An Appreciation of Pat Nixon

Pat_Nixon_1973Now we learn that the reclusive and vile Richard Nixon was even worse than we thought. This, thanks to recent revelations by the now 89-year-old Alexander Butterfield, the one who revealed the existence of the White House Tapes which brought Nixon down, August 9, 1974.

After three years of raining bombs uselessly over North Vietnam, Nixon knew the indiscriminate killings served no purpose (“zilch” from a memo now disclosed in a new book by Bob Woodward.)

January 2, 1972, Nixon said in a CBS interview with Dan Rather that the bombing had been “very, very effective.” But the “zilch” memo, the more accurate appraisal, was written to Henry Kissinger the day after. I guess this would close the case on Richard Nixon — not as a self-delusional strategist, but as a liar willing to kill hundreds of thousands for the sole purpose of being reelected. In this, he succeeded in late 1972.

We who lived through those times knew this to be true, but lacked the smoking gun recently revealed. The new “proof” changes little, except to relegate the President to his private hell for an extended sentence of twice infinity, or however it works in karmic repayments.

A moment of acknowledgement – please! – for his decent and dignified wife, Patricia. Pat Nixon, stuck in the hell of public attachment to this American monster, carried herself with style and candor throughout. We now know that Pat Nixon trailed along her repellent husband even while discreetly maintaining separate living arrangements at the “Winter White House” in Key Biscayne.

One day we may learn why she put up with this – I would guess, for reasons of honor and for wishing not to become, herself, an element in American political life. And also from old-fashioned acceptance, with dignity, of a miserable personal fate. There is much to be said in favor of her, holding to values which were consistent then, even if not those we might look for today in a different social context.

Watergate was a rare moment of heroism for an otherwise supine press in the United States – remarkable then, almost non-existent now. Notice how journalists cling to the Watergate example as evidence of their virtues, when there is little else they can point to.

Plenty of them shoved microphones into Pat Nixon’s face at the time, hoping for some self-incrimination, or at least some distancing from her largely estranged husband. No go.

Disappointing the vultures consistently, she issued only one comment, and repeatedly: “I know the truth, and soon you will too.” How elegant and graceful, how truthful in the midst of a cesspool of Administration lies and a press that saw the whole episode as carrion to feed on.

My own recollection is of the 100th anniversary of Yellowstone National Park, which endeared Pat Nixon to me forever.

Visitors had been brought from sixty countries to “celebrate” the occasion of the founding of our great National Park movement. Yellowstone was inaugurated in1872 by President Grant, and the 100th was coming up in 1972, the same year as the breaking of the Watergate drama.

Panjandrums from the Nixon cabinet gathered to speechify at the outdoors site of a campfire around which explorers and campers came up with the idea of a national park, sometime in 1871. The international visitors were herded onto buses from a hotel to the outdoors site, all unequipped for the freezing sleet of that September afternoon.

All had been told at U.S. embassies abroad, “September, an ideal time for tourism in the United States. Moderate temperatures and lovely Indian summer weather.” All embassies were clueless about the microclimate in Yellowstone Park, which turned very adverse on a moment’s notice in September because of its high elevation. They came in short sleeves and khaki pants.

National Park directors from Sri Lanka, Madagascar, Thailand, and four dozen other countries were placed at a park site under a heavy freezing hail, with no building in the area, no protection, and no vehicles to allow them to depart the miserable punishment of the afternoon.

The Nixon Secretary of the Interior, Roger C.B. Morton, and other windbags gave endless discourses from under the protective dais covering only them. The hundreds in the audience suffered under the heavy sleet, caught the Mothers of all flu and cold, silently vowing never to return to such an inhospitable country.

The visitors and their camp followers (like me, as interpreter for one of them) began to feel like hostages and sought in vain for a way out of the ordeal. Kein Ausgang. It seemed the world had gone mad, certainly the Nixon cabinet.

Then Pat Nixon took the microphone, and inserted the sole bit of sanity into an otherwise catastrophic event. She said, “I am so glad to see all of you, and my husband sends his warmest greetings. You may now board the buses to return to your hotel.”

I loved Pat Nixon at that moment, and have admired her in retrospect ever since. Very bad circumstances, very high level of dignity and sanity. Poor Pat, to be married to such an ogre. But she made up for her Great Mistake many times over, turning sordid dramas into exemplary behavior for which she has never been properly recognized or thanked.

If karma exists, Little Richard twists and turns in an agony of burning flesh, payback for what he brought upon hundreds of thousands of Southeast Asians, Chileans, guileless American GIs, Bangladeshis and others. Pat, by contrast, maintains a modest, separate residence in Nowhere Land, tending a tiny cottage garden and turning down temporary offers of free digital access to unseemly current events.

Dan Whitman teaches Foreign Policy at the Washington Semester Program, American University. As Public Diplomacy officer in USIA and the Department of State for more than 25 years, he drafted and edited speeches for U.S. ambassadors in Denmark, Spain, South Africa, Cameroon, Haiti, and Guinea-Conakry. A senior Foreign Service Officer, he retired in 2009 from the Bureau of African Affairs, U.S. Department of State.

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