By People Staff
May 27, 1974 12:00 PM

Even among her staunchest supporters, the question about Patricia Nixon lingers. As visitors queue up to greet her in the Blue Room or crowds press around her at airport rallies, the unspoken curiosity is there: How does she hold up? How can she survive the bruising stress of Watergate?

“Get it out of your head that this is a woman who takes to her bed with smelling salts,” cautions a woman reporter who sees her often. “Pat Nixon is the tough one in that marriage.”

That is quite a testimonial. While Richard Nixon built his political reputation on toughness, Pat has always seemed the fragile partner. An intensely private woman, married for nearly 34 years to one of the most public of men, she has endured a succession of taxing campaigns behind a facade of smiling good humor. Even now, as President Nixon battles to stay in office during what may be the climactic crisis of a stormy career, his wife has dutifully kept up appearances. Although increasingly wary of the press, she conscientiously tends to ceremonial functions and continues to show her smile like the flag.

Despite her insistence on toughing out Watergate, Mrs. Nixon, of course, has been feeling the pressure. She made herself a virtual recluse in the White House throughout much of the winter, retreating within her family for solace. Only in March, on a goodwill visit to Latin America, did she appear to blossom with a sense of release. The hectic six-day trip afforded her both a reprieve from the solitude and relief from the drumfire of Watergate. When a reporter intruded on her new ebullience by asking about “the strain” of the past year in Washington, she recoiled with a look of dismay. “I don’t really wish to speak of it,” she said abruptly, then added, “You all drink some champagne.”

Pat Nixon has long been regarded as a sort of auxiliary personality in Washington—a presidential appendage with little of the lively independence that Jackie Kennedy and Lady Bird Johnson brought to the position of First Lady. Although, paradoxically, she has only two or three close friends outside her family, she seems comfortable among welcoming crowds especially when she is alone, out from under her husband’s shadow. Plunging into a happy sea of strangers, she bubbles over with chatter and cheerfulness and exudes a casual warmth that the President lacks.

But it is endurance that is her own special pride. Once committed, she never breaks an engagement—”I do or die,” she says. “I never cancel out,”—and rarely is so much as a hair out of place. Her secret, she confides, is an ability to deny the demands of her senses. “I hate complainers,” she says, “and I made up my mind not to be one. So if it’s cold, I tell myself it’s not cold, and if it’s hot, I tell myself it’s not hot. And you know, it works!”

Her stoical tolerance of discomfort, however, does not extend to critical comment about her husband. It is the vulnerable side of her own personal strength. Her schedule of White House duties—greeting the poster child of the month, playing host to women’s groups—is carefully drawn to avoid embarrassing confrontations. Her mail is likewise thoroughly screened. She rarely grants interviews and is constantly on guard against even the most innocuous questions. Recently, a reporter asked innocently if she were looking forward to going to Europe, should the President decide to visit there soon. “You never know what’s going to happen,” she replied with her mask of a smile. “You live for each day.” It is understandable, perhaps, that after years of warring between the President and the Washington press corps, she should regard the media with instinctive distrust. “It’s right out of The Merchant of Venice,” she recently told her close friend Helene Drown in a discussion of Watergate repercussions. “They’re after the last pound of flesh.”

Although Pat Nixon has long refrained from making any but the most colorless public pronouncements, her private opinions are not nearly as bland. “Pat’s the silent one,” says Mrs. Drown, a former high school teacher who has known Mrs. Nixon for more than 30 years, “but that doesn’t mean she doesn’t have a mind of her own. It’s just good taste. A woman whose husband holds high office doesn’t run around giving opinions.” Mrs. Drown, however, reveals that Mrs. Nixon was strongly opposed to her husband’s release of the transcripts of the White House tapes, describing them as “like private love letters—for one person alone.” Joking with her friend to relieve tension, Mrs. Nixon has tried to imagine how previous Presidents would have sounded—Johnson with his Texas twang, Kennedy with his broad Boston a’s—erupting in their favorite “deleted expletives.” Another time, after Pageant magazine suggested Pat and the President were heading for divorce, the First Lady was laughing about it on the phone, wondering who could be named as co-respondent. “Well,” Mrs. Nixon observed impishly, “Dick has been so busy with international and domestic matters, he couldn’t have had time. Now I’ve been busy, but I’ve had more time, so let’s think up someone we could name. Sam Dash? Peter Rodino?”

Little of this informality is revealed by Mrs. Nixon in public. On trips, she sometimes prefers to have dinner alone in her room rather than dine with her hosts. She rarely has friends in for lunch at the White House and almost never ventures out to a restaurant. A startled silence fell over Washington’s normally blasé Sans Souci one day last winter when Pat Nixon, for the first time in anyone’s memory, strolled in and made her way to a table to lunch with friends. More often, Mrs. Nixon “escapes” undetected from the White House by donning a head scarf and dark glasses and going for a quiet walk in the woods of nearby Rock Creek Park—accompanied only by Secret Service agents. She likes visiting the spacious presidential retreat at San Clemente, since it is one of the few places where she can walk freely without the agents. Conversely, she is not fond of the confining Nixon compound at Key Biscayne, Fla., which affords her little privacy.

Life has never been easy for Patricia Ryan Nixon. Orphaned as a teenager in Artesia, Calif., she worked her way through the University of Southern California and later taught typing and shorthand at Whittier, Calif., High School. She met Richard Nixon in Whittier in 1937 and married him three years later. Once, when writer Gloria Steinem asked whom she had admired when she was young, Mrs. Nixon seemed to grope for an answer. “I never had time to think about things like that,” she said finally. “I never had time to dream about being anyone else. I had to work.”

Always, publicly, her life has taken second place to her husband’s, and she has never been known to complain. Now, however, with the President’s career threatened with ruin, she conveys a sense of feeling besieged. A woman who has always been proud of her self-reliance, she seems helpless to deal with a crisis the proportions of Watergate. She can only endure it—as she says she does the heat and the cold. “Mrs. Nixon is always there with a shoulder to lean on,” her son-in-law David Eisenhower once observed. “But whose shoulder does she have to lean on?”