Zarnow: Her Nixon faith never ended
Teryl Zarnow of the Orange County Register:
Maureen Drown Nunn pauses before a photo of former President Richard Nixon and his wife Pat, smiling with their arms around each other. Pat wears a long, printed skirt as they pose in San Clemente.
It’s one of many photos on display at the Richard Nixon Presidential Library and Museum in Yorba Linda as part of a centennial celebration of Pat Nixon. The couple probably posed like that thousands of times during nearly 50 years in public life.
Nunn looks at it, though, and remembers how her mother, Helene, bought two matching wrap skirts at Buffums and gave that one to her good friend Pat.
Helene Drown met Pat Ryan in 1939, when they were both teachers at Whittier High School. A year later Pat Ryan, a Democrat, married a young lawyer, Richard Nixon. The couples became close friends. Helen’s husband, Jack Drown, worked on all of Nixon’s political campaigns and the two women continued a life-long friendship.
For Nunn, 69, it wasn’t exactly a front-row seat to history – but it was a lot closer than the second balcony. Close enough for her to see the people when the rest of us only saw the politics.
You want to tap into her memories like an emerging market. They represent a marvelous opportunity.
Nunn, who serves on the board of the Richard Nixon Library & Birthplace Foundation, remembers the Nixons as her parents’ friends. When she was a child, the future 37th president held her on his lap and told stories. Julie Nixon Eisenhower, who spent summers with the Nunns in California, is still her friend.
Hers is a back stage view of history.
In 1952, when Nixon delivered his famous speech defending the integrity of his vice presidential campaign, he admitted to keeping one political donation: a cocker spaniel.
Understandable, Nunn says: “Checkers was the cutest dog.”
She watched the 1960 Nixon-Kennedy debate on television and thought: “Dick looks terrible.”
After Nixon lost his 1962 race for California governor, the two families took a three-month trip to Europe where the former vice president met with heads of state. She says Nixon wasn’t morose at all.
“We had a blast,” recalls Nunn, 20 at the time, “No matter where he went, he was mobbed with well wishers.”
There’s a faux East Room in the Nixon Library, but Nunn has been to the real thing – and to the rose garden for Tricia Nixon’s wedding. The Nixons attended Nunn’s wedding in 1968 – except for the president-elect who was busy choosing a Cabinet. He wrote a letter, framed and hanging in Nunn’s Rolling Hills home.
Before the Nixons made their groundbreaking trip to China in 1972, Nunn remembers Pat on the phone with her mother figuring out what to pack. That same modest suitcase and some outfits on display at the museum came from storage in the Drown’s cellar.
And when Nixon resigned the presidency over Watergate, Nunn remembers her mother on the phone with Pat as each friend tried to cheer up the other. It was an awful time.
“Pat couldn’t understand how it ever happened… She never stopped believing in him.”
From his anti-Communist crusade through Vietnam and Watergate, Nixon was never bland. You either liked the strong flavor of his politics or you didn’t.
Sometimes, visitors to Nunn’s home make snide comments when they see photos of the Nixons on display. Nunn has a carefully prepared reply:
“I feel badly you never knew what Nixon was really like.”
Well, OK, so dish.
“As much as the press is so tough on Nixon, it is so false … The more that people really get to know him, his legacy, the fact that he cared so much about this country … He resigned rather than drag the country through hell.”
His weakness, she thinks, might have been his complete loyalty and dedication to his staff.
For Pat Nixon, Nunn clearly feels deep affection.
Richard Nixon once lauded his wife for wearing “a respectable Republican cloth coat,” and that proper image has stuck.
Nunn disagrees, adding that most people don’t realize Pat Nixon became an orphan at age 17 and put herself through school.
As part of the Nixon Foundation’s “Meet the Presidents” series, Nunn portrays Pat Nixon. In suit and wig she talks about the First Lady’s life.
“It’s such an honor,” she says. “I miss her so much.”
Your perspective is different when you’ve seen the First Lady gardening in your yard.
“She was not just this perfect, pristine, coiffed, privileged person. You knew when you met her that she really cared about you … Her laughter was contagious and you wanted to hear it again.”
Wasn’t hanging out with the Nixons a little like dating Mt. Rushmore?
“I never felt like I was a part of history … They were so ordinary. Pat always said she was an ordinary person with extraordinary opportunities.”
As we stroll the museum exhibit Nunn pauses before her favorite photos, casual shots that show a couple in love. You can’t help but thaw – if not melt – about a husband writing to his “Dearest Heart” and promising to love her more with every hour.
At Pat Nixon’s funeral in 1993, Nunn recalls, “You could see how much he loved her… He was just brought to tears.”
Together, she says, they were a great team.
“There’s a lot to be learned from their relationship… They respected each other, but they carved out fun…. They would laugh with each other.
“They played to each other’s weaknesses and each other’s strengths – and they knew how to love.”
What were those strengths?
“Pat knew how to be the best you can be and take what you’re doing very seriously — but don’t take yourself seriously.”
And the former president?
“She could always, always depend on him and always, always trust him.”
What: Meet the Presidents educational summer series
Where: Richard Nixon Presidential Library
18001 Yorba Linda Blvd.
When: Tuesdays at 10:30 a.m.
Aug. 7 Ed Nixon portrays his brother, Richard Nixon
Aug. 14 Maureen Drown Nunn portrays Pat Nixon
Talks are free with library admission
For information: 714-364-1120 or nixonfoundation.org
Contact the writer: email@example.com