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Pat Nixon: Embattled First Lady

Overview

Pat Nixon may be the least understood of modern first ladies. Although public opinion polls rated her one of our nation's most admired women, few Americans really knew much about her.

This first scholarly biography of Thelma Ryan Nixon—the first biography in thirty-five years and the first to access her papers—goes further than any other book to show readers the real Pat Nixon. Lester David's The Lonely Lady of San Clemente painted her as a tragic figure while Julie Nixon ...

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Overview

Pat Nixon may be the least understood of modern first ladies. Although public opinion polls rated her one of our nation's most admired women, few Americans really knew much about her.

This first scholarly biography of Thelma Ryan Nixon—the first biography in thirty-five years and the first to access her papers—goes further than any other book to show readers the real Pat Nixon. Lester David's The Lonely Lady of San Clemente painted her as a tragic figure while Julie Nixon Eisenhower's adoring Pat Nixon: The Untold Story fell short of offering an objective portrait. Now Mary Brennan moves beyond the oversimplified appraisals of this neglected first lady to provide a powerful study of a complex and fascinating presidential spouse.

Drawing on Mrs. Nixon's recently opened papers—as well as on recollections of both friends and adversaries—Brennan debunks the myth of "Plastic Pat" and fleshes out the real woman behind the stories and stereotypes. The Nixons had more in common with small-town Americans than with Washington society, and Brennan shows that part of Pat's difficulty in dealing with the political world was that she never quite left the "normal" Pat behind. Political and social upheaval during her husband's presidency further complicated her role as first lady, as she had to confront a shifting cultural terrain with the whole world watching.

Brennan emphasizes Pat's activism—the first presidential wife to serve as official government representative, as well as the most traveled—and examines her complicated relationship with her husband. Often seen as a "good soldier," Pat, in reality, engaged in constant warfare with her husband and his advisers as she tried to protect her own schedule from interference from the West Wing.

Blending empathy and objectivity, Brennan shows that Pat Nixon was a strong woman caught up in circumstances beyond her control who did as her ancestors had done: gritted her teeth and got the job done as best she could. This account of an embattled first lady opens a new window on the Nixon years and finally allows Pat Nixon to take center stage in her own life.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
In this dry and frustrating biography, Brennan, a historian at Texas State University (Turning Right in the Sixties), fails to deliver on her promise to "give Pat a voice." Pat Nixon (1912–1993) was first lady during one of the most turbulent periods in American history, and in 1974 her husband resigned the presidency in disgrace. Strongest in detailing Pat's accomplishments as a political wife, including her warm reception abroad and support of voluntarism, Brennan rejects the popular notion that Pat was a "passive figure." But while drawing on Pat's papers, White House documents, daughter Julie's biography, and Nixon's memoirs, Brennan doesn't reveal Pat's feelings about her husband's controversial career, such as his much criticized early campaign tactics (e.g., his red-baiting of Helen Gahagan Douglas). While Brennan asserts confidently that Pat "never understood why had not destroyed the tapes, why he had not listened to her advice"—raising the question of Pat's complicity in the Watergate coverup—she otherwise offers only "must haves" about Pat's feelings after her husband's disgrace. Brennan leaves too many questions unanswered for this to be a satisfying biography of a complex woman. 14 photos.(Mar.)
Library Journal
Throughout her years as First Lady, Pat (born Thelma Ryan) Nixon was something of an enigma. Many viewed her as cold and impersonal, smiling passively at her husband's side, "Plastic Pat." Others saw the perfect American housewife and mother. Brennan (history, Texas State Univ., San Marcos; Turning Right in the Sixties: The Conservative Capture of the GOP) attempts to expose the complicated woman within, examining how Thelma Ryan's upbringing by an immigrant mother and hardworking, entrepreneurial father shaped her work ethic and values. The author goes on to highlight Pat's contributions to her husband's political career and the personal sacrifices she made to support him. Brennan's efforts to reveal Pat's true nature are only partly successful, however. Her subject was an intensely private woman, leaving Brennan to rely heavily on Julie Nixon Eisenhower's affectionate biography of her mother as well as Pat's lifelong correspondence with a close friend. Brennan had to speculate and make educated guesses about Pat's thoughts, feelings, and opinions. VERDICT While somewhat lacking in depth, this book still manages to provide insights into the Nixon family's life in the public eye during turbulent times. Recommended for those interested in our First Ladies, U.S. history, and politics.—Michele Martin, Sonoma Acad. Lib., Santa Rosa, CA
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780700617715
  • Publisher: University Press of Kansas
  • Publication date: 1/24/2011
  • Series: Modern First Ladies Series
  • Pages: 248
  • Sales rank: 1,417,584
  • Product dimensions: 5.90 (w) x 9.50 (h) x 0.80 (d)

Meet the Author

Mary Brennan is professor of history at Texas State University at San Marcos and author of Turning Right in the Sixties: The Conservative Capture of the GOP and Wives, Mothers and the Red Menace: Conservative Women and the Crusade against Communism.

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Table of Contents

Editor's Foreword

Acknowledgments

1. Lessons Learned

2. The Pat and Dick Team

3. In and Out of Politics

4. Becoming First Lady

5. The Embattled First Lady

6. Peace, at Last

Notes

Bibliographic Essay

Index

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