It’s safe to say that the story of First Lady Pat Nixon’s influence on her husband’s Vietnam War policy making has not been addressed in any of the many books on the Nixon administration and the war. That situation has changed with the publication of Pat and Dick: The Nixons, An Intimate Portrait of a Marriage (Threshold Editions/Simon & Schuster, 496 pp., $30), a dual biography in which author Will Swift chronicles the ups and downs of the 53-year marriage of Dick Nixon and Pat Ryan.
Swift—the author of The Roosevelts and the Royals and The Kennedys Amidst the Gathering Storm—says that Pat Nixon regularly discussed issues of importance, including the Vietnam War, with her husband from the beginning of his presidency in 1969. The President often passed on his wife’s input to his chief of staff, H.R. Haldeman, who all but ignored it as the two did not get along.
“She was put off by [Haldeman’s] arrogant manner and his desire to isolate the president,” Swift says. “Haldeman disdained her preference for tackling her pile of correspondence over taking a more active public role in supporting the president’s programs. He dismissively called her Thelma (her middle name) behind her back.”
Pat Nixon’s biggest involvement in her husband’s administration’s Vietnam War activities involved stepping “carefully out of the White House to try to smooth” the deep political divisions the war engendered among the American populace, especially among young people. That effort included visits to colleges and to volunteer programs in which college students participated.
“She traveled with heavy security and visited spots where angry student demonstrations were unlikely,” Swift writes. “Nonetheless, she encountered protesters chanting ‘kill for peace,’ a sarcastic reference to Nixon’s policy of bombing his way to a peace settlement.” Pat Nixon, he says, “ignored the protests.” The orchestrated appearances before mostly friendly audiences earned the First Lady the nickname “Plastic Pat” from Kandy Stroud of Women’s Wear Daily.
During the turbulent antiwar protests in Washington in May 1970 following the U.S. incursion into Cambodia Pat and Dick hunkered down inside the White House, “ignoring the raucous chants of the protesters… Pat caught up on her mail in her dressing room.” For the Nixons, Swift says, “the sense of being under siege” was “another painful assailant in a career that had been full of them.” Their reaction, he writes, was to retreat “further and further into an ‘us versus them’ mentality that increasingly justified Dick’s punitive and secretive ways of handling dissent.”
The unrest on college campuses across the nation forced the Nixons to cancel plans to attend their daughter Julie’s graduation from Smith College. Richard Nixon blamed it on “lawless elements [that] threatened to disrupt the events.” Instead, the Nixons threw Julie “their own, jocular version of graduation that June at Camp David,” Swift writes, with Nixon pal Bebe Rebozo in attendance dressed in Notre Dame faculty robes.
Swift’s conclusion about Pat Nixon: She “was the loyal and at times angry and resentful wife of a brilliant, sentimental man she admired. She proved herself a personable and shrewd team player to a politician who considered her an essential helpmate. A hip, wise, and playful woman, 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.”