Thelma “Pat” Nixon (1912-93) was an American first lady (1969-74) and the wife of Richard Nixon, the 37th president of the United States. As first lady, Pat Nixon encouraged Americans to donate their time and service to volunteerism, continued preservation efforts begun by Jackie Kennedy and expanded access to the White House for previously marginalized groups, including foreign language speakers and those with physical disabilities. She traveled extensively, visiting nearly 80 countries. Though Pat had eagerly supported her husband’s early political ambitions, she soon grew to resent the public intrusion into her family’s private life. Though she continued to defend her husband from his critics, she was deeply wounded by the scandal that drove him from office, telling one of her daughters, “Watergate is the only crisis that ever got me down.”
The first lady’s experience with nicknames began at an early age. Because she was born on the evening of March 16, her father, William, referred to her as his “St. Patrick’s babe in the morn.” She was subsequently known as “Babe” to her family, and “Buddy” to friends. After William’s death in 1930, she took the name “Pat” to honor her father, though the name change was never formally legalized.
Pat grew up on a farm in Artesia, California., where she assisted the family in planting and harvesting crops. After her mother, Katherine’s death from cancer in 1926, Pat took over the household duties of cleaning and cooking for the family and farm workers. When her father was crippled with an advancing case of tuberculosis a few years later, she worked as a janitor and bookkeeper to pay for the medical bills, while continuing with her regular household and farm chores.
The Nixons were united by a love of the theater. A member of the drama club at Excelsior High School, Pat developed an interest in acting as a young woman. While auditioning for the Whittier Community Players’ production of “The Dark Theater” in 1938, she met a lawyer with a similar extracurricular acting interest named Richard Nixon. Pat rejected the instantly smitten Nixon multiple times before finally agreeing to a date, and gradually became enamored with the future political star. They married on June 21, 1940, in Riverside, California.
Pat knew nothing about her husband’s actions during the Watergate Scandal, finding out only after news first appeared in the press. After learning of the secret tape recordings that revealed Nixon’s involvement and cover-up attempts, Pat suggested he destroy the tapes while they were still private property. With the very real threat of impeachment looming, she tried convincing him to fight the charges instead of submitting his resignation. Although Nixon ended up doing the opposite on both counts, Pat continued to publicly support her embattled husband.
She rarely appeared in public after leaving the White House. Pat suffered a serious stroke in July 1976 that resulted in a temporary loss of speech and paralysis on her left side. Although she regained full use of her motor skills through physical therapy, she was slowed by residual weakness and another stroke in 1983. As a result, the once-active former first lady appeared at just two public events after the mid-1970s: at the dedication of the Richard Nixon Birthplace and Museum in Yorba Linda, California, in 1990, and at the dedication of the Ronald Reagan Library and Museum in Simi Valley, California, the following year.