Helen M. Smith, 84, who worked at the White House as press secretary and trusted aide to first lady Pat Nixon during the turbulent Watergate years, died of vascular disease April 9 at her home in Washington.
Mrs. Smith had been a secretary in the Washington bureau of the New York Daily News for 19 years when one of its reporters, Gerry Van der Heuvel, was hired as Pat Nixon’s press secretary in 1968. Van der Heuvel brought Mrs. Smith with her to the White House as a member of her staff.
Van der Heuvel was eventually succeeded by Constance Stuart, followed by Mrs. Smith in 1973 as press secretary.
Mrs. Smith traveled with the first lady, served as her top spokeswoman, counseled her on public appearances and developed a close bond with the Nixon daughters, Tricia Nixon and Julie Nixon Eisenhower. One of her most difficult tasks was maintaining the delicate balance between preserving as much as possible of the first family’s privacy while fulfilling inquiries from the media.
In the summer of 1974, as calls for President Richard M. Nixon’s resignation heightened, pressure mounted in the media to hear from his family about the scandal. Mrs. Smith arranged a news conference in May of that year for Julie Nixon Eisenhower and her husband, David, in the East Garden of the White House.
They both insisted that President Nixon had no plans to resign.
Despite a highly charged atmosphere in Washington, Mrs. Smith developed a reputation for working well with the media, according to reporters who covered the White House at the time, including longtime White House correspondent Helen Thomas. Part of it stemmed from her belief that the media should not be treated as adversaries, a former aide once said of her. Quiet and self-effacing, she was known to return reporters’ phone calls quickly and provide honest, thorough answers.
“She was a great asset to Pat Nixon,” Thomas said. “Press secretaries are often not attuned to what the press needs, but she knew the news business. You knew you could trust her.”
Even after President Nixon’s resignation in 1974, when Mrs. Smith went to work briefly as press secretary for first lady Betty Ford, she remained a point of contact for the Nixon family.
She was born in New York to Helen Nicholson Crean, a prominent Washingtonian, and Herbert T. J. Crean, a British army major. She spent her childhood in London and Washington.
Through her family, she met McCain “Mack” Smith, a young Navy ensign, whom she married in 1943. When he died in a flying accident the following year while training at Lakehurst Naval Base in New Jersey, the young widow moved to Honolulu to be with her mother, who was stationed there with the women’s branch of the Marine Corps.
In 1950, they returned to Washington, where Mrs. Smith became first an editor of the Universal Military Training Digest at the Pentagon and then a secretary at the 10-person Washington bureau of the New York Daily News.
“She brought a sense of class to the bureau,” said Gwen Gibson, a national reporter who worked with Mrs. Smith at the New York Daily News. “She was very classy. There was a lot of interest in a book about her years with Pat Nixon. But she would never do it. She was totally loyal.”
After Mrs. Smith left the White House in 1974, she moved to London to work as an assistant to Elliott Richardson, then U.S. ambassador to England. In the early 1980s, she worked as a spokeswoman for James B. Edwards, the secretary of energy.
There are no immediate survivors.