First Lady Feature: Pat Nixon

By Kaleena Fraga

p nixonIn honor of Women’s History Month, History First is going to spend some time talking about the women standing beside American presidents. First–one of our favorites: Pat Nixon.

Pat Nixon, who holds the honor of being the first First Lady with a college degree, had a remarkable life long before meeting Richard Nixon. Born Thelma Ryan, she went by the nickname “Buddy” as a girl and “Pat” when she got older–apparently changing to Pat after the death of her father, who’d often referenced her birth being only a few hours before Saint Patrick’s day. By the time she was seventeen, both her parents had died–leaving her to care for her brothers.

When she graduated high school, Pat moved to New York City and worked in a Catholic hospital in the Bronx. Upon returning to California, she worked her way through college and earned a degree from the University of Southern California. Her tuition cost 240$. Pat worked 40 hours a week to pay it.

Having worked for this degree, and having attained a job as a teacher in Whittier, California, Pat Ryan had no desire to find a husband and settle down. But her acting partner in a local theatre group had other ideas. Richard Nixon pursued her with a persistence that many would see today as over the top and creepy. When he first asked her out, she said no. When he asked her again, she laughed. “Don’t laugh,” he told her, according to John A. Farrell’s Nixon biography, Nixon, The Life, “someday, I’m going to marry you.”

Indeed, Richard Nixon went to great lengths to keep Pat in his life, including driving her to dates with other men. When she moved without telling him her new address, he sent a letter to her school, writing that he had to see her again–anytime “that you might be able to stand me!”

pat and dickStill, the two came from similar backgrounds of hard work and tough luck, and Pat seems to have changed her mind. Two years after they met, she accepted his proposal of marriage.

As First Lady, she encouraged Americans to volunteer their time to good causes, and continued Jackie Kennedy’s project of preservation of the White House. She had the first wheelchair ramps installed at the White House (which is remarkable, since twenty years earlier, the president himself used a wheelchair). She also created White House tours for visitors with trouble seeing or hearing.

Many within Richard Nixon’s inner political circle saw Pat as the human side of the president they needed to project to the public. Charles Colson, a White House aide who would later be incarcerated for charges relating to Watergate, wrote a memo to the president about First Lady Nixon’s recent humanitarian trip to Peru. (Pat Nixon would be the most traveled first lady until Hillary Rodham Clinton entered the White House):

“As you know we have tried hard…to project ‘color’ about you, to portray the human side of the President…because of the hostility of the media, it has been an exceedingly difficult, frustrating and not especially successful undertaking. Mrs.  Nixon has now broken through where we failed. She has come across as warm, charming, graceful, concerned, articulate and most importantly–a very human person. It would be hard to overestimate the political impact…She is an enormous asset.”

Pat Nixon’s other legacies include the White House being lit at night, historical markers along the White House fence so that visitors could learn about the house and its history, and the refurbishing of the White House itself.

nixon at pat's funeralThe marriage was far from perfect–Pat once wrote a friend that when it came to household chores, “Dick is always too busy, at least his story, so I do all the lugging, worrying and cussing,”–but their relationship remained solid. It takes only a look at Richard Nixon’s face at the funeral of his wife to see the impact she had on him. And not only him–but the on the lives of the hundreds of thousands of Americans who visit the White House, and the First Ladies who followed in her footsteps and her example.

“My Fellow Americans”: A Brief History of the State of the Union

By Kaleena Fraga

On January 30th, Donald Trump followed presidential tradition in obeying the words written in the Constitution: that the executive, from time to time, should give Congress information on the state of the nation.

The first ever address was given by George Washington, in 1790. He and his successor, John Adams, both gave speeches to Congress.

Thomas Jefferson ended the short lived tradition of a spoken address, either because he thought it too king-like, because it took too much time, or perhaps due to his fear of public speaking. He instead sent a letter to Congress.

teddy and wilson
Teddy Roosevelt depicted reacting to Wilson’s spoken SOTU

It would take over one hundred years for the speech to return. Woodrow Wilson went to Congress to give his State of the Union, prompting the tradition that Trump followed on Tuesday.

Although most presidents post-Wilson have elected to give a speech, others have fallen back on written messages to Congress. The American Presidency Project has a comprehensive table of presidents giving oral or written addresses–after Wilson they clearly tilt in favor of addressing Congress in person. Still, there have been moments in recent history in which the president has forgone a formal, oral address to Congress. Truman, Eisenhower, and Carter chose to submit a written message instead of a formal address, when the address coincided with the election of a new president (1953, 1961, and 1981). Carter was the last president to do so.

The reach of the State of the Union (indeed, of all presidential addresses) has grown since its inception. Americans have gone from reading about it in the newspaper to hearing it on the radio (after Calvin Coolidge’s national broadcast in 1923) to seeing it on TV (with Harry Truman’s 1947 address) to sitting at home and watching it on the internet (which Bill Clinton did for the first time in 1997).

Two SOTU traditions were born under Ronald Reagan: first, the invitation of guests by the president and First Lady, and second, a response by the opposition party directly following the president’s speech (this had existed before, but would take place a few days later).

Clinton, perhaps unsurprisingly, holds the record for the longest address at one hour and bjctwenty-eight minutes. Each of his addresses to Congress were around or above the one hour mark. His speech was also the longest at 9,190 words (Washington’s, by comparison, was the shortest at 1,089 words).

Trump’s address on Tuesday was one of the slowest in history–in terms of words per minute. Richard Nixon spoke the most words per minute since the metric was recorded during the Johnson administration. He’s followed by Reagan and Clinton, with a near tie between George W. Bush and Barack Obama.

Only two presidents never delivered a State of the Union, through letter or otherwise–William Henry Harrison and James Garfield. Both died (Harrison of pneumonia, Garfield by assassination) early in their presidencies.

As for that that ubiquitous phrase “my fellow Americans”? Lyndon Johnson coined that for the first time during one of his State of the Union speeches.