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Remembering Pat Nixon: A fearless first and second lady

Remembering Pat Nixon: A fearless first and second lady
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When Pat Nixon passed away 25 years ago last week, her husband was beside himself with grief. Richard Nixon’s youngest brother, Ed, recalled how difficult it was watching his brother at the funeral of his wife and partner of 53 years: “I had never seen Dick so torn up, he was really out of it,” Ed told me in an interview.

Pat is best known for her grace as first lady during a remarkably turbulent time in American history, but it is her eight years as second lady that were the preamble to her very public life.  It was a role that she embraced with passion and courage — and she helped to define this nebulous role for an entire generation of women who would succeed her, right up to, and including, Karen PenceKaren Sue PenceThe Hill's 12:30 Report — Trump, Stormy Daniels trade fire on Twitter | Three weeks to midterms | Pompeo meets Saudi king The Hill's Morning Report — Presented by the Coalition for Affordable Prescription Drugs — Pollsters: White college-educated women to decide if Dems capture House New book: Pence’s wife refused to say hello to Trump on election night MORE.

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Pat became second lady — a job title that is even less defined than that of first lady — in 1953 after her husband was elected as Dwight Eisenhower’s vice president. The only expectation for her then was to preside over the Senate Ladies Luncheon, but she decided to do much more. She visited an astounding 53 countries and traveled more than 125,000 miles in eight years. During her first year as second lady she took one 42,000 mile, two-month journey to Asia.

 

On these trips she insisted that her schedule include visits to orphanages and hospitals and in Panama she even visited a leper colony. Perhaps this was inspired by her own early life and upbringing, as she was no stranger to suffering, having lost both of her parents by the age of 18.

Pat Nixon developed a reputation during this period as a consummate political wife, reserved and in the background, but she was actually a true teammate to her husband, especially in his most difficult moments. She stood by his side during the 1952 presidential election, when, as Eisenhower’s running mate, he was accused of financial improprieties, charges he responded to with his famous televised Checkers speech. Though Pat was wary of political life, she encouraged the nervous Senator Nixon to go through with the broadcast; considered a success, Eisenhower let Nixon stay on the ticket and they won the election in a landslide. Pat was a key reason for that.

History will also record that Pat Nixon was much more than a loyal wife; she was, in fact, brave in the face of real — and extreme — danger.

In the Spring of 1958, President Eisenhower asked the Nixons to take an 18-day diplomatic trip to South America. During their stop in Caracas, Venezuela, the Nixons were greeted at the airport by protesters who spat on them and threw fruit and garbage at them. General Don Hughes, who worked for the Nixons during the vice presidency, told me a particularly harrowing story:

On the drive into Caracas, Pat was in the car with Hughes and the foreign minister’s wife. In front of them, in a separate car, were Vice President Nixon and the foreign minister. Protesters blocked the motorcade route and hundreds flooded into the streets to attack the cars, throwing rocks and pipes at them. Pat looked ahead at her husband’s car, not knowing if either of them would survive. The foreign minister’s wife was sitting next to Pat and began to panic; Pat tenderly cradled her in her arms like a baby. “I did what I could to help, but Mrs. Nixon didn’t need it; she calmed her down and comforted her until we got to safety,” Hughes recalled.

The demonstrators began rocking the vice president’s car, trying to overturn it. Secret Service agents did not want to draw their guns for fear that would cause more violence. After living in suspense for more than 10 chaotic minutes, agents were able to use a press car to block traffic and clear a path to safety. Hughes later described that day as the closest he had ever come to death.

The Nixons were welcomed home as heroes; the Eisenhowers met them at Andrews Air Force Base, as did thousands of supporters, half of the members of Congress, and the president’s entire Cabinet.

Pat Nixon’s actions redefined the role of the second lady — and allowed Americans to get to know her.  In 1990, 16 years after she left the White House, she was voted number six on Good Housekeeping’s list of Most Admired Women, coming in one spot ahead of legendary actress Katharine Hepburn. It was her 20th year on the top 10 list.

She certainly deserved America’s admiration as second lady, and as first lady – and to this day.

Kate Andersen Brower is a CNN contributor and a New York Times bestselling author. Her most recent book is "First in Line: Presidents, Vice Presidents, and the Pursuit of Power" and she is the author of "First Women: The Grace and Power of America's Modern First Ladies".