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Posted at 11:00 AM ET, 02/14/2011

Pat Nixon portrayed as combative in biography

By Steven E. Levingston

nixon.jpgPat Nixon was long regarded as the subservient political wife who wanted only to help her husband President Richard Nixon achieve his goals for the nation.

But a new biography portrays the first lady as willful and combative in her relationship with her husband and his top advisers. She waged “a battle to retain control over her responsibilities,” writes Mary C. Brennan in “Pat Nixon: Embattled First Lady,” due out next month from the University Press of Kansas. “She found herself engaged in almost constant warfare with her husband and some of his advisors . . . and she refused to give up without a fight.”

The first lady had to fend off West Wing meddling in her projects and her schedule, creating friction between her and her husband and making it increasingly difficult for her “to maintain her usual pose as the perfect politician’s wife,” writes Brennan, a professor of history at Texas State University at San Marcos.

Chief among her adversaries was chief of staff H.R. Haldeman, who saw it as his job to build a wall around the president, leaving Pat Nixon and many others excluded. When the administration bought a new airplane for the president’s 1972 campaign, Haldeman put the first lady’s compartment at the back. To see her husband, Pat Nixon had to walk through the White House staff offices – until she intervened and had the plane redesigned.

Haldeman annoyed the first lady by inserting himself into staffing and other matters of her East Wing operations. “On more than one occasion,” Brennan writes, “she ‘blasted’ Haldeman for his interference in her domain.”

The author also describes the emotional awkwardness between the president and his wife. Though both were raised to avoid public displays of affection, Pat sometimes broke the rules, with embarrassing consequences. At her birthday celebration at the Grand Ole Opry in March 1974, Pat left her seat and moved toward her husband with open arms after he plucked out “Happy Birthday” on the piano for her. Her husband’s response was to turn away and play with a yo-yo he had bought for the party’s host, and Pat was forced to return to her seat in embarrassment.

Brennan says the rejection was an example of the “disconnect between the couple” and that it “had not been an isolated incident.… In fact, there had been a number of other similar public embarrassments when the president treated his wife in a callous and inconsiderate manner.”

By Steven E. Levingston  | February 14, 2011; 11:00 AM ET
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