President: Richard Nixon
Preceded by: Lady Bird Johnson
Succeeded by: Rosalynn Carter
Born: Thelma Catherine Ryan
March 16, 1912
Ely, Nevada, U.S.
Died: June 22, 1993 (aged 81)
Park Ridge, New Jersey, U.S.
Resting Place: Nixon Presidential Library
Spouse(s): Richard Nixon (m. 1940)
Children: Tricia, Julie
Father: William Stephenson Bloomer, Sr.
Mother: Hortense Bloomer (born Neahr)
Thelma Catherine Ryan was born in 1912 in the small mining town of Ely, Nevada. Her father, William M. Ryan Sr., was a sailor, gold miner, and truck farmer of Irish ancestry; her mother, Katherine Halberstadt, was a German immigrant. The nickname "Pat" was given to her by her father, because of her birth on the day before Saint Patrick's Day and her Irish ancestry. Upon enrolling in college in 1931, she stopped using the name Thelma, replacing it with Pat and occasionally spelling it Patricia. The name change was not a legal action, however, merely one of preference.
After her birth, the Ryan family moved to California, and in 1914 settled on a small truck farm in Artesia (present-day Cerritos). Thelma Ryan's high school yearbook page gives her nickname as "Buddy" and her ambition to run a boarding house.
She worked on the family farm and also at a local bank as a janitor and bookkeeper. Her mother died of cancer in 1924. Pat, who was only 12, assumed all the household duties for her father (who died himself in of silicosis 5 years later) and her two older brothers, William Jr. (1910–1997) and Thomas (1911–1992). She also had a half-sister, Neva Bender (born 1909), and a half-brother, Matthew Bender (born 1907), from her mother's first marriage; her mother's first husband had died during a flash flood in South Dakota.
Marriage and family, early campaigns
While in Whittier, Pat Ryan met Richard Nixon, a young lawyer who had recently graduated from the Duke University School of Law. The two became acquainted at a Little Theater group when they were cast together in The Dark Tower. Known as Dick, he asked Pat to marry him the first night they went out. "I thought he was nuts or something!" she recalled. He courted the redhead he called his "wild Irish Gypsy" for two years, even driving her to and from her dates with other men.
They eventually married on June 21, 1940 at the Mission Inn in Riverside, California. She said that she had been attracted to the young Nixon because he "was going places, he was vital and ambitious ... he was always doing things". Later, referring to Richard Nixon, she said, "Oh but you just don't realize how much fun he is! He's just so much fun!" Following a brief honeymoon in Mexico, the two lived in a small apartment in Whittier. As U.S. involvement in World War II began, the couple moved to Washington, D.C., with Richard taking a position as a lawyer for the Office of Price Administration (OPA); Pat worked as a secretary for the American Red Cross, but also qualified as a price analyst for the OPA. He then joined the United States Navy, and while he was stationed in San Francisco, she resumed work for the OPA as an economic analyst.
Veteran UPI reporter Helen Thomas suggested that in public, the Nixons "moved through life ritualistically", but privately, however, they were "very close". In private, Richard Nixon was described as being "unabashedly sentimental", often praising Pat for her work, remembering anniversaries and surprising her with frequent gifts. During state dinners, he ordered the protocol changed so that Pat could be served first. Pat, in turn, felt that her husband was vulnerable and sought to protect him. Of his critics, she said that "Lincoln had worse critics. He was big enough not to let it bother him. That's the way my husband is."
Pat campaigned at her husband's side in 1946 when he entered politics and successfully ran for a seat in the United States House of Representatives. That same year, she gave birth to a daughter and namesake, Patricia, known as Tricia. In 1948, Pat had her second and last child, Julie. When asked about her husband's career, Pat once stated, "The only thing I could do was help him, but [politics] was not a life I would have chosen." Pat participated in the campaign by doing research on his opponent, incumbent Jerry Voorhis. She also wrote and distributed campaign literature. Nixon was elected in his first campaign to represent California's 12th congressional district. During the next six years, Pat saw her husband move from the U.S. House of Representatives to the United States Senate, and then be nominated as Dwight D. Eisenhower's vice presidential candidate.
Although Pat Nixon was a Methodist, she and her husband attended whichever Protestant church was nearest to their home, especially after moving to Washington. They attended the Metropolitan Memorial Methodist Church because it sponsored her daughters' Brownie troop, occasional Baptist services with the Reverend Dr. Billy Graham, and Norman Vincent Peale's Marble Collegiate Church.
Wife of the Vice President, 1953–1961
Pat Nixon accompanied her husband abroad during his vice presidential years. She traveled to 53 nations, often bypassing luncheons and teas and instead visiting hospitals, orphanages, and even a leper colony in Panama. On a trip to Venezuela, the Nixons' limousine was pelted with rocks and the couple was spat upon as representatives of the U.S. government.
A November 1, 1958, article in The Seattle Times was typical of the media's favorable coverage of the future First Lady, stating that "Mrs. Nixon is always reported to be gracious and friendly. And she sure is friendly. She greets a stranger as a friend. She doesn't just shake hands but clasps a visitor's hand in both her hands. Her manner is direct ... Mrs. Nixon also upheld her reputation of always looking neat, no matter how long her day has been." A year and a half later, during her husband's campaign for the presidency, The New York Times called her "a paragon of wifely virtues" whose "efficiency makes other women feel slothful and untalented".
Pat Nixon was named Outstanding Homemaker of the Year (1953), Mother of the Year (1955), and the Nation's Ideal Housewife (1957), and once admitted that she pressed all of her husband's suits one evening. "Of course, I didn't have to," she told The New York Times, "But when I don't have work to do, I just think up some new project."
First Lady of the United States, 1969–1974
Pat Nixon felt that the First Lady should always set a public example of high virtue as a symbol of dignity, but she refused to revel in the trappings of the position. When considering ideas for a project as First Lady, Pat refused to do (or be) something simply to emulate her predecessor, Lady Bird Johnson. She decided to continue what she called "personal diplomacy", which meant traveling and visiting people in other states or other nations.
One of her major initiatives as First Lady was the promotion of volunteerism, in which she encouraged Americans to address social problems at the local level through volunteering at hospitals, civic organizations, and rehabilitation centers. She stated, "Our success as a nation depends on our willingness to give generously of ourselves for the welfare and enrichment of the lives of others." She undertook a "Vest Pockets for Volunteerism" trip, where she visited ten different volunteer programs. Susan Porter, in charge of the First Lady's scheduling, noted that Pat "saw volunteers as unsung heroes who hadn't been encouraged or given credit for their sacrifices and who needed to be". Her second volunteerism tour—she traveled 4,130 miles (6,647 km) within the United States—helped to boost the notion that not all students were protesting the Vietnam War. She herself belonged to several volunteer groups, including Women in Community Services and Urban Services League, and was an advocate of the Domestic Volunteer Service Act of 1973, a bill that encouraged volunteerism by providing benefits to a number of volunteer organizations. Some reporters viewed her choice of volunteerism as safe and dull compared to the initiatives undertaken by Lady Bird Johnson and Jacqueline Kennedy.
Pat Nixon became involved in the development of recreation areas and parkland, was a member of the President's Committee on Employment of the Handicapped, and lent her support to organizations dedicated to improving the lives of handicapped children. For her first Thanksgiving in the White House, Pat organized a meal for 225 senior citizens who did not have families. The following year, she invited wounded servicemen to a second annual Thanksgiving meal in the White House. Though presidents since George Washington had been issuing Thanksgiving proclamations, Pat became the only First Lady to issue one.
Life in the White House
After her husband was elected president in 1968, Pat Nixon met with the outgoing First Lady Lady Bird Johnson and toured the private quarters of the White House on December 12. She eventually asked Sarah Jackson Doyle, an interior decorator who had worked for the Nixons since 1965 and who decorated the family's 10-room apartment on Fifth Avenue in New York with French and English antiques, to serve as a design consultant. She hired Clement Conger from the State Department to be the Executive Mansion's new curator, replacing James Ketchum, who had been hired by Jacqueline Kennedy.
Pat Nixon developed and led a coordinated effort to improve the authenticity of the White House as an historic residence and museum. She added more than 600 paintings, antiques and furnishings to the Executive Mansion and its collections, the largest number of acquisitions by any administration; this greatly, and dramatically, expanded upon Jacqueline Kennedy's more publicized efforts. She created the Map Room and renovated the China room, and refurbished nine other rooms, including the Red Room, Blue Room and Green Room. She worked with engineers to develop an exterior lighting system for the entire White House, literally making it glow a soft white. She ordered the American flag atop the White House flown day and night, even when the president was not in residence.
She ordered pamphlets describing the rooms of the house for tourists so they could understand everything, and had them translated into Spanish, French, Italian and Russian for foreigners. She had ramps installed for the handicapped and physically disabled. She instructed the police who served as tour guides to attend sessions at the Winterthur Museum, Garden and Library (to learn how tours were guided "in a real museum"), and arranged for them to wear less menacing uniforms, with their guns hidden underneath. The tour guides were to speak slowly to deaf groups, to help those who lip-read, and Pat ordered that the blind be able to touch the antiques.
The First Lady had long been irritated by the perception that the White House and access to the President and First Lady were exclusively for the wealthy and famous; she would routinely come down from the family quarters to greet tourists, shake hands, sign autographs, and pose for photos. Her daughter Julie Eisenhower reflected, "she invited so many groups to the White House to give them recognition, not famous ones, but little-known organizations..."
She invited former First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy and her children Caroline and John Jr. to dine with her family and view the White House's official portraits of her and her husband, the late President Kennedy. It was the first time that the three Kennedys had returned to the White House since the president's assassination eight years earlier. Pat had ordered the visit to be kept secret from the media until after the trip's conclusion in an attempt to maintain privacy for the Kennedys. She also invited President Kennedy's mother Rose Kennedy to see her son's official portrait.
She opened the White House for evening tours so that the public could see the interior design work that had been implemented. The tours that were conducted in December displayed the White House's Christmas decor. In addition, she instituted a series of performances by artists at the White House in varied American traditions, from opera to bluegrass; among the guests were The Carpenters in 1972. These events were described as ranging from "creative to indifferent, to downright embarrassing". When they entered the White House in 1969, the Nixons began inviting families to non-denominational Sunday church services in the East Room of the White House. She also oversaw the White House wedding of her daughter, Tricia, to Edward Ridley Finch Cox in 1971.
In October 1969, she announced her appointment of Constance Stuart as her staff director and press secretary. To the White House residence staff, the Nixons were perceived as more stiff and formal than other first families, but nonetheless kind.
She spoke out in favor of women running for political office and encouraged her husband to nominate a woman to the Supreme Court, saying "woman power is unbeatable; I've seen it all across this country". She was the first of the American First Ladies to publicly support the Equal Rights Amendment, though her views on abortion were mixed. Following the Court's 1973 Roe vs. Wade decision, Pat stated she was pro-choice. However, in 1972, she said, "I'm really not for abortion. I think it's a personal thing. I mean abortion on demand—wholesale."
In 1972, she became the first Republican First Lady to address a national convention. Her efforts in the 1972 reelection campaign—traveling across the country and speaking on behalf of her husband—were copied by future candidates' spouses.