Once the existence of the tapes was disclosed -- a revelation even to the First Lady -- Pat expressed her belief that they should have been destroyed while still private property.

Pat Nixon supported her husband throughout the Watergate scandal and his subsequent resignation. Such backing is remarkable given the stress and strain of a tenure that was marred by Pat's dislike of a political life, a West Wing that tried to control her schedule, her actions, and her appearances, and a widening personal gulf between her and the President. Indeed, by the time Pat Nixon entered the White House, she and her husband barely communicated, except by memo or through presidential aides; it seemed to take an official White House event to bring them together. Richard Nixon seemed to ignore everything and everyone -- including his wife, whose counsel he did not seek and whose comfort he apparently did not require. As President of the United States, he had aides who performed those functions, should he need them.

In 1970, Pat Nixon remarked, "I just want to go down in history as the wife of the President." Though she is often remembered for this seemingly benign goal, Pat Nixon's tenure as First Lady should not be overshadowed by or forgotten because of the scandals and failures of her husband's presidency. Such a view neglects her continuation of the White House renovations, where she created the Map Room, renovated the China Room, and acquired hundreds of new objects for the White House collection. It also ignores her commitment to making the White House more available to the people, her dedication to volunteerism, and her success in her trips abroad. Though she did not voice her political opinions in public, out of the belief that she should not disagree with the President and his policies before an audience, she kept her own counsel on various issues such as Vietnam, abortion, and the Equal Rights Amendment. Richard Nixon once asserted that to win in the political arena you had to "first pick the right wife. [She] has an enormous impact in bringing the man to the people that the candidate is unable to reach." Pat Nixon was certainly successful in reaching the people, even as she failed to connect with her husband. Far from being plastic and artificial, Thelma "Pat" Ryan Nixon was a genuine First Lady whose tenure, although traditional and conservative in some respects, set precedents that future first ladies would follow.