The inner workings of any marriage are usually a mystery to those outside it, and often to those inside as well, but it’s likely that few marriages in history have been more of a mystery to more people than that of Richard and Patricia Nixon. Most of the 53 years of their marriage were lived in the full glare of public life, from Nixon’s election to the House of Representatives in 1946 to his resignation from the presidency in 1974 and his subsequent long, slow recovery from self-inflicted shame, yet almost no one had a clue about what kept them together. The Nixons made a point of keeping utterly private their feelings about each other, which may have cost him political points from time to time but also allowed each partner to retain the self-respect that each prized.
Now comes Will Swift, whose Web site describes him as “a practicing clinical psychologist specializing in cognitive and marital therapy” and whose previous two books are about the Roosevelts and the Kennedys, to attempt to explain the Nixons to us. “Pat and Dick” is an earnest book, overlong by perhaps 100 pages, that here and there offers a useful insight into the Nixons as individuals and as partners but really does not add much of value to what Julie Nixon Eisenhower reported in “Pat Nixon: The Untold Story” (1979). Like others who have attempted in recent years to write about Nixon without partisan bias — most recently, and vastly more successfully, Jeffrey Frank in “Ike and Dick: Portrait of a Strange Political Marriage” (2013) — Swift tries hard to be understanding and sympathetic about the tangled complex of ambitions and resentments that propelled Nixon through life, and he argues that Pat (nee Thelma) Ryan shared many of those feelings, having grown up in Southern California facing many of the same social and economic challenges that her future husband had:
“If there is truth to the adage that we marry our parents, Dick and Pat are its exemplars. Beneath her glamour and verve, Pat was surprisingly similar to Dick’s standoffish, pious, and unglamorous Quaker mother. . . . Dick, though perhaps not as immediately attractive as Pat’s father, resembled him in his typically reserved nature, his uneven temperament, and his restless ambition to move beyond the world he lived in. . . . They shared an outsider’s mentality — born of their shyness and their distrust of fancy people in fancy places. They also shared an underlying, no-nonsense melancholy. As optimistic as he was about the future, Dick could be moody — and not only when his romantic hopes were being dashed. Pat liked to cheer people up, but Dick had detected an underlying sadness behind her ‘lovely smile.’ Neither of them liked to unbutton their emotional vests, and as they grew closer they still kept many secrets.”
Pat was a popular schoolteacher in Whittier, the Southern California town that both of them wanted to flee, and Dick was an unhappy young lawyer trying to figure out where to channel his ambitions. He fell for her instantly, but she took a long time to be persuaded and, even when she finally accepted his proposal, seems to have done so with qualms. Apparently she was swayed by his singleminded determination and his eagerness to have her by his side: “From the first days I knew you,” he told her in a letter, “you were destined to be a great lady. . . . I want to work with you toward the destiny you are bound to fulfill. . . . It is our job to go forth together and accomplish great ends and we shall do it too.”
They married in 1940 and seem to have been both happy and purposeful from the very beginning. For them, as for millions of others, World War II was a shocking interruption, but his return from the South Pacific in August 1944, after 14 months there, brought about a dramatic reunion: “It was no doubt the biggest and most joyful embrace of their married life, and one of the few occurring in public. But their exuberant hug was a signal that if their romantic feelings had not been completely mutual before Dick left for war, they were now.”
Politics followed two years later, with Nixon’s successful race for the House against the liberal incumbent, Jerry Voorhis, a campaign that established his skills and lack of scruples as a political infighter and that sent them and their young daughter, Tricia, to Washington, with Julie soon to follow.
“In 1948,” Swift writes, “the stress of Nixon’s new committee assignments, along with raising a young child and having another baby on the way, brought about the first fissures in Pat and Dick’s bond.” He was working too hard and leaving everything else to her. Swift gets this right: “One reason that the Nixons are fascinating is that they embody marital ambivalence — that is, Pat and Dick were drawn to certain parts of each other’s characters even as they were unhappy about other aspects. Part of Pat’s chemistry with Dick involved her fascination with his intellectual prowess and his ability to speak well extemporaneously. At the same time, she was dismayed by his single-minded focus on politics to the exclusion of a more relaxed lifestyle. She admired his dedication, but not his obsessions. For his part, Dick was drawn to and grounded by Pat’s discipline and her ability to structure their home life. He also rebelled against it. He loved her dignity and her righteousness, and yet he chafed at her distaste for public life and its ethical compromises.”
They remained resolutely loyal to each other, but as Nixon rose from the House to the Senate to the vice presidency, the pressures on them became ever more intense, especially after the charges in the 1952 campaign that, as Eisenhower’s vice-presidential running mate, he benefited from an $18,000 slush fund, charges he famously (and effectively) denied in his lachrymose “Checkers speech” but that stuck to him in one form or another for the rest of his life. Pat “became more estranged from the tumultuous world of politics, while Dick grew to be ever more the righteous, resentful gladiator, with the wounds of combat a price he was willing to pay.”
It was in the 1960s that all this came to a head, first with his narrow defeat by John F. Kennedy in the 1960 presidential race and then, two years later, with his far more decisive defeat by Pat Brown for the governorship of California. According to Julie Eisenhower, “Nineteen sixty disillusioned [Pat] beyond redemption,” which goes far to explain why she so vehemently protested her husband’s decision to run for the governorship.
That humiliating defeat did not, as Nixon said at the time, end his political career. The story had only just begun, with highs and lows no one could have imagined, as Nixon took on a law practice in New York, made significant money for the first time and slowly began to test the political waters once again. But 1960 and 1962 changed things for good: “Pat and Dick would go on, but over the next years the terms of their marriage would shift. Pat was no longer as willing to cater to Dick. . . . She had correctly assessed that the gubernatorial campaign would damage them as a family and temporarily corrode her husband’s reputation; now her judgment merited more respect. As they struggled to reclaim some of the closeness they had forfeited during the two losing campaigns, ‘There was a sadness,’ Tricia remembered, ‘and the sadness went on for years.’ ”
Still, Pat stood beside him the rest of the way: through two successful campaigns for the presidency, through the gut punch of Watergate — her husband lied to her, just as he lied to the country — and through the recovery that both of them pursued with grim determination. She was the glue that held together the marriage she had entered so warily, and she is the one who emerges from this chronicle with the most to her credit. “Pat and Dick” is in many ways a rather artless book, and its prose offers precious few pleasures, but it does open a crack wider the window into a marriage that has interested and puzzled this country for a long time and doubtless will continue to do so far longer.
PAT AND DICK
The Nixons, an Intimate Portrait
of a Marriage
By Will Swift
Threshold. 479 pp. $30