Poll shows Pat Nixon’s accomplishments as First Lady are still overshadowed by Watergate

Will Swift | Author, Pat and Dick

The Siena College Research Institute collaborated with C-SPAN and The White House Historical Association to conduct its fifth comprehensive survey of the reputations of the First Ladies of the United States. The poll sampled two hundred forty two historians, political scientists and published authors who were questioned using mail and online interviews last fall and released over President’s Day weekend, in February 2014.

Respondents ranked 39 First Ladies, from Martha Washington to Michelle Obama, in ten categories: Personal Background, Value to Country, Integrity, Leadership, White House Steward, Own Woman, Accomplishments, Courage, Public Image, and Value to the President. Polls taken in 1982, 1993, 2003, 2008, and this recent 2014 poll, consistently show Eleanor Roosevelt in first place, Abigail Adams in second (in all but one poll), and Jacqueline Kennedy in third place in the last two polls after placing fourth in 2003. Newcomers to the White House apparently can expect a bump in their ratings, more a result of enthusiasm than results. Hillary Clinton placed second (edging out Abigail Adams) in the 1993 poll, before completing 12 months on the job, and Michelle Obama placed fifth in this 2014 poll although documentation for her Value to the President (where she ranked fourth) has yet to be published.

The more time out of office, the more First Ladies’ rankings tend to drop, but Pat Nixon’s standing has plummeted more rapidly than most. She was in 18th place in the year of her death (1993), fell to 33rd in 2003, rose to 25th in 2008 and has fallen again to 33rd place out of 39 First Ladies in the 2014 poll.

What were the 242 respondents thinking when they ranked Pat Nixon inferior to ineffectual unknowns such as Lucretia Garfield (28), Caroline Harrison (29) Elisabeth Monroe (30), Abigail Fillmore (32), and the problematic Mary Lincoln (31)?

In order to rate her fairly the 242 respondents need to know more about Pat Nixon’s strong role as an international ambassador, her stellar work in refurbishing the White House, her many firsts as First Lady, and her role as a valued advisor to her husband.

Pat Nixon was rated lowest of all 39 First Ladies in accomplishments despite a record which includes:

  • Was the most traveled First Lady in history until Hillary Rodham Clinton surpassed her record twenty five years later. She traveled to 41 states and for 131,723 miles to visit 31 countries.  The New York Times called her “Madame Ambassador” for her diplomatic work during her travels with the president and her solo trips to Africa and South America.
  • Mrs. Nixon engaged in diplomacy by speaking to longtime Soviet ambassador Dobrynin’s wife Irina to make sure the May 1972 presidential visit to the Soviet Union was not cancelled over differences about Vietnam.
  • Promoted her husband’s administration’s domestic agenda by making field trips to programs that highlighted his administrations’ environmental, law enforcement, and mental health policies.  

Pat Nixon was the first First Lady to:

  • Address the Republican nominating convention.
  • Make a solo campaign trip during the presidential campaign.
  • Travel to Africa or South America.
  • Be the “personal representative of the president” at the inauguration of a foreign leader, President Tolbert of Liberia.
  • Confer with presidents of foreign countries. She discussed U.S. policy on Rhodesia and South Africa with the leaders of three African countries.  
  • Represent the president on an international humanitarian mission.  She spearheaded efforts to raise funds and traveled high into the Andes to bring relief supplies and to comfort the victims of the worst earthquake in the history of the Americas.  
  • Enter a combat zone — in South Vietnam.

She is only rated 25th as a White House Steward despite the following:

She did more than any other First Lady, including Jacqueline Kennedy, to refurbish the White House.  Along with her curator, she brought in six hundred historic paintings, antiques and furnishings, created the Map Room, renovated the China Room, and refurbished nine other rooms including the Green, Red, and Blue Rooms. Historian William Seale said the White House’s “great collection of Americana is the long shadow of Mrs. Nixon. The impulse, the idea and the energy were hers.”

She was the first First Lady to:

  • Arrange for the White House to be lit at night.
  • Install wheelchair ramps at the White House for disabled citizens.
  • Create special White House tours for visually, hearing and physically impaired citizens.
  • Make the White House gardens and grounds available to the public
  • Initiate Candlelight Tours of the White House and other evening tours so that average American families could see the interior of the president’s home.
  • Invite hundreds of average American families to nondenominational worship services in the East Room on Sundays.   
  • Arrange for recorded histories of the White House to be placed at intervals along the fence so people waiting to see the mansion could learn about it.

There is clearly enough evidence to consider her among the top ten White House stewards.

She ranked lowest of all the First Ladies in leadership despite the fact that:

  • She helped women to recognize their right to equality and to improve their self-image in the U.S. and abroad. “I am for equal rights,” she said. She encouraged more women to go into politics. Pat Nixon lobbied her husband to appoint the first female Supreme Court Justice and spoke publicly about the importance of such an appointment.
  • On foreign visits she made sure that women were invited to political events, where they had previously been excluded, and visited settings where she could encourage women to take an active role in improving their lives.
  • She was the first First Lady to publicly support the Equal Rights Amendment.
  • She focused on volunteerism as her special project to address social problems at the local level and advocated passage of the Domestic Services Volunteer Act.

She was rated the lowest as her Own Woman despite the fact that:

  • She came into the White House saying she wanted to be remembered as the wife of a president, but emerged as a major diplomatic force, traveling to two continents on her own.   
  • She encouraged Nixon to place more women in prominent positions in government.  
  • She starred in two documentaries which promoted her skills as a foreign diplomat (NBC’s “Mrs Nixon’s Travels,” 1969) and her domestic skills as First Lady (ABC’s “A Visit with the First Lady”) and was the subject of a campaign documentary that promoted her as being part of a “new force in diplomacy for goodwill.”
  • She fought her husband and his West Wing staff to bring more average American citizens into White House events.

Why was she ranked so low despite a strong record as First Lady?

President Richard Nixon fell in the most recent (2010) Siena College poll of presidential rankings from 26th to 30th. He ranked last out of all the 43 presidents in the categories of Integrity and Avoiding Crucial Mistakes. Mrs. Nixon’s position, even lower than her husband’s most recent ranking, reflects a prevailing image of her as the passive wife of a despised and polarizing president. The drama of the Watergate crisis seems to have etched her in place as she appeared during that last reclusive year in the White House.

Unlike other presidents’ wives who used their post White House years to spearhead causes, write books, and keep their names in the news, Pat Nixon retired from the public stage following her husband’s resignation in 1974. The stroke she suffered in 1976 left her ill-prepared for public appearances. There also appears to be a bias among the poll respondents to diminish the stature of First Ladies whose husbands left office under a cloud of dissension or whose husband’s presidencies were highly controversial. For instance, Lady Bird Johnson, whose husband left Washington under the cloud of Vietnam, continues to fall in rankings while Jacqueline Kennedy, widow of an assassinated leader, continues to rise.

Her penchant for privacy and her discomfort in the political arena account for part of the misperception of her, but she could also be charming and charismatic in public. Anyone watching her in the “Legacy of the Parks” documentary, or on video representing the president in Africa in 1972 or in the television coverage of the Nixons’ trip to China that spring, will not see the First Lady that these recent Siena College/CSPAN respondents do.

The 242 people polled in the recent Siena/CSPAN polling need to ask themselves why they rated Pat Nixon so low now even though she was voted the Most Admired Woman in the World in 1972. She made the Gallup poll’s top ten list of Most Admired Women fourteen times, including ten times from 1968 through 1979 (three of those times after her husband resigned). Does anyone doubt that it is the shroud of Watergate that continues to pull her down? If it had not been for her husband’s disastrous handling of that one debacle, she would surely be valued more highly for her major contributions to the White House and to the country. They see her mainly through the lens of Watergate. There tends to be a Democratic bias in members of the academy and universities and this may also contribute to her ranking.

Even though she cared little about fame and recognition, First Lady Nixon deserves to be more fully appreciated for her extraordinarily dedicated service to her country.

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