I was born in a house my father built. My birth on the night of January 9, 1913, coincided with a record-breaking cold snap in our town of Yorba Linda, California. Yorba Linda was a farming community of 200 people about thirty miles from Los Angeles, surrounded by avocado and citrus groves and barley, alfalfa, and bean fields.
For a child the setting was idyllic. In the spirng the air was heavy with the rich scent of orange blossoms. And there was much to excite a child’s imagination: glimpses of the Pacific Ocean to the west, the San Bernadino Mountains to the north, a “haunted house” in the nearby foothills to be viewed with awe and approached with caution — and a railroad line that ran about a mile from our house.
In the daytime I could see the smoke from the steam engines. Sometimes at night I was awakened by the whistle of a train, and then I dreamed of the far-off places I wanted to visit someday. My brothers and I played railroad games, taking the parts of engineers and conductors. I remember the thrill of talking to Everett Barnum, the Santa Fe Railroad engineer who lived in our town. All through grade school my ambition was to become a railroad engineer.
—–The opening of RN: The Memoirs of Richard Nixon (1978).
Thirty-eight years ago today, PN arrived back from a trip to Africa in time to help RN celebrate his fifty-ninth birthday. She was the first First Lady to visit Africa; her eight-day 10,000 mile trip to Liberia, Ghana, and the Ivory Coast (where half a million people shouted Vive Madame Nixon) had begun on New Year’s Day.
PN in Accra: TIME magazine reported that “In West Africa in 1972 she was cheered by huge throngs, exotic tribal kings and bare-breasted dancers.”
Traveling with the unique title “Personal Representative of the President,” PN attended the inauguration of William Tolbert as President of Liberia. She carried out a full schedule of the kinds of meetings and visits she had pioneered nineteen years before when the newly-elected President Eisenhower sent the Nixons as his representatives on a ten week trip to Asia.
The central purpose of the 1972 Africa trip was to represent the President at the Tolbert inauguration. As Julie Nixon Eisenhower notes in her biography of her mother —Pat Nixon: The Untold Story— the temperature at the ceremonies had already reached one hundred degrees (PN noticed that the white dress uniform of her military aide —the ubiquitous Jack Brennan— was soaked through) even before the new chief executive began his forty minute inaugural address.
In addition to representing RN at the Tolbert inauguration, PN addressed the National Assembly in Accra, and exchanged toasts with her hosts —Prime Minister Busia and President Houphouet-Boigny— at state dinners held in her honor there and in Abidjan.
She arrived back in Washington on 9 January in time to celebrate RN’s fifty-ninth birthday. He led a welcoming delegation of administration officials and congressional leaders to Andrews Air Force base to welcome her home.
Mr. Vice President, Congressman Ford, members of the Cabinet, and all of you who have been so very kind to come to the airport here today on this rainy night:
First, I want to thank you for wishing me a happy birthday, and I know that it was hard for you to come. But I think perhaps the best birthday present, and the greatest sacrifice, was made by Mrs. Nixon: She flew 4,000 miles for my birthday party tonight.
Now I am in a bit of an awkward position, because I have to welcome her back officially, and I also have to welcome her back personally. I asked our Chief of Protocol, Ambassador Mosbacher, how I should address her, and so he wrote me a memorandum. He said, “You could call her Mrs. Nixon, or you could call her Madam Ambassador.” But I guess I will just call her “Pat.” Welcome home, Pat. We are glad you are here.
He described the backstory of the trip:
Now, if I could just spend a moment to tell you how this trip came about, and why I think the choice that was made was a good one. My very dear and old friend, President Tolbert of Liberia, wrote me a personal note inviting me to his inauguration. We have very much in common. We both served as Vice Presidents during the same period of time, and he became President of his country, as I have had the honor of becoming President of the United States. And he is the President of the oldest republic in Africa and, of course, the United States is the oldest republic in the American Continent.So I wanted to go, but I could not because of some of the demands of the schedule here at that time. So I wrote him back a personal note and said that while I could not come, I would try to send a very good substitute. Now, since the trip began, I have been reading the newspapers and, Mr. Vice President, also watching television, and as I watched the television and read the newspapers, of the welcomes that Mrs. Nixon received in Liberia and Ghana and Ivory Coast, I realized that the substitute was doing a much better job than the principal would have done.
And PN replied:
Before my husband grabs the microphone, I do want to thank all of you for coming out to the airport and welcoming me home.
I really had a wonderful journey. The people in the three countries I visited —Liberia, Ghana, and Ivory Coast— could not have been more friendly or more gracious or more hospitable. In fact, their hospitality was boundless and they all sent greetings, the leaders and the people in all walks of life, to you here in the United States.
They are proud of the partnership with the United States, and this partnership is built on equality, mutual respect, and friendship. I hope that it will always remain that way.
That night, in the Lincoln Sitting Room, RN recorded in his diary:
…too many times our trips abroad deal with hard problems and not enough of the far more important personal warmth and symbolism which means so much. This is true in all of the underdeveloped countries and particularly true in Latin America, Asia, and also, I believe, in parts of Asia…
The amazing thing is that Pat came back looking just as fresh as a daisy despite an enormously difficult, taxing schedule. She had press conferences in each country, had had conversations with the presidents and then carried it all off with unbelievable skill. As Julie put it, what came through was love of the people of the countries she visited for her and, on her part, love for them.
On 1 January 1972, the night PN returned from Africa, RN recorded in his diary: “…what came through was love of the people of the countries she visited for her and, on her part, love for them.”
This was not PN’s first time in Africa, or in Liberia and Ghana. In March 1957, RN became the first vice-president to visit Africa, and PN accompanied him —carrying out her usual grueling independent schedule— on the twenty-one day eight-nation tour.
The trip was centered around the events celebrating Ghana’s independence from Britain — the first nation in black Africa to shed colonial rule.
Julie Eisenhower writes about the independence celebrations:
The high point of the trip, the Ghanian independence celebration, was a mixture of British formality and joyous exultation. The new prime minister, Kwame Nkrumah, wept as he proclaimed alt the stroke of midnight on March 6: “The battle is ended. Ghana, our belived country, is free forever.” Coretta and Martin Luther King, Jr., attended the independence celebration at the invitation of Nkrumah. By inviting King, the rime minister was giving world-wide recognition to the man who had protested segregation by leading the Montgomery, Alabama, bus boycott. Thus, five thousand miles away from their own country, America’s Vice President and the civil rights pioneer met for the first time and made arrangements for another visit together once they returned home.
Peter Lisagor, the tough-minded and widely-respected reporter and columnist for the Chicago Daily News, wrote admiringly about PN’s charm —and no less about her stamina— in a piece about the trip:
She says she loves to meet people and she gives every evidence of it. She has the rare knack of making people feel she has known them for a long time when she first meets them, usually by putting her arms around them casually in a friendly gesture.
The average woman on this routine would yield up to weariness by this time. But not Pat Nixon. She’s as dedicated as her husband on the goodwill circuit. And from all the signs she is as indestructible.
In Ghana in 1957, PN carried out a busy independent schedule (above) in addition to attending official functions with RN (below).
In the first of year long series of Richard Nixon Legacy Forums, four distinguished members of RN’s Domestic Council were at the Richard Nixon Presidential Library on Friday, January 8th to discuss the President’s innovations on far reaching issues including health care reform, environmental protection, energy conservation and government organization.
Moderating the panel was Domestic Council Associate Geoff Shepard who spoke about government organization and the origins of the Domestic Council.
Shepard explained that the Domestic Council started in the Nixon White House as a counterpart to the National Security Council to provide the President with information and analysis before he implemented policy.
“The staff was housed in the Executive Office of the President and became professional assurors of a fair and balanced memo,” Shepard explained. Their “job was to review and prepare for the President the context of the issue.”
Discussing healthcare policy was Dr. James Cavanaugh, who served as the chief principal on RN’s proposal for healthcare overhaul in the early Seventies.
“That program if enacted would have fixed the problem.” Cavanaugh said. “The President was quite serious in his instruction he gave to Cap (Health, Education and Welfare Secretary Caspar Weinberger) and to me. What he wanted was a program that would meet the test – be public and private – cover the people that needed coverage, yes provide a mandate,” “but he wanted to do it in such a way that would pass the Congress.”
After meeting with union leaders, Senator Kennedy later stopped the plan in its tracks believing that he could attain a better deal for the Democratic Party, a decision he would later come to regret.
For Cavanaugh, the centerpiece of RN’s legacy in healthcare was the National Cancer Act of 1971, which the President of the National Cancer Society called a “wonderful Christmas present for the 52 million people who will develop cancer” and “probably the greatest thing ever been done by the United States.”
“I think for people who follow health issues, who follow health policy, who follow the history of healthcare programs in this country,” RN’s legacy “will be fairly good.” Cavanaugh said. “People who realistically look at what his program had look at it favorably.”
Discussing environmental protection was longtime RN associate and trained geologist Dr. John Whitaker. In addition to serving on RN’s Domestic Council, Whitaker went on to become Undersecretary of the Interior in both the Nixon and Ford Administrations.
While Whitaker had the environmental portfolio on the Domestic Council, the environmental movement proclaimed the first observance of Earth Day. “He (RN) and Theodore Roosevelt were the two most famous presidents to deal with the environment. I would put him strictly in Roosevelt’s class if not ahead of him.” Whitaker said. “Nixon “institutionalized the environment,” if the “government comes out with a program that’s not pro environment it spikes right away again.”
Whitaker also helped spearhead RN’s Legacy of Parks program, an initiative that lead to the conversion of over 80,000 acres of government property to parks open to all Americans.
“He used to talk about how the poor kids in his neighborhood couldn’t get in the family car and drive to Yosemite or up to Yellowstone and how parks ‘needed to be near a people,’ Whitaker said, “the final result of what we did was to make many of the government agencies shed a lot of the land that they owned and make it into parks. “He created 600 and some parks that way including the Gateway to the East and West in New York City and San Francisco, two of the largest parks in the country.”
The final speaker in the panel was Ambassador Richard Fairbanks, who served in the Nixon White House as the Associate Director for energy, environmental and natural resources policy on the Domestic Council.
According to Fairbanks, before RN the words “energy policy” had never been spoken by a United States President, also marking the first time the issue had been talked about in a “cohesive manner” in terms of both its ‘domestic and international implications.”
Fairbanks – who went on to serve as the lead negotiator for Middle East peace during the Reagan Administration — also contends that RN’s policy as articulated in 1973 was groundbreaking in terms of its environmental understanding and its cost effectiveness, early thinking that lead to the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency, the Council on Environmental Quality and the Office of Energy Policy which later became the Department of Energy.
“We put the bedrock in,” Fairbanks said. “The bedrock has stayed and people haven’t even thought of changing those bedrock ideas.”
Photo, Pictured left to right: The program featured Geoff Shepard on government re-organization, James Cavanaugh on health care reform, John Whitaker on environmental protection and Ambassador Richard Fairbanks on energy conservation.
This weekend on C-SPAN3, there will be two reruns of a 90-minute program taped in 1995, in which former New York Times reporter and columnist Tom Wicker discusses the thirty-seventh President. (Wicker’s 1991 book One Of Us is, along with William Safire’s Before The Fall and C.L. Sulzberger’s volume about RN’s foreign policy, probably the most thoughtful and least prejudiced writing about Nixon by anyone associated with the journal still sometimes called America’s newspaper of record.) The program airs at 11:40 am tomorrow and again at 5:40 pm.
Photo: RN’s daughter Tricia Nixon Cox and son-in-law Edward F. Cox pictured with La Casa Pacifica owner Gavin Herbert and Family at the dedication of the Pat Nixon Rose Garden on January 8, 2010.