January 2013 would have marked the 100th birthday of an American icon: former president Richard Nixon. Nixon’s political legacy is a complicated one, with contradictions throughout. He escalated our involvement in the Vietnam War… and then he ended the war. He presided over the first moon landing… then scaled back the space program. He won reelection in a landslide… and then resigned in disgrace two years later. Today, he’s remembered more often as a punch line than as the successful leader of the free world.
His political career may have been rocky, but one constant in Nixon’s life was his love for his wife, Pat Nixon.
That love was made a little more public on the 100th anniversary of Pat’s birth, when the Richard Nixon Presidential Library and Museum prepared an exhibit to remember and celebrate the former first lady. The exhibit showcased the love between the president and first lady with a collection of never-before-seen love letters from Richard to Pat.
“Somehow on Tuesday there was something electric in the usually almost stifling air in Whittier. An Irish gypsy who radiates all that is happy and beautiful was there. She left behind her a note addressed to a struggling barrister who looks from a window and dreams. And in that note he found sunshine and flowers, and a great spirit which only great ladies can inspire. Someday let me see you again? In September? Maybe?”
Richard Nixon met Pat Ryan while they were acting together in a community theater, and on their first date Richard asked Pat to marry him. She later reflected, “I thought he was nuts or something!” Richard wasn’t prepared to give in, and he courted her for two years while gaining her friendship—he even drove her on dates with other men. As time went on, Pat was wooed by his drive and ambition… and his sense of fun. “Oh but you just don’t realize how much fun he is! He’s just so much fun,” she once said. Eventually, she was won over, and in 1940 they married.
“Every day and every night I want to see you and be with you. Yet I have no feeling of selfish ownership or jealousy. Let’s go for a long ride Sunday; let’s go to the mountains weekends; let’s read books in front of fires; most of all, let’s really grow together and find the happiness we know is ours.”
The Nixons’ love didn’t wane as the years wore on—indeed, it was as strong as ever when they moved into the White House, when Pat stood by Richard as he resigned his presidency, and until Pat’s death, less than a year before Richard’s. Richard’s unabashed tears at his wife’s funeral were a testament to the deep love that lasted a lifetime.
The president, often very serious in the public eye, lit up when speaking of his beloved:
As we mark the former president’s centennial, it’s good to be able to add another positive facet to his legacy. Perhaps, as he claimed, he was “not a crook”—but he most certainly was a romantic.