Among First Ladies, none instituted more public outreach in connection to the holiday of Thanksgiving than did Pat Nixon.
Knowing, for example, that hundreds of citizens annually besieged the White House correspondence office with requests for a First Lady’s personal recipes during the holiday season, Mrs. Nixon saved time and also the expense of printing recipe cards to instead have her office issue the ingredients and cooking instructions of many of her personal favorite Thanksgiving dishes.
In fact, Mrs. Nixon realized the political value of distributing her own personal recipes of favorite family dishes, having had some of hers printed onto flyers and left on household doorknobs during the 1968 presidential primary elections.
It was surely not policy but it was one way to humanize a candidate to the voters. Even some of Mrs. Nixon’s Thanksgiving recipes, like a delicate corn souffle, managed to strike the right balance between the plain and the fancy.
In 1969, timed for the National Turkey Federation presentation of its traditional gift of a bird to the President, his wife released to the nation’s newspapers, her recipe of “Chestnut and Apple Stuffing,” a name which was somewhat deliciously misleading. Along with bacon, raisins, apples and chestnuts, the recipe released to the public also called for one cup of chopped celery.
For her own Thanksgiving meal, however, Pat Nixon wanted more – a lot more according to former White House chef Henry Haller: “She insisted on having celery stuffing, which was kind of unusual for me. I was used to making stuffing with a little celery, but she liked lots of it.”
She also had a taste beyond the traditional holiday side dish of mashed potatoes, having them whipped along with mashed yellow turnips, an Irish recipe sometimes known as Colcannon, according to Haller.
And this First Lady, he said, liked roast turkey all year round.
Having risen in the world entirely by her own disciplined efforts to achieve through education, Pat Nixon was always conscious of others struggling, whether to thrive or simply survive.
A former teacher, she greatly relished reading stories to her two daughters when they were young, a particular favorite being “The Lame Squirrel’s Thanksgiving,” which told of an injured squirrel unable to gather his necessary nut foods to survive winter and how other forest animals joined forces to do so for him.
The story’s point of how simple offers of support from strangers could help others survive was an elemental theme of Pat Nixon’s public efforts as First Lady, an agenda of promoting regional and national voluntary organizations.
In 1964, a nonprofit organization known as V.I.P. , formed with the intention of widening contact between disparate and neglected communities, initiated what it hoped would become an annual tradition in the Washington area known as “The Thanksgiving Day Salute to Senior Citizens.”
Five years later, as her first holiday season as First Lady neared, Pat Nixon saw the ideas as dovetailing with her efforts, and thus hosted a special holiday meal for senior citizens who had no families with which to share the day.
There were two hundred and twenty-five guests, coming from eighteen regional retirement and assisted living facilities as guests.
Although the President had some repartee with a spry wisecracking ninety-three year old man, the eldest guest there, he actually ate a lunch of his favorite cottage cheese and catsup.
In late afternoon, the family flew down to their new “Winter White House” in Key Biscayne, where they enjoyed a private, traditional Thanksgiving meal.
Meanwhile, both Nixons, their daughters and son-in-law David, his grandmother the former First Lady Mamie Eisenhower and her elderly uncle Joel managed to sit for a portion of the meal time with each table of guests.
Continuing with her theme, Pat Nixon organized a similar event for Thanksgiving Day, November 26, 1970 but for another neglected demographic, wounded and disabled veterans.
From three area hospitals, ninety-eight servicemen and the fifteen nurses who helped push their wheelchairs and carry their stretchers were welcomed by Pat Nixon and the President for a noontime meal.
Former First Lady Mamie Eisenhower again attended her successor’s unique event and, along with the Nixons and their daughter Tricia, sat at tables with the guests.
Pat Nixon reminded them all that the White House is “your home,” and in recalling his own navy service during World War II, her husband spoke of how being away from a warm home during the holiday season was “the hardest thing of all” during wartime service.
And there was an added, somewhat unusual touch to the event in the form of some twenty orange-costumed teenager singers, part of a soft rock group which performed uplifting, even patriotically-themed music. Here’s a listen to the groovy Seventies sound of “The Spurrlows.”
The following year it was the First Lady and not the President who presided over the customary ceremony to accept two live turkeys from the National Turkey Federation, yet this time the event had a twist: the Poultry and Egg Board wanted in on the Thanksgiving action, and were permitted to also present at the same ceremony two frozen turkeys.
Whether or not Pat Nixon was conscious of the statement this seemed to underline, there were certainly tens of millions of more American families now dining on frozen birds rather than those freshly killed, which was more expensive.
Her substitution for her husband was believed to be due to his decision to visit the practice facility of the Washington Redskins: a fanatical football fan, he never missed watching the televised games on Thanksgiving, and was sometimes joined by Pat. It may have been a troubling ceremony for him.
The year before, looking at the turkey presented to him, he quipped, “How can you kill him! Look at his eyes” The Nixon family spent that year’s holiday in seclusion at their San Clemente, California estate “La Casa Pacifica.”
The following year was an equally quiet Thanksgiving for Pat Nixon and her family, coming just three weeks after an exhaustive campaign the First Lady undertook across the entire country by plane, on behalf of her husband’s 1972 bid for a second term, which he won. The family celebrated again in private, this time at the presidential retreat Camp David but it was not a relaxing time.
The First Lady had not gone to Camp David with her husband when he left the White House ten days before Thanksgiving to come work at the retreat in relative solitude. After their holiday meal, the President decided to abruptly leave Camp David. Eager to begin his second term plans for governmental reorganization he decided to hold meetings on the night of Thanksgiving in the West Wing with the Secretaries of Housing and Urban Development and of Transportation, rather than as originally scheduled at Camp David.
Thanksgiving of 1973 would prove to be the last one Pat Nixon had as First Lady, the Watergate scandal already beginning to mushroom, leading eventually to her husband’s resignation as president nine months afterwards. Some two weeks before Thanksgiving, the President had angrily defended himself on national television by declaring, “I am not a crook,” in a press conference. The very day before Thanksgiving, it was determined that Rosemary Woods, the President’s longtime, loyal secretary who often spent holidays with Pat Nixon and her daughters, was responsible for the erasure of part of Nixon’s secretly taped conversation about the scandal.
Now more deeply retreated from his wider staff and the public, the President absented himself from the ceremony accepting the gift turkey. So, for a second time Pat Nixon substituted and took the birds, the only First Lady to do so twice.
The mood was made all the more somber when, due to a growing energy crisis, the President announced that the White House during the holiday season from Thanksgiving to New Year’s Day would be dark, encouraging all Americans to curtail their use of electricity. Some reporters speculated that while practical, the decision surely saddened Pat Nixon.
Nearly three years before to the day, she had worked with engineers and electricians to make the landmark mansion visible at night to those in planes or visitors unable to tour its rooms by installing breathtaking floodlights.
Certainly, Pat Nixon’s first Thanksgiving as First Lady stands out not only among the others she experienced there, but those of all her predecessors and successors.
For while Presidents since George Washington had been issuing annual Thanksgiving proclamations, Pat Nixon is the only First Lady in history to do so. Alluding to the civil unrest over the Vietnam War in the fall of 1969 , the president’s wife stated, in part:
“[T]he Pilgrims… experienced their own times of hardship, yet were able to find hope amidst their fears. Thanksgiving gives all of us the opportunity to reflect upon the positive aspects of our lives.”