The Most Misunderstood Presidential Marriage: Pat and Dick Nixon
By Will Swift
The following is an excerpt from Pat and Dick: The Nixons, An Intimate Portrait of a Marriage written by Will Swift, a leading presidential biographer.
“All lives have triumphs and tragedies, laughter and tears, and mine has been no different. What really matters is whether, after all of that, you remain strong and a comfort to your loved ones.”
-Pat Nixon in her final interview, June 1992
“Pat was always stronger. Without her, I could not have done what I did.” Richard Nixon, In The Arena, 1990.
In a culture that celebrates extroverts, encourages public displays of emotion, and fosters the idea that relationships can be discarded when troubles arise, much of the American public and press still does not understand the private, spacious, and committed nature of the Nixon marriage. The Nixons’ friends saw a tender side to Dick, and a man who depended heavily on his wife. In Pat they witnessed resolve and authentic engagement. Her surprising, deft, and enduring partnership with her husband over nine political campaigns was central to his rise to power and to his enduring impact on the nation. Their union, complex and mysterious, intrigued Americans for half a century. The Nixons’ swift ascent into prominence and power was followed by repeated plunges into public humiliation, and then, each time, a tenacious recovery. Their marriage represented both the fulfillment and the failure of the American dream of self-invention and worldly success.
Twenty years after her death, Pat Nixon has not been fully appreciated for her role in helping her husband make the second half of the twentieth century into what Senator Bob Dole called “the age of Nixon.” She was the loyal and at times angry and resentful wife of a brilliant, sentimental, and sometimes distant man she admired. She proved herself a humane and shrewd team player to a politician who considered her an essential helpmate. A modern, wise and playful woman with a wicked sense of humor, she was also sometimes catty, small-minded, and fiercely partisan. Publicly silent but powerful in private, she influenced and tempered her husband, his actions, and his policies.
Pat was also astute in her assessments of people and situations in ways that facilitated her husband’s political career and diplomacy. She had “a good sixth sense about people,” according to her son-in-law Ed Cox. To powerful effect, she studied the subtleties of international politics, combining her fascination about foreign cultures with an ability to open her heart to people she met on her travels. Dwight Eisenhower rated her an excellent political spouse, able to converse intelligently with any world leader. Her husband agreed. She believed, along with her husband, in the American myth of mission, divinely ordained — that America should serve as an example of justice and freedom, and encourage the people of other nations to believe in their right to liberty and democracy. As a good will ambassador—representing the best of the American spirit—from the 1950s to the 1970s, she significantly advanced her husband’s career at home and elevated the status of the United States abroad, often in countries tottering between democratic and authoritarian forms of government. It is a shame that she did not have a greater opportunity to use her diplomatic gifts; like Jean Kennedy Smith, she might have made an excellent ambassador to Ireland.
When he is viewed through the lens of his marriage and the humanizing portrait of his wife, Richard Nixon, always a conundrum, takes on new dimensions At those times in his life when he was not obsessed with obtaining and wielding power, he could be surprisingly relaxed and engaging, as he revealed in his early married years, his middle age in New York City, and his retirement in New Jersey. His mind worked so quickly that he could often be impatient and awkward in public, but he was far more sensitive and thoughtful in private with his wife, his daughters and his friends. His wife understood the vulnerability that underlay the polarizing and vindictive aspects of his public character. She was not able to prevent the harm he did.
Dick knew that her positive persona was important to his bid to make his presidency successful, but he genuinely wanted her to feel valued by the American public and the press for her stellar qualities. Even when he was preoccupied with his own career and public agenda, he cared deeply about how his wife was perceived. He valued her as an asset to his administration and sought to safeguard her place in history. While his controlling behavior caused contention between his West Wing and her East Wing, he fought diligently to assist his wife in her first years in the White House and, later, to counter her negative image as a passive first lady, a “Plastic Pat.” The president and First Lady worked together to rectify harsh portrayals of their marriage: when the Nixon union was attacked as lifeless; the couple cooperated on television documentaries and in print interviews to correct portrayals of them that they felt were hurtful and inaccurate.
No one marital style predicts whether a couple will be successful over the long term. Both couples who fight frequently and those who bury their differences can survive the rigors of married life and live contentedly into old age. Pat and Dick often handled problems by avoiding them. They fought by moving apart for brief periods or by communicating through others when tensions peaked. Nonetheless, they always found a way to reconnect before their injuries led to a permanent estrangement. The last year of Watergate, for example, understandably corrupted the bond between the Nixons, but during their subsequent exile in California they painstakingly renewed their connection to each other, amid life-threatening illnesses, disgrace, and defeat. Many onlookers wondered whether Pat should have stayed with Dick, but her apparent contentment during their last years together suggests it was the right decision for her.
Presidential speechwriter William Safire recognized that Pat shared her husband’s “prejudices and scar tissue.” “Pat and I come from similar backgrounds,” Dick said in a 1982 interview with Good Housekeeping magazine. “We have compatibility and the same general beliefs. I married her because I loved her and admired her intelligence and her great sense of humor.” Their common underlying values allowed them to surmount a vast difference in their enthusiasm for politics, but prevented them from fully acknowledging how their view of themselves as outsiders impeded their public performance. They had become so embattled that they saw slights where there were none; and they divided the public by withdrawing when honest engagement would have built greater consensus.
The Nixons’ well-documented traumas and conflicts led them to discover their strength, courage, and resilience as a couple. Over fifty-three years of marriage each remained a solid comfort to the other. Within the marriage, Pat treaded close to the troublesome line between self-abnegation and healthy love, but in the end she felt that she had received and given enough love to make her life meaningful. Dick had trouble balancing ambition, intimacy, and relaxation in his home life, but he learned from his close brush from death in 1974 to live more fully in the moment, savoring quiet and relaxed times with his wife, and, thus, recalibrating his marriage.
The Nixons haunt and inspire our national psyche. They strove to portray the best of America’s moral character and they succeeded, but they also represented the worst aspects of our culture—the pursuit of achievement and a preoccupation with public image at the expense of self-awareness, personal contentment and integrity. Their marriage—rich with flaws and virtues, constantly reinvented in crisis after crisis, enduring for half a century in the public arena—makes them figures crucial to — and emblematic of — the American story.
Excerpted from Pat and Dick: The Nixons, An Intimate Portrait of a Marriage.
Published by Threshold Editions/Simon & Schuster. Copyright (c) Will Swift, 2013.