Pat and Dick
The Nixons, an Intimate Portrait of a Marriage
Threshold Editions 2014
In America, biographies of Presidents and First Ladies are a staple of the genre, but the relationship that exists between the two receives surprisingly less exploration, as though the biographies needed to be kept as separate as the offices in the East and West Wings. (The relationship of the Clintons being the notable exception.) Hopefully Will Swift‘s Pat and Dick: The Nixons, an Intimate Portrait of a Marriage (Threshold Editions, 2014)) augurs a new biographical trend towards serious examination of presidential relationships.
It’s a daunting task- to not only humanize but probe the relationship that existed between a pair still, fifty years on, more easily reduced to the stereotypes of ‘Tricky Dick’ and ‘Plastic Pat’- but Swift gives a welcome corrective, portraying a surprisingly vulnerable Nixon whilst, perhaps even more importantly, providing a historically significant re-evaluation of his wife.
For, of all the recent First Ladies, it’s Pat Nixon’s accomplishments that have been most overlooked, obscured as they were by a frosty public image and the downfall of her husband. In the public imagination, First Ladies are easily associated with social issues (Lady Bird Johnson and the environment, Michelle Obama and healthy eating, etc.), and yet Pat Nixon’s issue of ‘volunteerism’- both important and, perhaps, overly broad and, therefore, more difficult to quantify- seems to have fallen from historical view.
As Swift demonstrates, however, her volunteerism platform was a springboard in improving American international relations. When, after the Peruvian earthquake of May 1970, Pat Nixon made a harrowing journey into the heart of Peru, to an area then called ‘The Valley of Death’, where she assisted and comforted survivors. ‘To have President Nixon send his wife here means more to me than if he had sent the whole American Air Force,’ said Peruvian President Velasco Alvarado. It’s a story that reveals the impact a First Lady can have, an impact that all to often goes unacknowledged, and an impact in whose preservation biography plays a key role.