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

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.”